Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
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There was a time when teams were happy with 293 runs in 82 overs of Test cricket. There was a time when batsmen didn't pull any stunts against Muttiah Muralitharan and quietly saw him off. There was a time when defensive fields slowed the run-rate down, when left-arm spinners could buy some dot balls by bowling outside leg with strong leg-side fields. There was a time before Virender Sehwag started having his days.
At the Brabourne Stadium against Sri Lanka, Sehwag had one of his days. He alone scored 293 in 82 overs. It was Murali who wanted to quietly blend into the surroundings, starting with a long-on in his first over and yet going for 84 off the 76 balls he bowled to Sehwag.
Leg-side fields didn't matter: Sehwag stepped out, made room and chipped over extra cover, even first ball after a break. Or he reverse-swept past point, from outside leg. In one day he hit 40 fours and seven sixes. The longest he went without a boundary was 12 balls. Violence, power-hitting, streaky shots - none of those, no sir. Just gap-finding of the most delightful kind.
A cricket ground has never looked so prone. To watch Sehwag bat that day was to realise that nine fielders can cover only so much. It is a simple thought that at any given time about 90% of the field is exposed and safe. Yet we need an uncluttered mind like Sehwag's to drive that point home. Batting seemed dangerously easy that day. Batting was pure, infinite joy that day.
Most masterpieces have a defining moment, an enduring image, representative of the work. For this 254-ball 293, it wasn't the inside-out chip, not the straight loft, not the midwicket flick, not the cut, not the vertical sweep - a sort of tribute to the master of that shot, Sachin Tendulkar. It was a plain defensive shot that told the story of the fielding side's helplessness.
Murali was in his ninth over, Sehwag had crossed 100, the field was well spread, the helmet had made way for a cap. He had just inside-outed the bowler for four, and Murali came back with a doosra, slightly short of a length, around middle and leg and turning towards off. Sehwag read it early, went deep into the crease, waited for the ball to arrive, and give it a full-face defensive.
Murali's malleable wrist and forearms dropped off in frustration, and he said something to Sehwag that made him smile; he turned away and continued smiling. Sehwag was reading the doosra and Murali knew it. More than the 14 fours and four sixes in his 100 at the time, it was one defensive pat that exasperated Murali. And Sehwag enjoyed it.
That defensive shot came during a spell when Sehwag was especially urgent, going from 101 to 151 in 30 deliveries. Sri Lanka even tried bowling outside off with packed off-side fields. They were flicked past midwicket. Before tea, Sehwag felt a twinge in his back; he leaned on his bat, he fell over on occasion, and held his back while running. Twenty minutes later, the first ball after tea, from Rangana Herath, went from outside leg to the extra-cover boundary. Bad back? What bad back?
Sehwag ended the day 284 not out, having beaten the attack to pulp, and said he played each ball on its merit and tried only to hit bad balls. "Yeah, right," you and I might say. "Yeah right," his team-mates said. "In the dressing room they told me I was hitting the good balls too, but if you look at it my way I hit only the bad ones," he said the next day. That's what this innings was, an exercise is redefining the "bad ball".
He started the third day having broken many records already, and with many others in sight - most triple-centuries, the fastest triple-century (which, incidentally, he had held before too), and Brian Lara's 400 was sort of unsafe too. In the fourth over of the third day, though, he chipped one straight back to Murali, seven short of the 300. Silence. A standing ovation. Cricket went back to mundane stuff like bowlers bowling to their fields, working at plans.
As he walked back, though, after a brief show of anguish, he smiled, he acknowledged the crowd. When Sehwag has one of his days, a narrowly missed triple-hundred is not nearly reason enough to agonise.