Paul the Octopus' spot-on predictions during the football World Cup were a cinch compared to the challenge of foreseeing results during the tri-series in Sri Lanka, where the inability of batsmen to cope with bowler-friendly conditions has led to wild swings in team fortunes. Only one man has adapted in Dambulla, where 230 is worth 300.Virender Sehwag had ground out a watchful - by his standards - match-winning 99 against Sri Lanka last week and on Wednesday, against New Zealand, he made a more traditional Sehwagian century to carry India into the final. On a pitch where most of his team-mates struggled to get bat on ball, Sehwag appeared to be playing on a typical run-filled subcontinental one-day track.This isn't the first time Sehwag has overshadowed his team-mates in a one-day series. In 2002-03, during the tour of New Zealand, when batsmen from neither side could make runs, Sehwag scored two centuries on his way to 299 runs in the series. The next highest tally for an Indian was 134. This time in Dambulla, the numbers are: Sehwag 240, next highest Indian 73.
When asked what would have happened had he not performed today, Sehwag was typically blunt: "[We would be] catching tomorrow's flight." Did he play more responsibly since the others were struggling? "Since I was in form, I thought I will score more than the others. If I take more strike, then there is a smaller chance of others getting out."
Sehwag played the first few overs cautiously, and it wasn't until the fifth that he opened out, smashing three consecutive boundaries off Kyle Mills. After that, he was collecting fours all around even while he was losing partners. When Yuvraj miscued a pull to the wicketkeeper, India were 61 for 3, with Sehwag having raced to 43 off 33.
"The wicket was behaving better today than it did in the other matches and I knew in the first couple of overs that if I applied myself and batted cautiously, then it will be a good track to bat on," he said. "So the first few overs, I was just watching how the wicket was behaving and after that I started playing my shots. I knew once I start playing my shots, the bowlers will be on the back foot and they will give me more loose balls."
Sehwag was tested by the short ball aimed at the body, especially by Tim Southee and Andy McKay, but he dealt with those deliveries by bending backwards to make room and then steered the ball towards third man or backward point. It was riveting stuff, though a bunch of school kids, who had been brought in to ensure the ground wasn't empty, didn't think so. They were content to play a game of tennis-ball cricket among themselves while Sehwag was crafting a masterclass.
New Zealand's task of containing Sehwag was made harder by their long injury list. With Jacob Oram and Daryl Tuffey out of action, they were a bowler short. At 69 for 4, with MS Dhoni and Sehwag at the crease, one more wicket would have turned the match completely in their favour. Instead, their fourth bowler was Scott Styris, who was taken for 14 runs in his first over by Sehwag. The Sehwag-Dhoni combination went on to notch up India's first century partnership of the tournament, and by the time Sehwag got his hundred - with a calm nudge towards cover for a single - India were taking charge.
By then, Sehwag's back started to give him trouble and, after two delicately steered fours of Mills, he holed out to deep midwicket. "I felt a little bit of pain in my back [after the hundred], so I asked the umpire if I can call the physio," he said. "The umpire asked if I can wait for another over since the drinks break was due. I tried to bat on for another over, but got out."
India were 173 for 5 when a disappointed Sehwag exited. "Had I batted for another 10 overs, we could have easily crossed 250, which would have been a safe target." He needn't have worried, though, because New Zealand's batting faded under lights.
Sehwag has troubled New Zealand right through his one-day career. From his brutal maiden century in 2001, which also knocked New Zealand out of a tri-series final in Sri Lanka, to the carnage in Hamilton last year, when he hammered the fastest one-day hundred by an Indian. Today's solo will rank up there with his one-man efforts in 2002-03 as among his finest efforts against his favourite opposition.