Simply destructive. Try hard as you might sum up Virender Sehwag’s international cricket career in any other manner, this phrase keep springing back. The two words that make up the phrase are the most suitable to describe his approach to batsmanship, striking a strange combination of fear and hope at the same time in the hearts of the opposition. Of course, the free spirit that he brought to the crease came along with a proneness to self-destruction.
He has been one of Indian cricket’s supreme entertainers for years now, not letting either time or location change his mindset. I am among those who believe that Sehwag has not yet gone past his sell-by date in limited-over cricket. Yet, given that the selectors may be looking ahead at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 and at building a side that can compete, it is possible that he may not play too many more one-day internationals.
Therefore, this may be a good enough time to try and unravel the conundrum that he has been as far as limited-over cricket is concerned. The 34-year-old Sehwag averages 50.05 and 35.05 runs per innings in Tests and one-day internationals respectively. Not bad figures by themselves but clearly suggesting that he did not achieve as much consistency in the shorter format.
Let us look at what some other entertainers achieve. Australia’s left-handed opener Matthew Hayden, who was as cavalier a batsman, finished his career with batting averages of 50.73 in Tests and 43.80 in one-day internationals. Sri Lanka’ Sanath Jayasuriya ended up with averages of 40.07 and 32.36 respectively. These numbers indicate that not all big hitters at the top of the order have had similar successes in different formats.
Talking of Sehwag, back in 1999 when he surfaced in international cricket, if one had said he would average more than 50 in Tests and not be as successful in the shorter format, one would well have been dismissed with disdain. For he was an attacking middle-order batsman who could launch the cricket ball many a mile. Yet, few would have imagined him becoming a successful Test batsman, let alone a successful opening batsman in Tests.
Former India selector TA Sekar narrates the story of how Sehwag was caught in the slips, fending against Paras Mhambrey and Zaheer Khan in the Duleep Trophy final at the Eden Gardens in 1999. “He didn’t seem to be comfortable with quick bowling while he was commanding against the spinners. But a couple of years later, he went on to score a masterly unbeaten 162 against Zaheer Khan and company at Mohali in January 2001. It was a remarkable turnaround,” he said.
To be sure, Sehwag redefined the concept of opening the Indian innings in Test cricket with his aggressive approach. Having accepted the task of batting at the top of the order in one-day internationals in a squad where the middle-order was packed, he did not bat an eyelid when taking up the challenge in Test cricket, too. He realised that he could use the pace of the ball to his advantage, given his excellent eye-hand coordination and fearlessness.
To revert to his relative lack of success in one-day cricket, I have never had the chance to discuss this with the man himself but I believe that while he would not make a big deal of it – for he enjoyed walking up to the crease at the start of the innings and unleashing a display of cavalier batsmanship – he would be disappointed too that he did not make it count more often from a statistical perspective, even if he set the team off to brisk starts.
“Only the aggressive batsmen can score 300 in Tests where the bowlers are seeking to come hard at you all the time,” says Sehwag’s former team-mate and now Delhi coach, Vijay Dahiya. “In one-day cricket, you have to go after the bowlers and the field placing is different, too. Perhaps that is the reason why he was not able to score as heavily. The more conventional fields in Test cricket seemed to give him the space to hit boundaries.”
So what is it that could have made Sehwag a lesser limited over batsman than Test batsman? To my mind, he did not succeed as much in one-day internationals as he did in Tests because he seemed to search for that elusive turbo button when his fifth-gear approach would have been more than adequate to put bowling attacks to sword. For someone credited with being a darn good reader of the game, it does surprise many that Sehwag did not buckle down to playing a more role in one-day cricket.
One can only guess – until the man himself speaks about it – that Sehwag cherished the challenges of Test cricket just that bit more, understood his responsibilities a shade better in Tests and executed his skills in a superior manner. Perhaps, there was a slightly more debonair approach to batting in the shorter format that proved counter-productive.
Then again, for a man blessed with remarkable talent to tear apart bowling attacks, immense self-belief and a steadfast refusal to be intimidated by bowlers or situation as well as the ability to keep things simple, he may have achieved only limited success in one-day internationals by not setting loftier goals for himself. The awareness that there were other batsmen who could play out the remaining 50 overs may have contributed to that.
Yet, as he cools his heels while India hosts England in the limited-over series, India must really celebrate the fact that Sehwag was born to play cricket in the manner he did at the highest – and not just in India but also overseas. As lovers of Indian cricket, we can only hope that he retains the hunger when he returns in India colours and remains simply destructive.
This article was first published in DNA, Mumbai, on Sunday, January 13, 2013