In the Chennai Test in 2004, Australia were bundled out minutes before the end of the fourth day's play and India had to bat 18 balls before stumps. Their openers, Virender Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh, played out the overs and came back unbeaten, but not before Sehwag had hit three cracking boundaries. That evening I said to Sehwag what a relief it must be to stay unbeaten and start afresh the next morning. To my utter disbelief, he was genuinely disappointed that the session hadn't last a few minutes longer, since it had denied him a few more runs. He believed that since it was a short session the Australians would have kept attacking, which would have allowed him to hit a couple more boundaries.
To understand the significance of Sehwag's desire to bat longer, it's important to know that the time of day openers dread batting in most is not the first over of a Test on a seamer-friendly pitch, because that's what most of them prepare for. It's when the opposition have been bowled out or have declared 15 to 20 minutes short of close of play. That's when your body and mind are tired, and you know that there's everything to lose and nothing to gain. Even if you survive that brief period, you won't go back in feeling confident the next morning because you have haven't faced enough balls. The worst-case scenario is losing your wicket and watching the rest come back refreshed the next morning to bat. Most openers will admit that they secretly want the opposition to bat a little longer on such days.
This enhances our appreciation of the way Sehwag batted. But it's not as if batting was always a one-dimensional pursuit for him in which he wanted to hog the strike. At times he was candid enough to admit that the non-striker's end was a better place for him.
In 2003-04, India decided to bat first on a slightly damp pitch in Sydney. Brett Lee was bowling one of his better spells, in which the ball swung like a banana at high pace. Somehow I got stuck at his end for the majority of that spell. I couldn't rotate the strike. At the end of the innings Sehwag, who made 72, told me that if it weren't for my getting stuck at one end, he wouldn't have got any runs. Not that he denied singles or purposely stayed away from facing Lee, for that wasn't his style. Just that he was acutely aware of what might get him into trouble. In fact, when I said to him that the arrival of the first-change bowler would make life easier, he said it was futile to think in that fashion, because if I wanted to bat the entire day I would have to play every bowler many times over.
Sehwag's biggest strength was his absolute honesty with regard to his own strengths and weaknesses. While he could play almost all the shots in the book (and create a few shots of his own), he couldn't hook and pull the seamers and sweep the spinners all that well - a fact he was happy to accept. He wouldn't take on bouncers even when he was well set and batting on 150, ducking under them instead, regardless of his form or the number of runs on the board. Similarly, he wouldn't sweep spinners. That tells you that he had immense self-control and discipline, and, more importantly, the wisdom to realise his potential and limitations. It's a difficult balance to maintain when you're playing at the top level. Sehwag's style of batting made you believe it was instinctive, but it wasn't. There was method to his madness. He had the self-control to not attempt things he couldn't achieve.
Most players with so many shots to work with develop a certain arrogance over time, but not Sehwag. Once in a while, he allowed the ego to get the better of him, but that was mostly against spinners, when he knew the dice were loaded in his favour.
"Sehwag is blessed with great eyes and hands" was the most common comment to describe his game. Since his batting was all hands and very little feet, it's a sound assessment, but little do people realise that he worked really hard to become the batsman he was. He started as an offspinner who batted in the lower middle order for his club, school and state sides. While he wasn't a walking wicket against seam bowlers, they did fancy their chances against him and often got him out too. For someone who was only half-decent against pace at club level to become one of the finest Test opening batsmen needed a lot of hard work. Sehwag was the first to get into the nets and the last out. Whenever two nets were set up for a session, one for pacers and one for spinners, it was a given that he'd beat you to the pacers net. He knew that he'd be confronting pace in the match, and so practising against it was critical to his success.
I've also seen him practise for hours against the bowling machine to get used to extra pace. He batted at No. 7 in his first international match, against Pakistan in Mohali, and Shoaib Akhtar trapped him leg before* for 1. Sehwag looked a little at sea against genuine pace that day, and after that he didn't leave a stone unturned to rectify that shortcoming. A genius makes nurture look natural.
A thinking batsman
"If it's there to be hit, I don't think if it's the first ball of the match. I just hit it," Sehwag would say when asked if he ever thought about going after a certain bowler from the start of a match. That made people believe he was an instinctive batsman. But he thought a lot about the game and batting.
In a Ranji game against Orissa on a very poor pitch, where batting was an almost impossible task (the match finished inside two days), Sehwag at one point suddenly walked down the pitch to a medium-pacer and played a wild slog, missing it by a couple of feet. I went to him, hoping to calm him down, but he told me that he had planned to step out and get beaten, because now the bowler would try to pitch it short. He was right. The bowler walked into the trap and Sehwag dispatched the next two balls for boundaries.
In a match against Punjab in Ludhiana once, Sehwag was running a high fever and went out to bat on the last day when Delhi were in a spot of bother. Since running was out of the question, he started hitting big shots. He also engaged the opposition captain, Vikram Rathour, in a wager. The deal was that Vikram would leave a gap unplugged and Sehwag would try to hit his next boundary through there. This little game within the game went on for the duration of his 175-ball 187. Not only did he know how to get the best out of himself, he also wasn't shy of displaying a little bit of gamesmanship.
Sehwag's style was uncomplicated, but it's foolish to believe that there wasn't any planning involved in the way he batted.
Courage of conviction
Since Sehwag didn't move his feet much, his biggest strength was his balance. And quite early in his career he understood the importance of bringing his bat down straight. But the flip side of his limited foot movement was that he ended up playing inside the line quite often, which meant he frequently got beaten outside off. While most batsmen will tell you to forget what happened on the last ball, not many are able to practise what they preach. However much you want to forget, if you're beaten, you tend to brood about where things went wrong. Did I not move my feet enough? Did I pick the wrong line? Did my head fall over a little? As a result you tighten your game up a little. Sehwag might give the previous ball a thought but never enough importance to change his style of play. Even a barren patch wouldn't force him to re-examine his batting technique.
The moment he went through a slightly lean patch, a lot of well-meaning advice came his way, about moving his feet a little more, playing close to the body, and all the rest of it. His conviction in his own style of play was his biggest asset. If he had paid heed to what others were saying, he wouldn't have become the Sehwag we admire so much. It was always his way or the highway.
Unfortunately, while his faith in his batting held him in good stead for the majority of his career, it perhaps didn't allow him to reinvent his game towards the latter half. Even when he was not as successful, he didn't try to change tack. When his eyes weren't seeing as they used to, the hands were still moving as they did before. There might have been a case to be made for trying to find another way of scoring runs, for his way was no longer working as well it had done. It's a travesty that someone who redefined Test opening and happened to be one of India's biggest match-winners wasn't a part of the Indian team when he bid goodbye.
But then if it were in him to change, he wouldn't have been the player he was. Those who live by the sword, die by it too.
*October 28, 12:16GMT: The piece originally said Sehwag was cleaned up round his legs. This has been corrected