Watching Virender Sehwag bat is a thrilling experience. From spectators to the players' gallery to the bowler, even the umpires, he keeps everybody interested. Sachin Tendulkar kills that interest for the bowlers. At times, like today, India need both of them to do their thing on the same day. More so Tendulkar.
It was a fascinating contest between Sehwag and Sehwag before he threw it all away. The fields were set to repeat his Nagpur and Galle dismissal. Third man, deep point and sweeper-cover were in "catching positions". Angelo Mathews was bowling short, angling it away, almost trying to simulate what Chanaka Welegedara did in Galle. In reaction to that dismissal and the collapse that followed, Sehwag had said he would play the shot again in the series.
Well, don't believe those press conferences. Of course he lied. Of course he wouldn't play that shot. Not in the air at any rate. But the possibilities remained. What if he gets annoyed again? What if he thinks "let me hit a six over those men on the off-side boundary"? In the four overs approaching stumps yesterday, and in five this morning, Sehwag kept leaving Mathews' deliveries alone. He even smiled at the Sri Lankans, suggesting he knew what they were up to. He quelled that gnawing feeling he gets when runs don't come by punching anything close enough to him through covers or through mid-on.
Then Sri Lanka blocked those areas too. Sehwag started picking singles in response. There was a spell of play when he faced just 29 deliveries in 16 overs, hitting just one boundary, and still scoring 24 runs. M Vijay, the man with the majority of the strike then, did his part too. Sehwag was making up for the mistake in Galle, but then the sight of an offspinner proved to be too much.
Sehwag had overcome all of Sri Lanka's strategies until then. When they bowled full looking for swing, they were driven mercilessly. When they bowled short and wide, he didn't go after them. When they bowled short into the body, he managed to keep them down. When they introduced Suraj Randiv, a rush of blood happened to the head, and Sehwag became only the third man in Test cricket to get stumped on 99.
One of those three instances, with John Wright, led to an agonising defeat for New Zealand with a precious few minutes left in the Auckland Test of 1991-92. India haven't quite averted that fate just as yet, but Tendulkar has made sure it is not the favoured result with two days to go.
The thing with Tendulkar is, there aren't many such formulae that work. You stop the fours, he can patiently work the singles. You stop the singles, he can easily find the gaps. You try to protect one side of the field, he can manoeuvre the ball into other parts. Bad shots, once he is set, are rare.
Three wickets fell for eight runs then, in the minutes before lunch, but no procession followed after the break. Even as VVS Laxman kept looking to whip the spinners to the leg side, and kept getting leading edges, the bowlers kept meeting the middle of the bat at the other end.
Randiv, who got the wickets of Sehwag and Rahul Dravid, summed up how difficult it was bowling to Tendulkar. He said it was difficult to get used to a particular line and length because Tendulkar would play almost identical deliveries off either foot. Then there was the paddle sweep. And when he went back, there were both the varieties of the cut. He also showed to Sehwag, off the same bowler, how the six should have been hit. Apart from that he hit 10 fours off Randiv, Sri Lanka's most impressive bowler on the day.
There was an odd nervy moment when the ball stopped on Tendulkar. One of them came early when he read an Ajantha Mendis googly, but ended up hitting it in the air towards silly mid-on. Another came when he looked to upper-cut Dilhara Fernando, but didn't quite go through with the shot. Prasanna Jayawardene dropped him, and is still awaiting a second mistake.
When Tendulkar reached the century, Sehwag was a relieved man, cheering from the balcony. "I am disappointed," Sehwag said. "Not because I was out on 99 but because today's day could have been very good for us if we were one or two down. We had a great opportunity to post a big total. But thanks to Sachin Tendulkar we are back in a good situation. If we play well tomorrow then we can avoid the follow-on and also bat the whole day." It helps when, unlike in Galle, there is somebody to cover up for a rare mistake you make - that too on 109 and on 99.