October 23, 2015

Unconventional and extraordinary

Virender Sehwag didn't play by the textbook, but he achieved incredible things over a career that lasted more than a decade

Virender Sehwag is one of only five openers to score 5000-plus Test runs at a 50-plus average © AFP

For a player who never much cared for records, it's perhaps apt that Virender Sehwag has finished his Test career with an average that is marginally short of 50. His fans will probably fret about it; his critics will probably use that fact to highlight his flaws; but Sehwag himself won't care. Throughout his career, he never played for milestones, and yet he racked up some pretty impressive numbers over an international career that lasted more than a decade.

That career average, though, ensures he is one of only four cricketers to play 100-plus Tests and finish with an average between 49 and 50. Three of those four players have announced their retirements in the last year or so: just a couple of months ago, Michael Clarke announced he would quit Tests after Australia lost the Ashes in England; he finished with an average of 49.10, while Mahela Jayawardene retired from Tests last year with an average of 49.84. Till 2006, no batsman who had played 100-plus Tests had retired with an average between 49 and 50; now there are four. Inzamam-ul-Haq, the fourth member of this quartet, averaged more than 50 when playing for Pakistan (50.16), but the one Test he played for ICC World XI brought his overall average down to 49.60.

Batsmen with 100-plus Tests averaging between 49 and 50
Player Mat Runs Ave 100s
 Mahela Jayawardene  149  11814  49.84  34
 Inzamam-ul-Haq  120  8830  49.60  25
 Michael Clarke  115  8643  49.10  28
 Virender Sehwag  104  8586  49.34  23

Master of big hundreds
To the uninitiated, Sehwag's batting style seemed quite reckless, but his numbers clearly show a player who knew his strengths and weaknesses and played the percentages well. The three highest Test scores by Indian batsmen are all by Sehwag, who is also one of only four batsmen to make two scores of 300 or more, and one of two batsmen with four or more 250-plus scores (Don Bradman is the other).

Sehwag on his way to his first triple-hundred, in Multan, 2004 © Associated Press

Sehwag's runs per innings value every time he went past 100 in Tests is almost 174, which is the second-best among the 70 batsmen who have at least 15 Test hundreds. Shivnarine Chanderpaul has a better average in the innings in which he scored hundreds - 319.83 - but that's because 18 of his 30 hundreds were unbeaten ones; similarly, VVS Laxman's century average was almost 275, thanks to eight unbeaten ones out of 17, while Steve Waugh's was 255, with 15 unbeaten ones out of 32. However, in terms of runs per innings (where not-outs are counted as innings batted), only Don Bradman's 185.97 is ahead of Sehwag. The runs-per-century stat for Laxman is 145, for Steve Waugh 136, and for Chanderpaul 128.

Highest runs per hundred in Tests (Min 15 centuries)
Player 100s Runs Average Runs per 100
 Don Bradman  29  5393  234.47  185.97
 Virender Sehwag  23  3996  181.63  173.74
 Brian Lara  34  5889  184.03  173.21
 Wally Hammond  22  3685  245.66  167.50
 Kumar Sangakkara  38  6344  211.46  166.95
 Marvan Atapattu  16  2584  215.33  161.50
 Chris Gayle  15  2419  172.78  161.27
 Mahela Jayawardene  34  5438  181.26  159.94
 Len Hutton  19  2966  197.73  156.11
 Javed Miandad  23  3584  238.93  155.83

Among the best Test openers ever
Sehwag's flat-footed batting technique left him susceptible to the moving ball, and he did have his share of struggles in conditions that favoured seam and swing bowling: in 51 innings when he opened the batting in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand, his average dropped to 32.49, with only three hundreds. Exclude Australia, and his average drops further to 21.58, with only three 50-plus scores in 29 innings. In his last four series outside Asia, he averaged 22.73.

Yet, despite these problems outside Asia, Sehwag unquestionably had great strengths as an opener, the most prominent among them being the ability to score quickly from the start, thus snatching the initiative from the opposition and deflating the bowlers. That helped the batsmen who followed too: when Sehwag scored a century, the others in the top six averaged 48.18; when he was dismissed for under 25, the rest of the top six averaged 42.70. Among openers who scored at least 2000 runs, Sehwag's strike rate of 83.10 is well clear of the next best, David Warner's 74.90.

Sehwag scored a record equal 18 Test hundreds as an opener in Asia © Associated Press

In Asia, though, where conditions weren't as favourable for fast bowling, Sehwag's batsmanship at the top of the order could destroy opposition bowling line-ups. He averaged 58.56 in Asia, the second-highest among openers with at least 2000 runs in Asia; his 18 hundreds is the joint-highest by an opener in Asia, along with Sunil Gavaskar. Overall, he is one of only five openers to score 5000-plus runs at a 50-plus average.

Best Test averages among openers (Min 5000 runs)
Player Inns Runs Average 100
 Len Hutton  131  6721  56.47  19
 Jack Hobbs  97  5130  56.37  14
 Matthew Hayden  184  8625  50.73  30
 Sunil Gavaskar  203  9607  50.29  33
 Virender Sehwag  170  8207  50.04  22
 Graeme Smith  196  9030  49.07  27
 Justin Langer  115  5112  48.22  16
 Geoff Boycott  191  8091  48.16  22
 Herschelle Gibbs  116  5242  47.22  14
 Alastair Cook  202  9015  47.19  26

First-innings star
Among all batsmen who have scored at least 3000 runs in the first innings of a team (first two innings of a Test match), Sehwag averaged 62.50, which is second only to Brian Lara's 63.94. He scored 22 centuries in 104 first innings - that's one every 4.7 innings. In the second innings, he had one hundred in 76 attempts: in Adelaide in 2008. His second-innings average of 30.25 is the lowest among the 57 batsmen who have scored at least 2000 second-innings runs.

