Virender Sehwag, who has just hit yet another fast-forward century in the Test being played against New Zealand in Ahmedabad, is the most interesting cricketer in the world today. He is at once a genius, set apart from his peers by his extraordinary gifts, and a player who embodies the changing history of the game he plays.
Sehwag's success in Test cricket sometimes obscures the fact that he got his start in the one-day game. It's hard to remember that he played more than 20 ODIs before he played his debut Test against South Africa exactly nine years ago, in the first week of November 2001. His international debut was a limited-overs match against Pakistan in early 1999 in which he played as a bits-and-pieces allrounder, as someone who bowled offspin and batted at No. 7. A year and a half later, a century against the Sri Lankans and a couple of undefeated fifties against South Africa got him a place in the Bloemfontein Test, where he declared himself by making a century.
The relevance of his early one-day career is that Sehwag was the first of a new breed of batsmen who won their Test match spurs by first getting a break in limited-overs cricket. Cricketers like Yuvraj Singh, MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina have made us take this one-day route to the top for granted, but in retrospect, Sehwag is a pioneer. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Laxman caught the public eye in what was then the conventional way, as Test players; alone amongst the golden greats of Indian batsmen, Sehwag entered Test cricket through what was then the side door.
In a curious way, then, this Kohinoor of Test batsmanship, is a symptom of the decline of Test cricket as the premier form of the game. In Indian cricket, certainly, the era of Sehwag is one in which the cricketing public, corporate sponsors and the game's administrators have lined up decisively behind limited-overs cricket, first in its 50-over form and then in its parodic version, the Twenty20 format. And since Sehwag first appears so neatly at the end of the 20th century, it allows middle-aged doomsayers to see the first decade of the new millennium as Test cricket's terminal twilight.
But this is a celebration of Sehwag as a Test batsman, not a dirge for Test cricket, so it's important to say here that by a wonderful irony Sehwag used the gifts that should have made him an ODI natural to become instead the greatest opening batsman in the history of post-helmet Test cricket.
Up to a point, Sehwag's career as a Test batsman can be explained in terms of cricket's evolving history. The protective gear that came into the game in the late seventies, making the batsman well-nigh invulnerable; the better bats; the habit of scoring quickly, inculcated by the limited-overs game; the restrictions upon bouncers, all helped to create more attacking batsmen, and by the nineties the tempo of Test batsmanship had been decisively sped up.
The great Australian teams of the nineties came close to making the Test match draw extinct by routinely scoring at nearly four runs an over. Tendulkar responded to the challenge of this hectic decade by joining the solidity of Sunil Gavaskar to the intent of Viv Richards and thus creating a monster technique that was to eventually inspire our provincial hero in Najafgarh.
But this is as far as historical context takes us. Sehwag, like all truly great players, has to be set in the evolving context of the game to be understood, but more than the others, more certainly than Tendulkar, whose talent is essentially rational, his success resists history's incremental explanations.
Take for example the glib suggestion offered above, that Sehwag successfully transplanted the lessons of one-day cricket into the longer game. The first roadblock this thesis runs into is that Sehwag is a great Test batsman but no more than a decent ODI player. In his own practice, then, his methods work better in the long form of the game than in the format that allegedly shaped them.
The inadequacy of this explanation becomes more apparent when you try to compare him with another child of limited-overs cricket, Yuvraj Singh. Here's a player who, after years of striving to find a place in the middle order of India's Test line-up, has been discarded by the selectors. Superficially Sehwag and Yuvraj have one-day traits in common: a suspected weakness against the short ball, a lack of footwork, a tendency to stand and deliver. These traits produce the kind of Test match performances you would expect in Yuvraj's case: the odd century on flat tracks but failure more often than not. With Sehwag, though, these departures from batting orthodoxy have delivered a Test match average nudging 54, at the absurd, unprecedented strike-rate of 82. The only other contemporary batsman with an average and strike rate who comes close is Adam Gilchrist, and he batted at No. 7, at the tail-end of a frightening batting line-up, not first up against the new ball.
The genius of Sehwag lies in his near-yogic ability to live in the moment, to separate one ball from the other, to purge his mind at the moment of impact of useless meta-information like his innings score or the match score or the state of his average, or his place in the history of cricket
So why doesn't Sehwag fail more often? Every bowling attack in cricket declares that it has "plans" for Sehwag, and more often than not these plans consist of bouncing balls into his ribs to tuck him up. In the recent two-match "series" against Australia, his alleged vulnerability against the short ball was exploited by journeymen quicks with some success. Why hasn't this been done more frequently by the better, faster bowling sides he has faced throughout his career?
I don't know, but that doesn't stop me from guessing. Sehwag doesn't generally pull or hook the ball. His technique with the short ball consists either of evasion or, more riskily, the upper-cut over slip or gully when he's feeling adventurous. More often than not he lets the ball go: he might look awkward while doing so, but he's unlikely to be forced into the desperate cross-bat shot a la Yuvraj. If there were several fast bowlers like Glenn McGrath, bowlers who could make the ball rear from just short of a good length into Sehwag's ribs, over after over, I can see him being worn down and hustled out, but there aren't and consequently he isn't.
Secondly, Sehwag's choice of shots is, within the new definitions of the contemporary game, orthodox. He's a predominantly off-side player whose favourite shots are the cut and, more frequently, the drive. The lofted flayed cut, given the carry of modern bats, is a safe shot and apart from the nudge over slips (which is, in fact, a shot more likely to be played by Tendulkar than Sehwag), you would be hard put to think of low-percentage shots in Sehwag's repertoire. His favourite on-side shot is the bread-and-butter flick through midwicket or square leg. Otherwise his wagon- heels tell the story of a man relentlessly carving up the off side and the straight field with magical hands and a genius for hitting balls angled in to him, inside-out through cover or mid-off. The point here is that, given Sehwag's natural gifts, the repertoire of shots he brings into play is low-risk, even though his strokeplay looks spectacular and gasp-inducing.
But the real reason Sehwag is as good as he is has to do with that old chestnut, temperament. In the course of India's first innings in the Ahmedabad Test, it became apparent that he was playing the ball while Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman were playing their careers. So he scored at a run a ball, while the others, for long sessions in the match, scored a run every six balls. This is sometimes construed as Sehwag being carefree but this is a misreading. I think Sehwag needs and wants success as much as any other player; remember, this is a man who knows what the penalties of failure are. After his first ODI in 1999, he was forgotten for a year, and then again in 2007 he was dropped from the Test team after a poor series against South Africa.
No, the genius of Sehwag lies in his near-yogic ability to live in the moment, to separate one ball from the other, to purge his mind at the moment of impact, of useless meta-information like his innings score or the match score or the state of his average, or his place in the history of cricket. Bowled on 173 in Ahmedabad, he grinned at his runner, Gautam Gambhir, instead of cursing the missed double-century, and walked cheerfully off the field. He didn't know he was within a stroke of a world record when he shared in a 400-run partnership some years ago, because he isn't interested in cricket's historical baggage. The game he's playing is everything and within that game, the ball he's about to face. Our carefree buccaneer, if only we had the eyes to see, is modern cricket's Zen Master.
Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph