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Undervalued genius

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This piece deserves to be as uncomplicated as the man it is about.

 
What can you say about an opening batsman who, when asked why he goes hammer-and-tongs after the new ball so early on in his innings, replies seriously that the new ball is his weakness and so he likes to make it old as soon as possible?

What do you say about a batsman bringing up his country’s first ever triple century in 72 years of test cricket, with a six?

What do you think about a vice-captain star batsman of his side, losing form, losing his place in the side, finally making a comeback in the touring squad purely on the faith of his (sensible) captain, sitting out the first two test matches in Australia, smiling widely and cheering his teammates on from the sidelines, and when asked how feels about being a reserve, replying seriously that he has enjoyed the experience?

What do you feel about the team’s most emphatic match-winning batsman in test cricket being unfairly dropped, more on the basis of his one-day performances than his test results, coming back in sensational style, and saying that he felt highly motivated when he was out of the team?

What can you think about a 29-year-old slightly chubby test cricketer, whose fitness and work ethic was been under a cloud just because of one poor series in South Africa, and who in the 3rd test after his comeback fields in the searing Chennai heat for almost two days, and then blasts the fastest triple century of all time?

Virender Sehwag is the most underrated cricketer in the world today, and has been for quite a while. He has played 55 test matches (just three more than Bradman) and has the same number of triple hundreds as the Don and Lara (who has played 131). He averages 53, which makes him one of the premier opening batsmen of all time. Especially when you consider that he has memorable test centuries in Australia, South Africa (on debut; though at no.6), England, West Indies and Pakistan. He averages 59 in Australia in 7 test matches, 91 in Pakistan, almost 40 in England and 51 in West Indies; his away average is 49, home average 59, winning average (batting average in matches won) is 46 - figures that the greatest batsmen in any era would have been happy to achieve. His last ten test centuries have all been scores of over 150, a world record. He was man-of-the-match in 2 test matches that India won since his debut (2001), which is two more than the man widely (and wrongly) rated as India’s greatest batsman in the same period (Tendulkar).
 

Given his astonishing strike rate of 77 plus in test cricket, only one batsman from the modern age compares with him – Adam Gilchrist (96 tests at an average of 48. Strike rate 82). Surprisingly not Sanath Jayasuriya (110 tests at an average of 40. Strike rate 65) or not even the man he is most likened to – Michael Slater (74 test matches at an average of 43. Strike rate 53) and certainly not the likes of Shahid Afridi (26 test matches at an average of 37. Who cares about strike rate?) And Adam Gilchrist was a genius if ever there was one.

One surefire sign of a genius is how simple he makes the game look – to the extent where other players, often more illustrious or rated higher than him, look like they’re struggling compared to him. There have been several such moments with Sehwag, both in ODIs and Tests, where he has blazed away making it look so easy, whereas after his dismissal everybody struggled. Three top-of-the-head test match examples – vs. Australia,
Melbourne 2003; vs. Pakistan, Bangalore 2005; vs. South Africa, Chennai 2008. Tendulkar had this effect to some extent in the 1990s (in tests, most notably vs. Pakistan,
Chennai 1999), but never once since the time Sehwag started playing. And the best Indian batsman during that period – Dravid, never did.
 
Bangalore 2001 was the first evidence of this genius Against an English bowling attack, India were struggling (121 for 5), despite Tendulkar being at the crease. Ashley Giles was bowling a leg stump line with a packed leg side field and Nasser Hussain’s plan was working brilliantly – Tendulkar was struggling as he was being uncharacteristically prevented from scoring. Sehwag walked in to the same attack and field. Immediately he started using his feet to step out and hit over mid-on, or inside-out over mid-off. In no time, he hammered Giles out of the attack. For a while, the game looked totally different.
 

Sehwag’s uncluttered and simple see-ball-will-clobber approach has been more than just effective. It has a brought a different way of looking at the game, because before him, no one in the history of the game has had as much success doing this. If cricket was film, fiction or music, Sehwag would be a genre of his own.