Sehwag's only second-innings Test century came in Adelaide in 2008 © AFP

In the Tests he played, Sehwag contributed 17% of all first-innings runs that India scored - that's more than the first-innings contribution of Tendulkar and Dravid (16% each). In the second innings, though, his contribution dropped to 12% of India's total runs. In 37 out of 76 times he batted in the second innings, he was dismissed for under 20.

Sehwag's strength lay in his ability to set up Test matches early by scoring heavily and quickly. His first-innings runs gave the bowlers more options to attack, and the fact that he got them quickly meant that the game moved along at a brisk pace, and the Indian bowlers got more time to take 20 wickets. It's another matter that sometimes his quick scoring gave the opposition batsmen more time to overhaul India's total and put them under pressure in the second innings, where Sehwag's contribution was often minimal.

Best Test averages in the 1st inngs (MIn 3000 runs)
Player Inns Runs Average 100s
 Brian Lara  130  8249  63.94  25
 Virender Sehwag  104  6438  62.50  22
 Kumar Sangakkara  133  7831  61.17  24
 Steve Waugh  166  8558  60.69  30
 Mahela Jayawardene  148  8719  60.13  29
 Sachin Tendulkar  197  11300  60.10  38
 Mohammad Yousuf  89  5043  60.03  20
 Rahul Dravid  164  9105  59.12  30
 Greg Chappell  86  4791  58.42  18
 Shivnarine Chanderpaul  162  7931  58.31  24

The ODI numbers
Despite having a batting style and temperament that looked perfect for limited-overs cricket, Sehwag wasn't quite as prolific as you'd expect in ODIs. He averaged 35.05 in the format, which would have been a perfectly healthy average had been playing in the 1980s and '90s, but in the 2000s the best top-order batsmen had pushed their ODI averages into the 40s, or even higher. Given Sehwag's natural ability to take on bowlers and score all round the wicket, he should have averaged higher, especially given his tendency to notch up huge scores in Tests.

With Sehwag, though, the average never told the whole story, and even more so in ODIs. His strike rate in the 251 ODIs he played was 104.33; the overall strike rate for all top-order batsmen (those who batted in the top seven) in those ODIs was 81.41, which means his strike rate was about 28% better than average. (The overall average for top-order batsmen in these ODIs was 34.38, which shows Sehwag was only marginally better than the mean in that aspect.) He did occasionally make the big scores - his 219 against West Indies in Indore was the top score in ODIs for nearly three years before being overtaken by Rohit Sharma's 264 - but he was always more adept at scoring quickly than at scoring big runs in that format. Of the 245 times he batted in ODIs, 111 times he scored at a run a ball or more.

In ODIs, Sehwag scored fast but not big © AFP

In terms of the batting average, among the 32 batsmen who scored 5000-plus ODI runs during the period of Sehwag's career (Between April 1999 and January 2013), 25 had a better average than Sehwag's, from MS Dhoni's 51.85, to Paul Collingwood's 35.36. In terms of strike rate, though, Sehwag was second only to Shahid Afridi. Combining the two factors by multiplying the average with the runs scored per ball, Sehwag has a batting index of 36.57, which catapults him to seventh position among these 32 batsmen. Players like Ponting and Kallis had better averages, but Sehwag's much superior strike rate pushed him ahead of them - and several others - when the scoring rate was also considered.

Best ODI batting index* (Min 5000 runs between Apr 1999 and Jan 2013)
Player Inns Runs Average SR 100s Bat index*
 MS Dhoni  196  7259  51.85  88.22  8  45.74
 AB de Villiers  128  5175  48.82  93.14  13  45.47
 Michael Hussey  157  5442  48.15  87.16  3  41.97
 Sachin Tendulkar  248  10625  46.80  85.92  28  40.21
 Andrew Symonds  161  5088  39.75  92.44  6  36.74
 Matthew Hayden  143  5847  45.32  80.82  10  36.63
 Virender Sehwag  245  8273  35.05  104.33  15  36.57
 Michael Clarke  204  7307  45.10  78.36  7  35.34
 Adam Gilchrist  230  7959  35.69  98.72  11  35.23
 Ricky Ponting  297  11212  42.15  82.23  25  34.66
* Average multiplied by runs scored per ball

One of India's finest
Out of 18 Indian batsmen who have more than 3000 Test runs, only three - Tendulkar, Dravid and Gavaskar - have a better average than Sehwag's 49.34, and have more hundreds than his 23. Laxman follows with an average of 45.97, while Mohammad Azharuddin has 22 centuries. Clearly, as a Test batsman, he is among the very best that India have ever had.

As an ODI batsman, his strike rate pushed him above the ordinary, though there persists a feeling that he could have done more in that format. Sehwag's average of 35.37 (in ODIs he played for India) is 13th among the 18 Indian batsmen who have scored 3000-plus runs - only Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri, Kris Srikkanth and Kapil Dev have poorer averages, and they all played in an earlier era.

With Sehwag, though, averages - and numbers, in general - never told the whole story. The fact that he achieved what he did statistically and played the way he did, is what makes him truly special.

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter