I was in southern China when I heard Virender Sehwag had been dropped. The news didn't leave a mark, for cricket is not something much spoken of in the People's Republic. Then, a week later, on the plane back home, I began listening to Bismillah Khan, and the memories began to crowd my mind. As my playlist went through "Nand Kedar", "Shyam Kalyan", "Yaman", "Durga" and the rest, I thought only of the maverick genius from Najafgarh, of his walk, his demeanour, the coloured cloth tied around his head, and, from time to time, of the range and subtlety of his strokeplay. Every innings of his that I ever saw was replayed in as much detail as the mind of a 55-year-old will allow.
That it was Bismillah Khan who set me on to Sehwag may not have been an accident. Bismillah was one of the Fab Five of India's Great Modern Instrumentalists, in character closer to this particular opening batsman than were the others. Nikhil Banerjee was quiet and understated, Vilayat Khan angular and complicated, Ravi Shankar focused and ambitious, Ali Akbar Khan enigmatic, even inscrutable. Bismillah, like Sehwag, was both joyful and guileless (perhaps the two must go together).
As the shehnai played all around me, I went back - as historians are trained to do - to the beginning. I first saw Sehwag bat in a one-day match against Australia, in Bangalore, shortly after the epic Kolkata Test of 2001. Known then as an offspinning allrounder, Sehwag came in to bat low down the order. To his second or third delivery, he walked down the wicket and hit the greatest bowler since SF Barnes down towards where my son and I sat in the BEML Stand. It was a statement of intent - that was how he would always play, regardless of the state of the game or the reputation of the bowler. Warne or Murali, Pollock or McGrath, they all came and went the same way. Sehwag went on here to score a fifty, and to take three wickets in an Indian win.
Later that year I saw him play a Test match against England. The scorecard tells me that he hit 13 boundaries in a score of 66. I suppose some must have been glides past point and flicks past midwicket. The boundary I remember best came early in his innings.
Sachin Tendulkar was batting at the other end. The Master had got fluently to 50, but was then tied up by Ashley Giles, bowling over the wicket. Sachin thrust his ample backside at the ball, padding up, time and again. On the other hand, Sehwag smartly reverse-swept the first ball he received from the left-arm spinner for four. We were impressed, but his partner, apparently, was unnerved. When he next faced Giles, Sachin ran aimlessly down the wicket and was out for 90, stumped for the first time in his Test career.
In the summer of 2002 I was in England on work. An indulgent friend got me a press pass for the Lord's Test. India went in to bat at tea on the second day, after England had amassed 487. Sehwag, by now an opener, played some exquisite drives and cuts off the fast bowlers. When Ashley Giles came on to bowl, he immediately hit him through and over cover for two fours. The spinner, in fright (or flight), went over the wicket. Sehwag now made room to drive through the off side again, missed, and was bowled.
After play ended, I ran into Michael Atherton in the media centre's tea room. He was critical of Sehwag. "He should have played for stumps," he said, "rather than be reckless and expose Sachin at the end of the day." I disagreed. The way Sehwag got to 84 was also the way he got out. He could not, would not, bat like a conventional opener - that is to say, like Michael Atherton.
Or indeed like Sunil Gavaskar. Which brings me to the most extended Sehwag innings I saw, which was played at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in the last week of March 2005. Pakistan, batting first, had scored in excess of 500. India had to bat ten overs at the end of the second day, during which time they got to 55, the bulk of the scoring, naturally, by Sehwag.
The next day, he proceeded crisply and elegantly to a double-century. Mohammad Sami pitched up, at 90 miles an hour; he went back at twice the pace, the ball whizzing down the ground to the sightscreen. Abdul Razzak was taken for fours past and behind point. The offspinner Arshad Khan was swept fine and hoicked over midwicket. The legspinner Danish Kaneria was cut, pulled, and driven for boundaries. It was a seamless, flawless innings, which ended shortly after tea, when Sehwag was caught-and-bowled by Kaneria.
I was sitting this time in the press box, with my friend the cricket writer Suresh Menon. During the afternoon session, after Sehwag had hit one of this 30 boundaries, Suresh turned to me and said: "Ram, either Merchant or Gavaskar has now to go from our all-time India XI." I agreed, reluctantly (the cricketing preferences and prejudices of one's boyhood are hard to shake). But which one? As Suresh and I debated the question, a former Test player of the 1970s (who must remain unnamed) said: "If Sunny [then upstairs in the commentary box] was to hear you both, he would start composing a column about how it is in the team's best interests for Sehwag to bat in the middle order."
But an opener Sehwag remained. Close to two years later, against Pakistan in Lahore, India ended the fourth day at 403 for no loss. Sehwag had made 247 of those runs, outscoring his partner two to one. Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, writing on this site, said: "Sehwag produced an off-side masterclass - only nine of his 46 fours came on the leg side", in reaching the second-fastest double-hundred of all time.
At his age, and given how much his batsmanship depends on his eyesight and his reflexes, we have really seen the end of Sehwag as we knew him
ESPNcricinfo focused on the cricket, whereas other journalists were looking for other stories. At the press conference afterwards, the Indian openers were asked how it felt to be a mere ten runs short of the record partnership of Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy. Rahul Dravid said something about the greatness of Mankad and the burden of history. Sehwag, asked the same question, said something like: "Who is this Mankad?"
The answers were flashed along the wires to Bangalore, where a television channel demanded my reaction to the varying tone of the openers' remarks. I was in bed, with a broken foot, from where I told the reporter to calm down, to not see this as ignorance or foolishness but as a spontaneous and indeed joyous expression of the man's personality. Dravid, faced with a chest-high bouncer from Dale Steyn, would play it discreetly down to his feet. Sehwag, in the same situation, would sway his body backwards and slash the ball over slips for four. Had Sehwag ever known of Vinoo Mankad, he would never have played for India at all.
As a batsman, Sehwag was sui generis. There was, however, a bowler who shared some of the same characteristics, cricketing as well as personal. He likewise played by instinct and touch rather than by technique or tradition. He too was wayward and whimsical. On a wicket helpful to him, he might go for none for plenty; on a flat track, he might slice through the opposition like a knife through butter. Withal, like Sehwag he was a truly great player, who won Tests for India at home and abroad. Like him, he was a cheery, ever-smiling lad who played with a splendid lack of concern for the record books. This fellow would be pencilled in last in my mythical India All-time XI, perfectly complementing, in all senses, the man placed at the top of the order.
Unlike Dravid (or Laxman), Virender Sehwag has not yet formally retired from the game. Yet I sense that the act of removing him from the Test side will be decisive. At his age, and given how much his batsmanship depends on his eyesight and his reflexes, we have really seen the end of Sehwag as we knew him. Which is why I lay awake all night on the Air China flight from Beijing, recalling the times I had seen him bat.
When the plane landed, it was 1.30am in New Delhi. I had a long taxi ride to my hotel. I had thought enough about Sehwag - now I wanted to talk. Who among my cricketing companions could I speak with? Suresh Menon and Mukul Kesavan were asleep. TG Vaidyanathan and Sujit Mukherjee were dead. So I rang up my son, still awake and alert in America. We discussed the many innings by Sehwag we had seen, singly or together, and then the innings we would have liked to have seen.
We both agreed that, forced to choose only one knock, it would have to be the 155 he scored at Chepauk in October 2004, made after Anil Kumble had spun out the Australians on the first day. Recall that Anil got six wickets the second time around. At close of play on the fourth day India were 19 for no loss, Sehwag 12 not out (all boundaries). Another 210 runs were required to win. It rained all night, and not a ball was bowled on the morrow.
As the taxi entered the driveway of my hotel, I decided I must (as fathers tend to) have the last word. "The two people I feel most sorry for today," I said to my son, "are TG Vaidyanathan and yourself." Why, he asked, allowing me to express, in my own voice, the words he knew were coming. I did. "TGV did not watch Virender Sehwag bat. And you did not watch BS Chandrasekhar bowl."
Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books