Viru, redux

When Viru Sehwag got to a typically rambunctious run-a-ball century (101 off 101), Murali Vijay was batting 81 (108 balls) at the other end.

That statistic defines the partnership and, more importantly, the self-belief of the Chennai youngster. It is a year and a month since Vijay played his first – and thus far, only – test. He has spent those 13th months in the team’s boot, as the spare tire waiting for a puncture.

Gautam Gambhir’s affection for his sister gave Vijay the opportunity – a dubious gift, since he would have known going in that Gambhir merely has to announce his availability to be picked. Yet he played with a freedom that was refreshing to watch, making the most of opportunity when it presented itself.

Sehwag’s reaction when Vijay got to his 50 by dancing down to loft Murali for a six over long on said it all: the fist bump damn near crippled Vijay for life; the hug drove what little breath was left out of the youngster. Sehwag loves combative players as much as he hates overly defensive partners; in Vijay he revelled in the perfect accomplice for his patented brand of calculated mayhem and likely saw, in a youngster willing to take on the highest wicket taker in Tests, a player after his own heart.

In Kanpur, Gambhir had provided him the cover while he reined in his more destructive impulses early on, and Sehwag went on record to voice his appreciation. Here, Vijay – with all the aplomb, if not a hundredth of Gambhir’s experience – performed the exact same function, stroking smoothly in the early overs while Sehwag was getting over his frets and setting himself for ritual butchery.

Besides those broad points, what impressed about Vijay was the quality of shot selection and execution. Vijay’s driving through covers is classical [there was one bended knee effort of Welegedara that made you forget you were supposed to be working, and stand to applaud]; he plays with felicity off his pads; and he is clearly aware of the importance of singles as a weapon of attack [between them, the two openers had 59 singles (Vijay 27) in course of the 221 run opening partnership, that also had 26 fours and six sixes.]

So impressive was the youngster that it seemed almost tragic when he missed a sweep at a Herath flipper on middle stump, and with it the century that he so fully deserved. As he walked off the field, the question that occurred was: what now? What can the team do with this kid? Clearly it would be folly to split the VS-GG combination. But as clearly, you want to blood promising young talent at that precise moment when ability and confidence are in perfect lock-step. Facilitating that is the conundrum the management will now have to crack – before the fizz goes off and he becomes another careworn journeyman.

About Sehwag, what is there to say that hasn’t been said before? When he bats at his best the man defies superlatives. Today was one such.

Having paid ritual obeisance to the trope of “getting his eye in”, Sehwag saw the advent of spin, in the form of Herath, as the start of a prolonged batting power play [and the use of one-day idiom is justified – during one frenzied ten over spell between lunch and tea, the scoring rate accelerated through the 6 rpo mark without check, and hit an almost obscene 7.3 over the course of ten overs].

But it was one passage of play between Muralitharan and Sehwag that would get top billing in any highlights package I curate. It began in the 4th over; Murali had been hit for boundaries in each of his first three overs, and seemed to be working on some tactic involving the space near Sehwag’s off stump. The batsman on that occasion waited an eternity, then played a cut so impossibly late it almost defied geometry.

Cue the 5th over. Murali increased his length; Sehwag skipped down the track and contemptuously wafted him high over long on. You saw the bowler pause, wonder what there was left to try – and then he sent down an arm ball angling across the stumps towards leg. A ploy, perhaps, to have Sehwag stranded if he tried another little dance? No matter – Sehwag danced out again; by way of increasing the degree of difficulty, he opted to simultaneously run around the line of the ball, get it on his off side, and then used wrists and timing to pick the four – to a ball that at this point was already outside leg stump line – between the bowler and mid off.

What is a bowler – even one with 788 Test wickets bowling on a responsive track – to do?

As always when Sehwag is front and center, adjectives fail and you are forced to lean on the crutch of statistics to describe both his innings and his impact on the side’s fortunes: 92 runs in the session before lunch in just 18 overs (Sehwag 53); 168 runs in 27 overs between lunch and tea (Sehwag 98); at that point [shortly before tea, Sehwag developed problems with his back, so the second interval of the day seems a good point to assess his stats at their best –he had taken 42 runs off 38 balls from Murali and  an astonishing 50 off just 32 balls from the highly rated Herath, preferred for the second time ahead of one-time mystery spinner Ajantha Mendis.

