India tour of South Africa 2010-11 December 15, 2010

The Gamechangers

A marquee series needs a marquee contest, a main event, the headliner. This Test series between the two top teams features two of the most joyful cricketers in the world

When MS Dhoni was asked at the pre-match press conference in Johannesburg how Virender Sehwag was dealing with the pressure of being the centre of conversation surrounding the series, he replied, "He doesn't take the pressure. That's the best part."

Dhoni wouldn't have known that around the same time the man himself was sitting coolly in a corner of the food court of the huge shopping mall - a world in itself - that is Sandton City. You wouldn't even have noticed Sehwag but for the larger presence of Ishant Sharma, and the smaller one of Gautam Gambhir, around him. Just another small group in a crowd of small groups. If you were looking for the man everyone was talking about, Sehwag didn't look like that man. If you were looking for the man thought to be the key for India in the three-Test series, Sehwag didn't look like that man either.

"You can have only one Sehwag," Dhoni said. "That's the beauty of his game. Whatever comes his way he will play according to the merit of the delivery. That's what his strength is."

Perhaps Dhoni has got it wrong there. The concept of the merit of the delivery is quite different in Sehwag's world. After scoring close to a triple-century in one day against Sri Lanka last year, he had this to say: "In the dressing room they told me I was hitting the good balls too, but if you look at it my way, I hit only the bad ones." That's why Sehwag is so important to India. They need him to redefine good balls and bad balls in testing conditions. They need to see him hit the South Africa bowlers for boundaries before the rest of the batsmen come in to bat. They need to be shown these conditions are manageable.

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If you were looking for the other most talked-about man going in to the series, it would be the man bursting through the crease at the South Africa nets about 40km north of Johannesburg. If you were looking for the other most exciting cricketer in the world, Dale Steyn was definitely your man.

While Sehwag took it easy, Steyn spent the day working hard on the strip next to the greenish Test pitch at SuperSport Park in Centurion. You could sense he is hurting from the three centuries Sehwag has scored against attacks led by him, one of those a triple. Never mind that he has got Sehwag out four times to even the scales. You could sense he is waiting, confident in the knowledge that what Sehwag did was in his home environment. If Steyn was the underdog in all five Tests in India, Sehwag, with an average of 26 in South Africa, has some proving to do.

Steyn knows the new ball will remain effective for much longer than it does in India. Steyn knows the short ones will consistently bounce into the chest area, and not sit up for easy whips or pulls. Mind you, they didn't look easy for the other batsmen even when Steyn bowled in India.

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Steyn to Sehwag in seven Tests: 166 deliveries, 159 runs, four dismissals. It is pure, unadulterated, uninhibited action when Steyn bowls to Sehwag. There is something very compelling about watching both these men perform. Steyn looks to take a wicket with every delivery he bowls, Sehwag looks to score off everything he faces.

At the heart lie their simple, uncomplicated games. Sehwag's is perhaps the most uncluttered mind in the cricketing world, Steyn's the most uncluttered action. Sehwag has minimised his foot-, body- and head-movement as he prepares to face the bowler. Steyn generates great amounts of pace from a 15-step run-up. It is that final moment that becomes the most exciting: Sehwag's meeting the ball, Steyn's rushing through the crease. Then boom. The shots go hurtling across the outfield, the deliveries swing away at high pace.

The respective head and the wrist always remain stable. Steyn will charge in for at least three spells a day all through the series; Sehwag will want to last a day each with his innings all through the series. Between them the two will decide who has the momentum. If Steyn gets Sehwag in the first spell, it will invariably demoralise India; if Sehwag is there to face Steyn's last spell of the day, it will invariably have been India's day.

They might be opening batsman and opening bowler, yet they operate similarly. They reduce potentially complicated arts to their very basics. Here's hoping that the weather and the toss don't conspire to delay what we have all been waiting for from the time Sehwag flayed Steyn all over the Eden Gardens in February: the most exciting bowler in the world bowling to the most exciting batsman, this time in the bowler's backyard.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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