Even at the best of times batting is a matter of chance. Every stroke carries the prospect of dismissal. A half-volley can be dragged onto the stumps and a long hop can land in the hands of an outfielder. Batting involves constantly balancing risk and opportunity, and the assessment of risk varies from batsman to batsman. Alastair Cook hit only three boundaries in the first two sessions of the third day at Edgbaston, but he ended with 294 runs. Virender Sehwag aimed to cream the first ball he received through the covers and ended with his second golden duck of the match.
Cook began the day with England leading India by 232 runs with seven wickets in hand; Sehwag took guard with India needing to score 486 to avoid innings defeat. When Cook's innings ended, ironically with a forcing shot, he had batted over 13 hours; Sehwag lasted only eight minutes over both innings. Barring a miracle, or a washout, England will win.
Rewind to December 2008 in Chennai. Andrew Strauss, Cook's opening partner, scored 123 and 108, batting for more than 12 hours in the Test. Sehwag played a leaden-footed drive in the first innings to be bowled for 9, but two hours of extraordinary hitting from him in the final session on the fourth day set India on the road to an improbable chase. His 68-ball 83 was good enough to earn him the Man-of-the-Match award. It was the defining innings of the Test.
When Sehwag belted his first hundred as a Test opener, in Nottingham in 2002, his methods seemed too outrageous to survive the rigours and scrutiny of international cricket. But with more than 7500 runs scored at a strike rate of 81.89, it can be argued he has earned the right to bat as he pleases; or rather to bat in the manner that is most profitable to him. After all, a couple of hours of mayhem from Sehwag can ease the path for those to follow.
Why is it considered more criminal for a batsman to lose his wicket to an aggressive stroke than to a defensive one? After all, in the first innings at Edgbaston, Sehwag was dismissed not attempting a stroke and it was deemed merely unfortunate.
These arguments are not without merit. That Cook's epic was the result of monumental patience and meticulous application is of little consequence to Sehwag's approach to batting. He is entitled to choose the method most likely to bring him success. However, to apply this argument without a caveat would be both naïve and simplistic.
Batting in Test cricket is also about adapting to varying conditions and match situations. That Sehwag had consigned the first ball to the boundary almost all through the World Cup didn't meant anything when it came to opening in Test cricket in England. Even Sehwag knows the virtue of grafting, of playing out a tough period to set a base. He did so in Melbourne in 2003, when the pitch was damp on the first morning, and ended up with 195. More tellingly, he batted out a whole session in Adelaide in 2008 without hitting a four, to save India a Test.
Runs were of little consequence to India this evening. Their only logical target was to bat out 13 overs. James Anderson was likely to nip the ball away. Sehwag hadn't played a Test since January, and had batted only half an hour in the practice match after missing the first two Tests. And Rahul Dravid, India's best batsman in the series, deserved to be given the best chance to succeed. Trying to hit the cover off the first ball wasn't the smartest way to begin.
Perhaps the stroke came out of nervousness. Or perhaps Sehwag was as dead sure that he could hit it for four as Dravid was when he cut the first ball of Anderson's second over to the point boundary. But given that the percentages were loaded against a drive on the up, and that it brought about his dismissal when India needed to sell every wicket dear, it was a moment of madness that described the shambolic nature of India's campaign in England.