New Zealand brace for Sehwag storm
Three sixes off the first three balls in New Zealand. Few statements of intent could be stronger. Virender Sehwag was in form and wanted to impose himself on the hosts. Yet that innings of 26 off 10 balls was perhaps his worst of the tour, for Sehwag has improved with every match, throwing New Zealand completely off their tracks. The bowler who suffered the attack, Tim Southee, is unlikely to play the third one-day international in Christchurch, but Sehwag is playing on every New Zealand bowler's mind.
Sehwag suffered from cramps during the abandoned second ODI in Wellington, giving New Zealand brief relief. And if he is suffering still - and it's hard to know with the Indian team's information dispensing system - he won't be getting any flowers or cards from New Zealand's bowlers.
New Zealand have been saying they have plans for every Indian batsman but the strategies haven't worked against Sehwag. They don't say what those plans are but perhaps the basic trick has been to bowl on the shorter side and into Sehwag's body - he has hardly scored in the 'V' - to give him no room, and frustrate him into errors. Although Sehwag was dismissed without causing irreparable damage in the Twenty20s, he hasn't been frustrated by the lines of attack.
In the first two ODIs, however, Sehwag has destroyed the confidence of the bowlers and stayed long enough to score fifties at strike-rates of 137.5 and 150. The short-pitched bowling has backfired on New Zealand: Sehwag has scored 109 of his 131 runs in the two ODIs square of the wicket, cover and midwicket - 63 of them on the leg side.
"We have to pitch it up a little bit more," Ross Taylor said. "We've been punished square, and the New Zealand grounds are very short square, so we have to get them to hit down the ground more. If we bowl a heavy ball and force them to hit down the ground more, it'll give us a chance and help us set fields as well."
The bowlers seem to be bowling to a plan, the fields are in place, but something goes wrong against Sehwag. "That's what destructive batsmen do," Daniel Vettori said after the second ODI. "They put people off their game plans. I wouldn't say intimidated, but you are fearful of what's going to come next. You are never sure what he is going to do, he is that good a player that he can hit all around the park."
One over from the second ODI summed up the bowlers' helplessness. After Sehwag had top-edged Kyle Mills just over the fielder on the long-leg boundary, he was tested with more short stuff. He fetched two deliveries from outside off and pulled them. The next was bowled short outside off stump with a strong off-side field. Sehwag cleared his front foot a bit to make room and cut it, generating power with his wrists to find the gap between two fielders stationed close to each other. Even the man at sweeper-cover didn't move. Such shots shred game plans, psyches and spirits.
New Zealand are almost desperate to win the toss and bat in order to avoid the pressure Sehwag puts them under right away. It is Sehwag's unpredictability and unconventional batting that they fear most. Vettori made an interesting comparison between tackling Sehwag and Chris Gayle. "I suppose with Gayle we have got a feel of where he is going to hit and have more opportunities to block him out," Vettori said. "With Sehwag, he has got so many quality players around him, so that gives him a sort of licence. It's not in just one area we can block with Sehwag, we have seen him hit in a lot of areas. He is a great player, and with great players the best-laid plans can go awry.
"I suppose the guys run in and maybe second-guess what's going to happen. We have got to tell ourselves that we have got to bowl in our area, and if we get hit from there we can live with that."
To spice things up the third ODI will be played at the AMI Stadium with its odd shape and extremely short square boundaries. Sehwag's fitness wasn't a source of concern for India on the eve of the match - Mahendra Singh Dhoni played it down - and in all likelihood he will be there to impose himself on the game again. New Zealand will just have to find a way past him.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo