The very best of Virender Sehwag was on view today. So was the very worst.
[That sense of schizophrenia did not apply to the rest of the side – with the honorable exception of Badrinath, who celebrated his long awaited call up with a level-headed half century before triggering the post-tea slide, what we got from the rest was their unalloyed worst].
While the other batsmen, lulled by a two year diet of largely batsman-friendly tracks and the kind of “pace” provided by teams such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh et al, seemed completely overawed by the speed and fire of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, Sehwag motored along at a health one day rate, taking 34 off 38 Steyn deliveries and 21 off 38 from Morkel.
More than the runs scored, what stood out was the application Sehwag brought to his task. While Gambhir, Vijay and Tendulkar collapsed around him, Sehwag batted in his own zone, defending when it seemed to be called for and counter-punching whenever the bowler lapsed even marginally in line and length.
As his innings developed the Proteas, despite being well in control, seemed to be feeling the heat – the bowlers resorted to defensive lines, the fielders dropped back a few yards, and debutant Badrinath was able to find his feet under the senior batsman’s shelter.
And then, shortly after he had gotten to his hundred and the water cooler conversation had turned to his penchant for scoring big once past the century mark, Sehwag threw it away with a flashy shot he had no business playing.
With Sehwag and Badri looking assured against the quick guns, Smith had been forced to turn to his second, and even third, string bowlers. Wayne Parnell, who Sehwag had taken for 24 runs off 17 deliveries faced, resorted to bowling as wide of off stump as he could, under the more lenient Test norms, get away with. Sehwag could have let them go all day, but after four successive deliveries wide of off, the batsman chased at the fifth, sliced it to the cover fielder standing back on his haunches, and walked off shaking his head.
If he was as disappointed as he looked at having given it up, his team mates gave him a chance to get over it – a spectacular post tea collapse against the extreme pace and reverse swing of Steyn, that saw India lose six wickets in 46 deliveries for 12 runs, gave Sehwag a second chance.
He came out swinging – through the slips, over cover, whatever, in a display as ugly as it was unexpected. Steyn made one climb outside off; Sehwag let it go, chastised himself for his leniency and mimed the upper cut that he, at least by his lights, should have been playing. Before you had the time to say ‘bad idea, dude’, he went for the next ball, fuller outside off, got the edge, and found a delighted Smith at first slip.
The best of Sehwag, the worst of Sehwag, all in one day that saw India get a long delayed comeuppance against genuine pace. Much was made of the reverse swing the Indian bowlers had tried, and failed, to find when the Proteas were batting. In a devastating day long display, Morkel and Steyn showed that even on relatively harmless tracks, sheer pace through the air can smash past the defenses of good batsmen [Gambhir, Vijay, Tendulkar in the first innings before Sehwag and Badri steadied the ship] and that a quick bowler operating with the older ball, bowling the full length at extreme pace, can harness reverse to lethal effect [Steyn, whose post tea spell read 3.5-2-1-5].
During the euphoric period when India under MS Dhoni were unbeaten in Tests, there was always the nagging thought that somewhere, some time, the “law of averages” was going to kick in. More accurately, there was the thought that one of these days we would find ourselves against opposition that didn’t have names stretching 140 characters.
Ironically, India found such opposition only because the BCCI, seduced by the team’s statistical feat of climbing to the top of the Test charts, saw the sponsorship opportunity inherent in a “World Championship” Test series, and managed to shoe-horn one into the calendar.
It may not seem like it at the time, but this series is already proving to be a blessing – we can finally put our sense of notional superiority aside and find out exactly where we stand in terms of being a high quality Test side, and start work on building the sort of team that doesn’t require a buffet of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to climb ranking ladders.
It could be a process that involves some considerable short-term pain, but it could also be the start of a team building exercise in the real sense.