Most importantly, even at tea time India had already raced to 260 off just 45 overs – brilliant in an ODI context but in Tests, of incalculable value. Today is just the second day. 270 overs remain to be played in this Test. And with 13 more overs left to play in the final session, India had already – after taking out the two remaining Lankan wickets in the morning – knocked off the Lankan first innings score of 393 and gone into the lead, with three full days of play remaining.

The problem with appraising Viru in terms of stats is that the stats are so startling you begin hunting for the very adjectives you ran out of in the first place. Consider this: the man has six double hundreds, more than any other Indian batsman ever. And of those six, five are in the list of the fastest doubles of all time; in fact, he owns three of the top four slots, and is the only batsman to have more than one entry in that list.

Here’s why: his progression from the 180s to the double ton, in the 57th over of the innings bowled by Nuwan Kulasekhara, was dot, 4, 4, 4, 2, 4. With every other batsman currently active, you talk of the nervous nineties – with Viru, as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, it is the hapless bowlers who get nervous when the man approaches some landmark. With every other batsman — including the great Sachin — the rival captain brings the field in to add pressure; with Viru, they send the fielders out on the fence and he pierces or clears them anyway.

The point though is not so much his propensity to score big; the real key to Sehwag is that he scores those big runs at a pace that sets it up for his team, even as he creates a slipstream for his colleagues to coast along in.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Rahul Dravid – batting in the form of his life – got another 50, but no one noticed [When the 200 run partnership for the second wicket – the second successive double century stand of the Indian innings – came up, Dravid had made 53; Viru contributed 146]. No one notices you, when Sehwag is going nuts at the other end – in fact, that is precisely why, at the end of a day of Virender Sehwag, you still remember and acknowledge the little gem played by Murali Vijay at the top of the order. To be able, years later, to say to whoever will listen that he almost matched Viru Sehwag, batting at his incandescent best, stroke for stroke is given to few; Vijay is one of the select band that can use that story to pay for quite a few dinners.

The final session, truncated by three overs, was when Sehwag repeatedly showed signs of a bad back; in the final ten overs of that session the run rate slipped to a pedestrian – at least by the standards of what had gone before – 4.3. And yet, it produced 183 runs in 34 overs, and saw India not just overhaul Lanka’s first innings total in under a day, but actually go 50 runs into the lead. [On another note: Sehwag ended the day 16 shy of a triple century; 16 shy of becoming only the second batsman, after the Don, to score 300 in a day. He probably doesn’t regret the missing three overs or the missed record; those of us watching haven’t stopped cursing, though].

At a broader level, what the Indian response underscores is the criminal folly of the Lankan approach to their own first innings. Well though Harbhajan in particular, and the Indians in general, bowled for the most part, 393 is under-achievement of a very high order on this track, by this Lankan line-up, and even more so when one batsman gets a hundred and another narrowly misses  a ton.

One final snapshot of Sehwag’s dominance/Sri Lanka’s helplessness on the day: this player versus player chart. When was the last time you’ve seen a bowling attack dominated to such an extent by one player, that every one of the front line bowlers is going at 100 runs or better strike rate?

“I only hit the bad balls,” Sehwag said at the end of it all. In any one else, it would be considered arrogance, a gratuitous piling on of insult to injury. Somehow, when Sehwag says it, you tend to nod along in agreement — he is, after all, the one contemporary batsman for whom any ball that leaves the bowler’s hand is by his yardstick a bad ball.

41 thoughts on “Viru, redux

  1. Aussiecon- Sehwag has played in all the countries. Because his eyesight is excellent & he watches the ball to the last he is able to execute audacious shots. I was watching on TV one of Bret Lee’s fast yorker’s, seeing the angle & speed of the ball,as soon as it left his hand, I exclaimed ‘OUT’, but the next moment it had gone for a boundary-THIS was in Australia, a few weeks ago, Lee bowled a similar ball in the ODI’s with the same result. So if ur saying Sehwag will be found wanting if the ball moves- UR WRONG. On the other hand batsmen with traditional techniques will be found wanting. When the Indian team visited NZ in late 2002, the kiwi’s prepared wickets on which the ball would end in the 1st slip after landing on the leg. Sehwag was the highest scorer on that trip with two centuries and it was his 1st visit to NZ.He was the highest scorer from India. The rest of the batsmen with traditional techniques failed miserably on that trip. It is simply because he has a great eyesight and watches the ball until the last moment. He is so quick in assessing the line, length & movement- I have not seen another one like. A traditional batsmen has techniques in place to handle line, length & movement, whereas Sehwag does not play any predetermined shots- most of the shots r played only after watching the ball to the last. As I read somewhere- a good batsmen will spot the ball early whereas a great batsman will be ready with his shots. Another thing- Sehwag learnt his cricket not on well maintained pitches but in the rural environs of Delhi. Most of the grounds where he played were not suited for traditional cricket, most of the pitches were just make shift ones with uneven bounce. The ground where he practised at Najafgarh, full of weeds & grasses was converted into a playing field by Sehwag with his own hands. He had a stupendous record at the domestic level even before getting the India cap. Because he doesnt have a traditional technique he will do well everywhere and he has done so already.

  2. I have not seen a single minute of this match.. But I had goosebumps reading your article… Amazing writing…. You made my day…

  3. There is no better judge of a players ability than the opposite team. Sehwag has earned from 1) Sachin- calling him a special batsman 2) Daniel Vettori- getting sleepless nights 3) John Wright- Giving a warning even before the series started 4) Mendis said Sehwag was the most difficult bowler to bowl to 5) Murli said similar things 6) Kevin Pietersen said Sehwag was one of the most talented batsman ever to play the game 7) Aussies never praise others – but they know about the Sehwag effect.
    All of them r contemporary players/ coaches actively involved in the game. There assessment of a player’s worth carries much more value than arm chair critics

  4. I guess vijay’s real test would be on aus, sa, eng pitches where the ball does a few things. A stint of county cricket should help

  5. Prem

    A very incisive write up – keep it up – it is refreshing to read.
    I have been following/watching/listening cricket for more than 40 years and seen all the greats – Sobers, G Chappell, Sunny, Vish, Lara, Viv, Miandad, Sachin, Dravid, Laxman, Gower, Punter, Haydos – but no one comes near Viru – he is absolutely unique and has a place of his own in cricket history. No one has that supreme confidence and temparament (more than half the battle is won when you do not have fear) that Viruu has – he is not bothered about bowlers’ reputation, pitch conditions, match state, etc. I can’t think of anyone in that list who will come closer to Viru. On top of this he has such reflexes, timing and brain to pierce any field. I liked one of Sunny’s comments yetsrday – “when Viru returns to the dressing room, his hands will be tired and need treatment – not legs because he doesn’t run that much as he scores in boundaries”. I just hope he goes on to score more than 400 and India win another one by an innings. He has several pages in cricket history already etched in his name whatever happens on the 3rd day.

