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A happy accident

Harsha Bhogle

Posted: Nov 23, 2012 at 0150 hrs IST

: India's accidental opener completes a hundred Tests and that is an occasion to celebrate. India have had others pushed up to open in the past, some struggling, some screaming, some shying and nobody quite made anything of it. Maybe they were insecure, maybe they worried too much, maybe they weren't good enough. Neither of those applies to Virender Sehwag. “Yes” he said when asked and made a huge success of it. John Wright who was the coach in some of India's happiest years says, “He didn't redefine his game because of his batting position. He redefined the position with his batting”. Typical John. Simple words to make a great statement.

Sehwag never redefined his game. There were moments when you wished he had but then he would never have produced those masterpieces either. We love picking parts of a player. It is an exercise that goes well with a lazy evening and a large drink. But in reality you cannot because the limitation is a strength and an identity. Kumble with a slow loopy leg break? VVS Laxman darting between wickets? No, it wouldn't be them. If Sehwag had sniffed at the ball and let it go, given the first hour to the bowler, would he have been a Gavaskar? No, because he has given us joy and frustration, thrill and heartbreak being the person he is. Along the way he’s made 8448 runs at 50.89 at a strike rate of 82 runs every 100 balls. You take that every day of the year with a smile and a thank you.

But to think he's ridden this journey of life armed with but a cavalier attitude is dangerous; it belittles the struggle and the approach to life that has served him so well. He attacks the ball because the bowler must worry about where to bowl next. The batsman is nervous, he once told me, but he must make the bowler nervous too. ‘When the bowler is nervous, he will bowl a bad ball.’ And so Sehwag will challenge the bowler, play him in areas that will befuddle him, cast a doubt in his mind, and in doing so force him away from his strengths. It is a sound strategy if you have the skill and the right mindset.

Taking attack to bowlers

That is why some of his finest innings have come when he has taken the attack to the bowlers where others have struggled to. In any list of his finest must feature the Test at Galle where he carried his bat for 201 out of a total of 329. That is a formidable number in itself but it doesn't tell you he made those in 231 balls. Or that unbelievable day in Mumbai, not at the Wankhede but the more genteel Brabourne Stadium when he made 284 from only 79 overs of batting. If that doesn't startle it is because Sehwag has opened the mind to that possibility. But think about it again. There was an era when 270 in a day was good cricket. He made 284 on his own and almost a third triple hundred at better than run a ball.

A triple hundred at that rate means you have produced an epic. It doesn't matter who the bowlers were or who the opposition was, you just don't bat at that rate for that long. But in March 2008, the opposition was South Africa, a tough side even if they are not at their best, and the bowling was Steyn, Morkel, Ntini, Kallis and Harris. You would do well to get a solid century against them as Rahul Dravid did with a 291-ball 111. Sehwag made 319 off 304 balls after being in the field for 152 overs; on Day 3 he made 257 runs himself. Nobody in Indian cricket has done that. For long we have associated greatness with the ability to overcome, to struggle and then to embrace freedom, and so we hesitate to assign greatness to those that vanquish, that conquer. On that count, Sehwag has been a trailblazer.

You would have thought, therefore, that he would be tailormade for the shorter formats where caution is embraced only when defeat is imminent. But here is a paradox. Sehwag actually benefits from the attacking nature of Test cricket and is negated somewhat by the defensive approach of one-day and T20 cricket. In Test matches the bowlers attack, in the shorter forms they defend, they have fewer catchers and more run-savers. As a result Sehwag's boundary hits get obstructed and he feels the need to do something more adventurous. But most of the time he lives life on the edge of adventure anyway and to go beyond is to make risk unviable. And so, I am suggesting that Sehwag will always be a better Test match batsman; that the numbers aren't an aberration but an illustration of what kind of player he is.

So then, as we look back at 99 Test matches and embrace the 100th, as we celebrate a genuinely breathtaking journey, as we acknowledge a free spirit who was strong enough to remain that way, maybe we should pause and ask which were the finest of his many offerings. Were they the three I have mentioned? 201 at Galle, 293 in Mumbai and 319 in Chennai? Or do you want to look at 309 in Multan, 106 at Nottingham, 105 at Bloemfontein, 195 at Melbourne? Or do you want to consider the 83 at Chennai four years ago when he lead an unlikely conquest of 387 in the fourth innings?

All of these, except the first century at Bloemfontein, were made as an opening batsman. Surely he must be the greatest Indian opening batsman after Gavaskar (though I run the risk of incurring the wrath of those that might have appreciated the great Vijay Merchant). Why then do I call him an “accidental opener”? A couple of years ago I asked him whether, after all these runs he finally looked upon himself as an opening batsman. “No,” he said “I am No 4”. I persisted. “But you've made so many at No.1”. “Maybe I would have made more at No 4” he shot back.

I don't know if he would have but I do know that if he had turned down the suggestion from Ganguly and Wright to bat at the top, cricket would have been poorer. If the Test of your success is whether or not you leave your profession stronger, then Sehwag has been mighty successful.

I think he will play his 100th with a song on his lips.

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