The Sehwag factor

# It’s faintly curious that Viru Sehwag, who earlier this year renounced captaincy ambitions “to concentrate on his batting” and even promoted the cause of his Delhi mate Gautam Gambhir as the logical captain in waiting, was picked to lead during MS Dhoni’s enforced absence.

If Sehwag is serious about not wanting to lead India [the buzz at the time was that he was miffed that the captain’s armband had slipped past his grasp and gone to Dhoni, and that his renunciation was an expression of his unwillingness to be permanent bridesmaid, with no real prospect of ever becoming the bride], this seemed like a good time to give Gambhir a go, always assuming the selectors have identified him as a future captain.

# Viru and MS share certain characteristics as captain; the ability to remain collected and refrain from excessive hand-wringing and on-field gesticulation being the chief among them. The most notable difference between the two is their approach to defense [A codicil: We only have six random games to judge Sehwag’s leadership by, so perhaps what follows is a bit of a reach. But still.]

When the momentum is with the opposition, MS tends to try and slow things down; his preferred tactic is to pack one side of the field, get his bowlers to bowl those lines to the extent possible, make it as hard for the opposition batsmen as conditions and his resources allow, and then wait for the game to break his way.

In similar situations, Viru tends to attack a bit more proactively. For someone who loves to get his runs through boundary hits, he has as a batsman always been aware of the importance of the single as an attacking weapon; on the field, he carries that same awareness into field settings. Thus, and not for the first time, he yesterday started the turnaround by ignoring the boundaries the likes of Dilshan, Sangakkara and Upul Tharanga were hitting at will; he brought his fielders well inside the circle to make singles difficult to take [Dilshan had one, and not for want of trying to turn the strike over; Tharanga played out 42 dot balls to 27 singles] and banked on the fact that this would force batsmen intent on pushing the accelerator through the floor to take increasing risks with their hitting.

The other noticeable aspect of his captaincy was the recalibration of bowlers’ roles. Ashish Nehra as first change works far better than having him bowl with the new ball. The corollary of course is that Ishant Sharma went for plenty in the opening overs — but that is proof merely that the quick bowler is yet to fully find his rhythm, and not of the tactic itself [incidentally, Ishant looked a lot better when, during his second spell, he took to pitching the ball right up; makes you wonder how long it will be before the coach, or even senior pro Zaheer, talks to him about this].

Similarly, where Dhoni prefers to hold Harbhajan back as long as he can, often bringing him on after Jadeja and a part timer have had a go, Viru invariably uses the off spinner as early as possible, and in an attacking role [It helps that Bajji has in recent weeks rediscovered his bowling rhythm and now tends to bowl a little less like a wannabe seam bowler and more like the offie he is supposed to be].

None of this is to suggest that Viru is better than MS or vice versa — I doubt there is enough evidence on the table to argue the case one way or the other; suffice to say they are subtly different in their on-field thinking. There’s one more game to go with Viru at the helm, and that’s another opportunity to check out his captaincy style in contrast to MS.

#For once, India got a target to chase that did not require a boundary hit off every other ball, and that translated into a calm, measured response kick-started by Sehwag and guided throughout its course by a Tendulkar batting with clearly defined purpose. The 7-wicket win with 44 balls remaining was almost too easy — but personally, I found yesterday’s game far more absorbing than the two preceding thrash-fests.

#Back to recent events in Australia [for the last time], a couple of friends Down Under mailed, signaling their disgust with the behavior of their team at the WACA in particular. Neither wanted their mails reproduced, but the gist is that they had developed a respect for the West Indies thanks to Gayle and his men refusing to be written off, and the behavior of the likes of Haddin and Watson therefore stuck in their craw. In parallel, there is a tendency on the part of some to dismiss critical comment as the ravings of “crazies” — what this section of readers don’t get is that the Australian cricket team is almost universally admired for the all-round skills they bring to the table; hence some of us find it hard to stomach when the team blots its copybook with infantile behavior not consonant with what is expected of a champion side.

On those lines, here’s Greg Baum in The Age. An extended clip:

In this context, the sanction against Watson — 15 per cent of his match fee — was pitiful. A cricketer’s chief income is his base payment. The match fee is the icing on the cake. Fifteen per cent is a few specks of icing sugar. It is open to Cricket Australia to apply its own punishment and essential that it does. Otherwise, its code is merely a piece of paper.

The unexpectedly robust showing by the West Indies made for an engrossing series, but it also exposed an old Australian tendency to tetchiness under pressure. Three Australians other than Watson were disciplined in the series. So was West Indian Sulieman Benn, who got the most severe penalty, a two-match suspension.

In this, it was not hard to detect a familiar undercurrent. “Word” emerged from “contacts” in the Australian rooms that Benn had been a rude, precious and prickly opponent all series, and that in engaging with Benn in Perth, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson had merely been standing up for their mates. These “contacts” remained nameless.

It is hard not to be cynical. If Benn has shown himself to be volatile, you can be certain that the Australians have not missed an opportunity to prod and provoke him. When he reacts, they throw up their arms, as if shocked and affronted, their innocence plain for all to see.

We have seen this demonisation path before: remember Harbhajan Singh, two summers ago? Here is one line the Australians have found that they can scuff without crossing it.

Of course, some of the Australian cricket public love this. As far as they are concerned, there is “us” and there is “them”, and they are fair game, a schoolboy mentality.

But a sizeable proportion of cricket fans were disgusted by Watson’s display of triumphalism and discomforted by the brawl over Benn. These incidents jar on their sense of how cricket should be played.

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Direct remedies

In an earlier post, I’d linked to a Chandrahas Choudhury article that offered a rare peak into the workings of the batsman’s mind. Now, courtesy Suresh Menon and Tehelka, an anecdote guaranteed to make you wonder, the next time Viru hits a ball out of the park:

What kind of man is this innocent assassin who has elevated batting, and thinking, to a level of such simplicity? The story that captures him best has been told often enough, but it bears repetition here. England batsman Jeremy Snape pointed out in a match where they were batting together that he was having a problem with the reverse swing. Perhaps it was the ball that was aiding it? Don’t worry, Sehwag told him, I will hit this ball out of the stadium and then they will have to find another ball. And he proceeded to do exactly that. The replacement didn’t swing as much.

This was not arrogance so much as a desire to help out a colleague. It is entirely possible that if Snape didn’t have a problem, Sehwag might have merely pushed the ball for a single. Or not. After all, unpredictability is the cornerstone of his batting. As soon as the bowler thinks he has figured out Sehwag, he does something so unexpected that it is back to the drawing board again. Sehwag only needs to hear the sound the bat makes when it meets the ball to know he is on track. When he is going well it is a treat to the ears as well as to the eyes.