All the talk about how he has been sorted out by international teams - short ball, off-stump line, etc has been proven embarrassingly wrong too many times in test cricket. As has been the biggest misconception about him – that he is erratic, and his average of 50-plus is padded up by the big hundreds he scores. Since when has scoring big hundreds or having a superb conversion rate (14 hundreds and 13 fifties) not been a significant parameter for a great player? At least, unlike a lot of other illustrious players around the world, his averages or records are not inflated by big scores against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. It is blasphemous to suggest this - but Sehwag's numbers have actually matched Tendulkar's at an equivalent stage of career - not in terms of age, but matches played. In his first 55 tests Tendulkar averaged 52.09 with 13 hundreds, while in his 55 tests, Sehwag averages 53.48 with 14 hundreds.
 

His swishing bat and brute force perhaps service the notion that it is all hand-eye coordination for him. The corollary then is that he gets lucky with results; on a good day, he pulverizes you for a while. Well, true for an Afridi perhaps, not for a batsman who has delivered the kind of results (and figures) that Sehwag has. Not for this kind of consistency as far as big scores are concerned.

Sehwag is an “in-the-zone” batsman more than any other – someone whom the opposition actually fears more than any other batsman, because they know if they don’t get him within his first 30 runs or so, the odds are close to even that he will murder them. Perhaps Sehwag’s relative failure in the ODI format (which is why he is compared to Michael Slater perhaps) has to do with this too. In tests, Sehwag gets attacking fields, without the pressure of being required to score quick runs, so he uses the gaps to get into the zone quickly. Sometimes, when out-of-touch, his shot selection is poor, and he gets out. But in ODIs, he gets out cheaply more often because the pressure is there to score quick runs, and it is expected of him. He starts attacking often before he has got into the zone, and that has led to his ODI record reaching embarrassing lows. It is a strange anomaly though that the most attacking top order batsman of all time has been so average in ODIs. He’s still 29, time enough to change that. But as of now, Sehwag’s (rightful) claim to greatness is on the basis of being a test batsman.

It should not be forgotten that Sehwag was fundamentally a middle-order batsman who was tried as a makeshift opener because no one else was cracking that position. So many talented batsmen have failed there – Yuvraj Singh, VVS Laxman and of course Rahul Dravid. (The great irony here is that India’s most successful opening pair of all time in any form of the game – Ganguly and Tendulkar - were never serious opening options in test cricket, for exactly the opposite reasons – one wasn’t considered good enough the other was considered too “good” to be sacrificed there!). Sehwag, however, was a stunning success at the top; hailed by no less than Sunil Gavaskar as the most original opener with the freshest approach he had seen.

More than the runs Sehwag makes, or is likely to make, it is his aggressive, uncluttered approach that makes the biggest difference to his team. It exudes a positive vibe that can set the tone – often the biggest difference in the eventual result. For many observers/ fans, the Indian team’s challenge in the just-finished Australian test series acquired a different tenor when Sehwag opened the batting in the third test at Perth, and came out all guns blazing. He may have made just 29 (and 43 in the second innings) but it changed the way the other batsman played after him (maybe it was not a coincidence that a previously struggling Rahul Dravid produced his most positive and profitable innings immediately after this, which eventually was the highest score of the match, which India
won).

This fearless, positive approach could have been such a huge asset to Indian cricket, if Sehwag had become captain, as he was being groomed for. His lack of form in South Africa and alleged attitude problems regarding
work ethic, and the selectors’ myopic jettisoning of him more on the basis of his ODI failures, torpedoed those possibilities. With the emergence of Dhoni, perhaps forever. Maybe Indian cricket will never know what it has missed out on on that count. A pity, because on the evidence of Kumble’s defensive approach in both Adelaide and
Chennai he does not seem to be a huge improvement from Dravid, when it comes to the perils resulting from the fears of losing.

What delightful quotes we could have got from Sehwag as captain. The guy isn’t just delightfully candid; he has a remarkably original way of expressing himself. Sample this – a quote that just came in, while this piece was being written – Sehwag (on changing his one-day batting approach): “I am too positive in one-dayers and have to change that. So, in the coming one-dayers, I will try to play in the test mode.” Can you think of any other cricketer in history who makes sense when he says a thing like this?

 

If Sehwag were to retire tomorrow, on the evidence of what he has achieved so far, it would be ridiculous to not categorize him as an all-time great batsman. It would take an exceptional exercise in nostalgia to not include him in the list of India’s top 5 batsmen of all time. If he climbs up even further, we could be in for some spectacular times ahead.

(Click here to know more about Jaideep)



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