He has showcased his destructive prowess with the cricket bat around the world, caning bowling attacks instinctively and relentlessly. Bowlers and captain of all opposing teams dread the idea of watching him bat two sessions. Yet, even more than his attacking skills with the cricket bat, the single biggest trait that marks him out is his simplicity. From team-mates to rivals, from colleagues to biographer, everyone will concede that Virender Sehwag’s simplicity is his greatest characteristic.
He is a mere rustic, we were told a decade ago when he was making waves as a young lad who could hit the cricket ball real hard. Riding the breaks that came his way, Sehwag has become a household name as people realise that it is not ever so often cricket throws up a destructive talent that has everyone around gaping in awe. Sehwag has been that talent.
He mesmerised us all with his range of strokes as he toyed with the New Zealand attack and breezed to the fastest ODI hundred by an Indian – he needed just 60 deliveries at the Seddon Park – with a display of clean hitting that is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry. His opening partner in the 201-run stand, Gautam Gambhir made 63 runs at nearly a run a ball but that seemed so slow against Sehwag’s 125 off 74 balls. He made batting look so simple; and the hapless New Zealand attack look pedestrian as India claimed the series with a match on hand.
It was a savage innings and, even if it is an oxymoronic touch here, there was an aesthetic appeal to his innings. For someone who kept the hook and pull wrapped in cotton wool for ages – to the point that bowlers believed he was weak against the short ball – he has played the two shots at will on the tour. We did get to see a sample in the home series against England but it is almost as if he has undertaken the trip with the sole intent of showing the world how well he can play these strokes.
Former Test cricketer Rakesh Shukla recalls an instance when he was travelling with the Delhi team as a selector and Sehwag was captain. The opener had showcased his characteristic brilliance by lunch and a whole lot people advised him to keep his wicket intact since he had already inflicted considerable damage on the opposition. When the game resumed, Sewhag danced down the track and holed out to the man at deep-midwicket. He walked back, grinned at Shukla and the others in the dressing room and said “Sorry sir, the ball was there to be hit and I had to play that shot.”
Stated simply, that is Sehwag for you. What’s more, he has that rare ability to actually forget his innings within five minutes. So, if you expect him to feel remorse after a bad shot, you can have another thought coming. He fell when attempting to send a full toss beyond the boundary with his own score at 195 in Melbourne in December 2003. No one tried to change him. And, a few months later, he reached the landmark triple century in Multan with a six off Saqlain Mushtaq.
There is an intrinsic honesty in his approach to cricket – and life. I remember the time in Adelaide last year when he was left out of the Indian line-up for a one-day game against Australia. On the eve of the game skipper Mahender Singh Dhoni told us that Sehwag was nursing a niggle but a few moments later, Sehwag said the truth was that he had been dropped for not pulling his weight at the top of the order. “You can write that I have been dropped and that is the truth,” he told me, with absolutely no feeling of rancour for his captain. It is this ability to face the truth that has made Sehwag such a special person.
There is another cute tale that a dear friend narrated to me some days ago. Anyone who watched the ICC World Cup 2003 game against Pakistan will remember that both Tendulkar and Sehwag hit rising sixes over third man off Shoaib Akhtar and Waqar Younis respectively during India’s frenetic chase of a stiff target. Asked about the apparent similarity of the strokes, Sehwag was candid enough to admit that Tendulkar had hit the six while he himself had been beaten by the pace of the delivery and the ball met his bat rather than the other way around.
In fact, there is no doubt that Sehwag is still in awe of the man he had adored and idolised when growing up in the dusty Najafgarh neighbourhood. You can see his eyes, under those bushy eyebrows, glow with delight and his chest swell with pride when he hears the name. And, there is a reverence in his tone when Sehwag speaks about Tendulkar. His voice drops to a respectful hush when he refers to the little big man of Indian cricket. The words flow from the heart and yet they seem to be carefully chosen as he shares his thoughts on the man in whose footsteps he loves to walk.
“I have been a fan of his from the time I was a 14-year-old. I did not adopt his batting style deliberately. I used to watch so much of Sachin that I guess I started batting like him. I never thought I would someday play with him in the India side, particularly when his back injury kept him out of the team. It is an honour to be even compared with him. I have grown up idolising him,” he told me during one of our conversations. “I am grateful to him that he agreed to bat lower down the order in the one-dayers. He gave me an opportunity. I knew I had to work hard so that I would not let him down.”
What would he discuss with Tendulkar when the two of them find time alone, I asked him. “We generally discuss the mental aspects of the game rather than pure cricket technique. I learn that I could become mentally tougher. It is so important to be strong mentally to be able to do well for our country. It is always a learning experience, talking with Sachin.”
The one time his simplicity was challenged was during the closing stages of Australian Greg Chappell’s tenure as coach of the Indian team. Curiously, Chappell had recognised Sehwag’s free spirit early in his tenure when he said that the opener was so instinctive that there was a fear if too much of method were to be applied on him, it might end up ruining his rare talent.
“He is a delightful and most interesting person. He probably in many ways will be one of the great challenges of my coaching stint in India. Sehwag has been getting off to his customary explosive starts but is unable to convert them into big knocks. Finding a way to use his immense talent efficiently and in the best way for the balance of the team is going to be my biggest challenge,” Chappell said.
But somewhere down the line, he forgot all that and the two of them fell out big time. Sehwag was left wondering briefly if his honesty and simplicity. Sehwag came back, weighing 10kg less and adding more determination to his mental make up. His journey since then has been fascinating. He has hit it off with the present coach Gary Kirtsen who has given him the space he needs to deliver the goods for his team.
Even now, he may seem impatient at the crease but he has loads of patience as he makes a wonderful effort to answer all questions, seriously cricketing and frivolously personal. He says he has always made an effort to improve his English but he prefers to speak in Hindi whenever he can so that people back home can understand what he says. He says he is referring to villagers in a place called Shudami near Jhajjar in Haryana. “They understand a lot of what the English commentators say on television but I want to communicate with them easily.”
That he remains a simple hero at heart, untouched by the complications that usually accompany celebrity status is evident from the manner in which he accepts invitations to attend functions in schools. “When I was in school, I used to wish that the people I admired, like Kapil Dev, would visit our school. But, unfortunately, that never happened. From then I’ve always thought that if I become famous, I must go meet schoolchildren,” he says.
There is no doubt such thinking it is what makes him such a special figure across the country. But he lets fame sit quite lightly on his shoulders. He does not mind squatting on the floor to be able to speak with his interviewer so that someone else can answer his phone. It is in retaining this simplicity that he marks himself out as very simple and very special. Perhaps, some would say, even simply rustic. Then again, when the simple Sehwag Effect comes into the frame, everything else recedes to the penumbra.