"To be great is to be misunderstood," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, and how we have misunderstood Virender Sehwag. At first we thought he was a one-day utility player; then a good one-day slogger but surely not a Test player; then a Test batsman capable of the occasional belligerent innings, like Krisnamachari Srikkanth, but no more; then an opener as good perhaps as Michael Slater or Herschelle Gibbs, but not in the same class as his team-mates like the Tendulkar-Dravid-Laxman trio. We were mistaken each time.
Today's innings was Sehwag's 10th century in 34 Tests; that's one every 3.4 Tests, an awesome figure. He averages 75 in the first innings, second only to Don Bradman. Each of his last six hundreds have been 150-plus knocks. And he has made these hundreds all over the world, from South Africa to Australia to England to Pakistan. Context does not daunt him, and he fears nothing, not even failure.
His 201 today came off 262 balls, and yet, it was a watchful innings. Sehwag's watchfulness is predatorial: he waits for the right moment to pounce on his moving dinner. It is an aggressive watchfulness, not a defensive one. It intimidates the opposition, because when he gets the opportunity, he strikes with speed and finality. The rest of the time, muscles taut, mind relaxed but alert, smelling prey, he makes sure that his wicket is safe.
Even Sehwag's defence has aggression. When he defends on the back foot, he punches the ball as much as he pats it down, and it often speeds to the boundary, so well is it timed. There is nothing about his game that is diffident, and he defines a bad ball more broadly than most other batsmen. Bowlers toil in a meritocracy when they bowl to him; when they err, they pay. But he sets the terms, and soon they're broke.
Consider the scorecard: as of now, after the third day's play, India look unimpressive. Take out Sehwag, and it's a shambles. Now go to this page: these are the previous Test hundreds he's made. See these scorecards, and draw your own conclusions of what a towering presence he has become in this team.
The ascendence of Sehwag has been accompanied by the sad decline of a fine Indian batsman. Whatever has happened to Sourav Ganguly? Perhaps captaincy has affected his batting, perhaps age has affected his hand-eye coordination, but either way, he no longer seems to belong on this stage. His aggression is not a sign of confidence, but of the lack of it. His stumping today, one ball after a dropped catch, was irresponsible if we consider that he is the captain of his side, and poignant if we think of him as a human being trying to regain an old self.
Pakistan fought back well on a pitch that did not help them at all. Mohammad Sami was marvellous; with little in the air or the pitch, he plucked a fine bowling performance out of an inner fire that great fast bowlers must have, and that has always seemed lacking in Sami. Arshad Khan bowled with accuracy and determination and Danish Kaneria showed his thick skin, ignoring the relentless punishing he got, and coming back to bowl superbly at the end of the day. Abdul Razzaq was a joke.
"All achievement is appetite," Rahul Bhattacharya wrote in his book, Pundits from Pakistan. He was talking about Rahul Dravid, but it could also apply to Sehwag, another modern great. And Pakistan have appetite too, as they showed in their fightback at Mohali and their performance here so far. They are hungry to win this game and tie the series, but do they do have too much on their plate? We shall find out.