    • Excellently written & very very true about Viru. In fact the rise of the Indian team in the current century is mainly due to Sehwag’s rise in International cricket. If u see Sehwag’s career so far he has played several match winning/ scintillating innings which no other current/previous player can match during the similar stage of his career. I compare Sehwag & Sachin with Federer & Nadal, although the comparisons are not exact but only approximate. Just as Federer has a perfect game so does Sachin, Nadal does not have Federer’s repertoire of strokes, but he still wins with a lesser repertoire but with a more effective use of the arsenal at his disposal. His strokes although not as fluent as Federer’s still have a wide range & puts them to good use. Plus he has a better strategy than Federer and he is more tough mentally. Similarly Sehwag may not have each & every stroke that Sachin has but he still has a wide arsenal & when at his best can outdo even Sachin in unleashing his range & coming up with innovative shots. He can be audacious, daring, unconventional & innovative. He is such a combination of power, precision, economy & artistry that each one of his innings just leaves a very pleasing memory. I think he is equally dangerous like Viv Richards. But unlike Richards he goes on to score big. Unlike Richards he does not move all around the wicket, in fact his focus on the ball is so complete that the bowler doesnt know what he has in mind until he has thrown his ball. And Sehwag promptly comes up with a stroke suiting the ball. I remember one of his strokes against Brett Lee, on the TV screen when Brett Lee threw a perfect yorker it seemed that the ball is heading towards the wicket, but the next moment it was promptly despatched to the boundary. Because he plays with a singularly uncluttered mind, the bowlers reputation, the pitch conditions or the previous ball mis-hit dont upset him at all. In that sense he is also one of the most mentally strong players around. He doesnt get bogged down by any condition/situation. His 201 n.o against Sri lanka was a classic, showing that he can bat in any style he wants & bat till the end, it is not true he can bat only one way, he scored a match saving 151 against Australia at Adelaide without scoring a single boundary. If he can hit ooundaries at will he can easily avoid hitting boundaries. He has several dimensions to his game. The way he bats brings the maxm advantage to his team. Other batsman can then capitalise on the starts he gives. He played much slower when he stayed till the end in his epic 201 n.o. I think he is the most talented player to arrive on world cricket in the current century. It is ironical to see a debate about who should open with Sehwag, whether it should be Sachin or Gautam. Sachin has been opening since 1994 while Gautam is a regular opener. Contrary to them Sehwag has been a middle order bat who has made the opening position his own with his own distinctly attractive style. What more proof of the talent of the man his adaptability to any situation, ability to master situations quickly, learn quickly is just amazing. He failed against Mendis only for the first time and from then on he was the master of all the subsequent proceedings. Compared to him all the big names failed. Mendis had become a big mystery for everyone whereas Sehwag tackled him on the field itself w/o any extra preparation or carrying any mental burden. Everyone else spent hours & hours in studying him. It just emphasizes his adaptability & quick learning ability. Similarly when he went to NZ last time the pitches were seaming wickets the ball would land in 1st slip after pitching on the leg, it was his first visit to NZ, but he quickly adapted and was the highest run getter on behalf of India with 2 double centuries, when the fab four together could not score more than 216 runs. In my opinion a great player should have the following important qualities: 1) Great playing skills 2) Use of your skills to maxm effect which means going for a win always 3) Mental strength 4) Practical intelligence 5) Quick eye 6) Undisturbed focus on the job at hand 7) Determination to succeed at all costs or not giving up easily 8) Winning attitude 9) Assessment of the opponent etc and a host of other minor qualities. If u compare Federer with Nadal, Federer is better than Nadal in point no 1, but in the rest of the points Nadal is better. Similarly Sachin scores over Sehwag in point no 1 but if u compare overall Sehwag is a better, that is why innings after astonishing innings. I feel wrestling’s loss has been cricket’s gain as far as Sehwag is concerned. And just like Nadal he is continuously improving. I think by the time he quits he will be rated as one of the greatest players of all time. He appears like a soldier of the jat regiment, while all other batsman fire with a Light to Medium to Heavy Machine Gun fire, he seems to fire with the Bofors gun of the Indian Artillery regiment. Off the field he is a complete contrast to his on field exploits & talks exactly like a jat- straight from the heart. One jat won us the 1983 WC I’m sure another one will do so in 2011. On the field I have never seen him bad mouthing other players.
      I think he is a genius in the class of Dhyan Chand and Pele. Just like Dhyan Chand he plays the game in his mind and knows precisely the field placings and how his own game is going to affect the field placings, then he goes on to subtly manipulate the field to his liking.
      The problem with describing Viru is in proper categorisation. In cricket we have categorised the highest scoring & the batsmen with the highest average as the best batsmen. I think that is not the only way of categorisation. There can be three ways -a) The Greatest Indian batsman- 1. Gavaskar 2.Tendulkar 3. Sehwag b) The Greatest Indian player – 1. Kapil Dev 2.Tendulkar & Sehwag and 3. Gavaskar c) The Greatest match winner- 1. Sehwag 2. Kapil Dev and 3.Gavaskar & Tendulkar. If u consider all the three categories together I think 1. Sehwag 2. Tendulkar & Kapil Dev and 3. Gavaskar. On the world stage Bradman is ahead of them all but Sehwag scores over him in destructive ability. He is greater than even Viv Richards- because Richards never scored such big innings at any time- moreover Sehwag does not lose focus as easily as Richards.

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