Expecting Sehwag to do the unexpected
The heart wishes Virender Sehwag had retired after a rousing Test, his team-mates chairing him off the ground, the crowd bidding him adieu with a standing ovation. The mind understands that this was never going to come to pass, that Sehwag's days as an international cricketer were long past, and that he would tweet the news of his exit (as he had promised late last year) and be off without a fuss.
The end was as abrupt as it was apt. Not for him a press conference bathed in emotion, or a speech that tugged at heartstrings. There was no grand felicitation, there were no teary goodbyes. Instead he went his own way, wrapping up with a tweet that started "I hereby… " and a statement that began, "To paraphrase Mark Twain…"
None of this should come as a surprise; to have experienced Sehwag's career is to have come to expect the unexpected. During times when conventional wisdom advised circumspection, he would blast off. Where other batsmen shut shop a few overs before stumps, he saw it as an opportunity to pick off boundaries. When opposition captains pushed mid-off and mid-on back, he didn't look at it as a chance for singles; instead he was determined to launch the ball over the fielders' heads. Where team-mates used the services of a nightwatchman, he deemed it an insult ("If I can't play for 25 minutes, I'm not much of a batsman.")
Stories of Sehwag's counter-intuition are legion. He once charged a medium-pace bowler in a Ranji Trophy game, swished wildly, and missed by more than a foot. That in itself should come as no surprise, except, as his former team-mate Aakash Chopra wrote on this website, it was little but an act. On "one of the worst pitches", Sehwag was actually trying to mess with the bowler's length. Sure enough, the trick rattled the opponent. The next two balls pitched short. And Sehwag smashed two fours.
The common refrain while talking about Sehwag's batting is how his approach was so simple, how the see-ball-hit-ball approach served him so well. This, of course, is partly true - he has himself acknowledged the value of clearing all clutter from the mind - but it is also somewhat reductionist. Sehwag might not have analysed ground conditions and wagon wheels with a high level of granularity (and, back in 2006, he might not have known about Pankaj Roy and Vinoo Mankad's record partnership) but he was far from unschooled. He analysed his innings and dismissals, and spoke to those he respected about technical glitches, taking on advice from openers as varied in approach as Sunil Gavaskar and Kris Srikkanth. He enjoyed chatting with psychologist Rudi Webster (he was especially curious to hear about the early struggles of Viv Richards, whom Webster likened Sehwag to) and sometimes surprised team-mates by reeling off names of bowlers he had faced in stray innings.
Most significantly he was astute enough to constantly upend traditional approaches to batting. Where Sachin Tendulkar was bogged down, padding away Ashley Giles bowling over the wicket, Sehwag backed away and slashed; charged diagonally and slashed; and, in what was little short of a tight slap across the bowler's face, reverse-swept without a care in the world. None of this was blind slogging; it was a planned assault to disrupt a bowler's rhythm, nullifying his negative tactics. Six years on, when another left-arm spinner targeted his pads, Sehwag challenged him: "Come round the wicket and first ball I'll hit you for a six." Paul Harris - with a long-off, long-on, deep midwicket and a deep point - accepted the dare. And sure enough, the first ball soared over the sightscreen.
Such provocation wasn't merely an instinctive flash of bravado. Like the smartest of bowlers, Sehwag understood when to needle the opposition and when to send out a message by shutting up. Against Australia in Chennai in 2004, he made friendly small-talk with some fielders as he walked off after the first day's play. But come the end of the fourth day, with India chasing a tricky target, he pounded a drive past Glenn McGrath and strode off, chin up, with a raging sense of purpose. "You have to show the other team that you're here to win," he would later say of that unforgettable walk-off.
It has often been pointed out that Sehwag averaged slightly over 30 in the third and fourth innings of Tests with just one hundred, a stat used to demonstrate his frailty under "scoreboard pressure". What is not highlighted as much is that he averaged a mighty 65.91 in the second innings of Tests, with 12 hundreds - many of which came after the opposition had piled on massive scores. When New Zealand amassed 630 in Mohali in 2003, Sehwag responded with 130; when South Africa piled on 510 in Kanpur in 2004, he answered with 164; when Pakistan erected 679 in Lahore in 2006, he blitzed 254; and when South Africa put on 540 in Chennai in 2008, he smoked the fastest Test triple-hundred. As important as it is to celebrate Sehwag the match-winner, it's vital to hail Sehwag the match-saver: the opening batsman who drew games not by playing out time but by rollicking along at berserker pace, eliminating threats of India following on.
What this meant was that, despite his poor fourth-innings record, teams were often hesitant to declare in the third innings, the fear of "what if Sehwag gets going?" never far from their calculations. There is no stat to quantify the psychological effect that Sehwag had on fielding teams but an Ian Chappell quote from 2005 sums up the sentiment: "Sehwag can change the course of a match with the ease of Moses parting the Red Sea".
Over the years there were a number of innings when Sehwag parted the metaphorical Red Sea, but the apex of match-changeability arrived on that December afternoon in 2008 - a month after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai - when England set India 387 for victory in Chennai. The odds were grim. No team had chased more than 155 at the ground and no team had achieved a fourth-innings target of more than 276 at any Indian venue.
None of this mattered to Sehwag. He had begun the fourth day by telling Ravi Shastri, "We could easily chase 300-plus against England," and then gone on to burn the batting manual, juddering a 68-ball 83 to fire-start the chase. There were rasping upper cuts and swirling sixes; the short balls ending up in the V between point and third man, the full ones in the V between square leg and midwicket. It was a kind of innings that galvanises the team to dare to dream; an innings that sends shock waves through the fielding side; and an innings that makes ten-year-olds want to reach for their bats, getting them hooked to the game for good.
Once the win was achieved, Tendulkar was asked about Sehwag's mighty eruption. "We are quite used to that," he said with a smile. "You kind of expect something which is not expected."
He may as well have been summing up a once-in-a-lifetime career.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA