When Virender Sehwag gets going, it's like you're watching a James Bond movie. He can drive a car over a cliff, dodge bullets, fight off 20 armed men bare-handed - all of it while wearing a crisp suit, which remains uncrumpled. Only that in Sehwag's case it is all for real: each of those strokes can get him out.
In causing stroke-making to appear so outrageously simple, Sehwag does himself a disservice. Often the true quality of a batting performance is judged by what the batsman is up against, the kind of bowlers on offer, and the conditions. But when Sehwag starts to rain fours and sixes, it becomes impossible to make sense of anything: the bowlers appear fangless, the pitches seem highways, and the match situation becomes absolutely irrelevant.
Sometimes the batsmen who follow him help put the matter in perspective by appearing human, but often the opponents have been left too scarred by the shellacking to recover their wits. In Chennai last December, India found themselves chasing 387 on a wearing pitch. The enduring image of the match is of Sachin Tendulkar's delicately swept four off Graeme Swann to bring up his 41st hundred and the Indian victory; but in a match featuring four centuries, the decisive innings had come from Sehwag: an astonishing 68-ball 83 in the final session of the fourth day that brought he target down to just over 300 in a flash. In a mere 20 overs, England had slipped from being firm favourites to fumbling underdogs.
The most staggering aspect of Sehwag's career, of course, is that a batsman so outrageous should be so prolific. The words used to describe him - entertainer, destroyer, maverick, match-winner - fail to capture the whole essence of Sehwag. And perhaps because of his methods there has been a reluctance to place him alongside the gods of batting. But there is little left for him to prove now: he is a stunning and extraordinary batsman, to whom the term "great" should be applied without qualifications.
His numbers are up there with the very best. Seventy-two Tests is substantial sample, and over 6000 runs at over 50, with 17 hundreds, comfortably stands up to statistical scrutiny. But there is one number that sets him apart. No batsman in the history of cricket has scored his runs as quickly. In the list of batsmen to have scored 6000 Test runs, he, with a strike-rate of just over 80, stands more than 10 points adrift of the next best man. That man, Viv Richards, scored his runs at a shade below 70.
Reduce the qualification to 5000 runs and there are only two men who have been recorded to have scored faster. But both Kapil Dev and Adam Gilchrist batted at No. 7; Kapil averaged only 31.50, and Sehwag has 700 more runs in 14 fewer Tests than Gilchrist, whose average was boosted by 20 not-outs as against Sehwag's five.
On a more like-like for list, of contemporary top-order batsmen, Sehwag stands miles ahead. Sachin Tendulkar (12,917 runs at 54.73) has a strike-rate of 54.12, Ricky Ponting (11,400 runs at 55.88) scores at a rate of 59.41, Matthew Hayden (8625 runs at 50.73) got his at 60.10, and Brian Lara (11,953 runs at 52.88) at 60.51. Sanath Jayasuriya comes closest, with a strike-rate of 65.10, but his average is just over 40.
But of course, numbers are merely the starting point. Greatness is judged by a number of other factors. Quality of opponents, versatility, the ability to score in different conditions, and most of all being able to turn up when it matters. Sehwag ticks all these boxes emphatically.
His first hundred came in his debut Test, on a lively pitch in Bloemfontein after India had lost four wickets for not many. He has gone on to score big hundreds in diverse conditions in Nottingham, Melbourne, Chennai, Mumbai, Lahore and Galle. He has collared Shane Warne, shredded Shoaib Akhthar, got the better of Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, finished off Saqlain Mushtaq's career, and walloped Mutthiah Muralitharan like no one, including Lara, has before. He has set up wins and saved more Tests than he is given credit for.
The words used to describe him - entertainer, destroyer, maverick, match-winner - fail to capture the whole essence of Sehwag. And perhaps because of his methods there has been a reluctance to place him alongside the gods of batting
That his second triple-hundred, a better-than-run-a-ball 319 against South Africa in Chennai came in a run-fest often obscures the fact that India started the innings trying to save the Test, facing 540. By the time Sehwag finished, he was speaking of winning it. His previous century, an uncharacteristically stodgy 151 in Adelaide had been a decidedly match-saving effort, on the final day of the Test. It was the only time, Sehwag reflects with pride, that he went an entire session without hitting a four.
It is in the hitting of fours that Sehwag reveals his true genius. Fours are the foundation of his batting, and he is obsessive about them. During an interview last year, we asked him which bowlers he found most difficult. McGrath and Murali, Sehwag said. The reason: he couldn't hit them for fours when he wanted to.
No plan to tie Sehwag down has ever succeeded. Nasser Hussain managed to frustrate Tendulkar for long periods in 2001 by getting Ashley Giles to bowl two feet outside the leg stump from over the wicket. The matter came to an excruciating pass in the Bangalore Test, where Giles bowled 99 dots balls to Tendulkar out of 112. Sehwag, playing in his fourth Test then, found a refreshingly simple way to put an end to the nonsense. He went wide of his leg stump, down the wicket, and clouted Giles back over his head. Of his 66 runs, 27 came against Giles, with six fours. It was infectious: soon Tendulkar hit Giles for two consecutive fours and was stumped, for the first time in his career, after charging down to hit a third.
The theme has continued through Sehwag's career. At the Brabourne Stadium yesterday, Murali set the leg trap with a forward short leg, short mid-on, and midwicket. Inevitably the next ball was pitched on middle and spun across outside leg. And inevitably Sehwag hit it for four. Reverse-swept to third man. Later in the day, he played a paddle reverse-sweep against the same bowler, this time to a faster and slightly shorter ball.
And when Rangana Herath fired the first ball of the 60th over down the leg side, Sehwag cast a quizzical glance at the umpire, protesting perhaps that the ball should have been called a wide. And then proceeded to deal with the matter himself by twice jumping wide and far down the wicket to loft the ball, inside out, over extra cover. Throughout the innings he found ways to score in boundaries, through drives and lofted shots, and equally, with chips and deft touches. One ball from Chanaka Welegedara he deflected off the face of his bat past second slip.
It was his ability to strike fear in the hearts of bowlers that set Richards apart. It can be argued that bowling stocks were healthier in that age, but a man can't be held guilty of not being able to choose his circumstances. It's futile wondering how Sehwag would fared in the 70s and 90s. Against the best that his times have offered him, Sehwag has been more destructive than even Richards. Let's cut out the buts now.
Postscript: Of course I defend your right to disagree with me but I would not like you to disagree with something I didn't say. Nowhere did I say, or mean to say, that Sehwag is a greater batsman than Richards. These are my exact words: "Against the best that his times have offered him, Sehwag has been more destructive than even Richards." That's a statement of fact, borne out by numbers. The conclusion I sought to draw was that Sehwag has earned the right to be termed a great batsman in his age.
With this clarified, let's carry on the discussion.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo