So Virender Sehwag announced his retirement. Was it that much of a surprise? No, not really. After all, if a player’s not been included in the national squad for almost two years, announcing his retirement from the sport is more like the writing on the wall finally becoming indelible, instead of just being vaguely obvious.
I can think of countless clichés pondering upon Sehwag’s retirement, but none would be enough to describe the man and what he signified for Indian cricket. One of my favourite cricketers, his game fascinated and held me in awe in equal proportions, from the time he first made his debut in the Indian national squad till he’d played his last match.
Not only was Sehwag vastly different from the milieu of cricketers, especially Indian cricketers, who abounded then, he also set the precedent for expectations from future generations of Indian cricketers. Easy as it is to look back upon this facet of Sehwag’s contribution to cricketdom now, back then he irked a lot of people with his unconventionality before turning them over to accepting him for his style of play.
Sehwag’s apparent insouciance when he first came onto the international cricketing scene could have been – and indeed was– mistaken for brashness, much as he was thought to be a clone of Sachin Tendulkar. Starting out as a lower-order batsman in ODIs, Sehwag fit the requirement of what the current Indian skipper, MS Dhoni, says he desperately requires – a finisher.
But back then the terminology was never much referenced to Indian cricket, or to Indian cricketers, except perhaps for Sachin Tendulkar, who was still at his peak. Not surprisingly then, Sehwag became an anomaly, even more so when he was promoted up the order and sent out as an opener, partnering none other than Tendulkar.
In hindsight, it was for the best. For disabusing the mainstream of the notions that held his style similar to that of Tendulkar’s, batting together proved once and for all that while there might have been some superficial resemblances, their styles of play were totally dissimilar.
At the same time, the dissimilarities in their games also gave way to an intriguing brace for the Indian team. During the 2000s, India may not have required Tendulkar to be the bulwark of Indian batting as in the 90s. But even there, with Tendulkar around, alongside optimism there remained a sense of wariness amongst cricket lovers in the country.
But once Sehwag came into the team, his presence not only raised vigour amongst the fans, it also bolstered self-belief, a quality that both Indian cricket and the fans needed desperately then. Of all the traits that Sehwag brought to the cricketing table, it was this last aspect that made him out to be a cricketing royal – a Nawab as some would say, or a Sultan to those wanting to refine and emphasise his qualitative appeal further.
For once, there was an Indian opener who played like the quintessential opener was expected to. He stormed through the bowlers’ bastions, hit all over the park, played fearlessly – regardless of which bowler he was facing – and most importantly, like it was the only way to do so.
Sehwag’s explosiveness was a great counter to the Australian domination too. In those days, there was no other team like the Australians, and watching Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden’s mercilessness towards the bowlers never failed to make a non-Aussie cricket follower envious.
But when Sehwag ran amok against the Aussie bowlers, the feeling of envious despair was ameliorated. Not that he was always successful, but what mattered was that he tried; each and every time. He was never verbally aggressive and he didn’t need to be too; Sehwag ensured that his bat was aggressive enough to keep everyone muted around him.
This same attitude of his extended towards tests as well.
Unlike other players, who tried to moderate their game supposedly to suit test cricket, Sehwag never even attempted to temper his playing style. The furore over his inclusion in the test team persisted for quite a while after he was given his test cap, but Sehwag’s indifference in light of these criticisms effectively established that there was no one particular way to play test cricket, and while the format was one of the oldest, it didn’t have to be the slowest.
Sixes and boundaries soon started to be the norm, and conventionality became an object of the past. Triple centuries and Indian cricketers; until then they had seemed like an impossible dream despite the fact that the team had true-blue test cricketers, and it took Sehwag and his confident flamboyance to finally achieve the milestone.
His 309 against Pakistan in Multan, in 2004, will thus perhaps be more remembered and reminisced about more than his second triple hundred that came about a few years later. It was the innings of a lifetime, the likes of which that had never been seen before – or would ever be seen thereafter. And in spite of the controversy within the Indian dressing room coming to light during the match, Sehwag’s performance obscured every other negativity that swirled around.
The last few years of his career were then a marked contrast to what Sehwag had become for Indian cricket. And given the way the team’s line-up had changed, he’d become redundant to its composition, with his inconsistencies peppering the score-line where once runs freely flowed.
Seldom does it happen that a cricketer gets to choose the manner of his retirement. It had happened with other past legends and Sehwag, irrespective of how unorthodox his career might have been, was no exception to this rite of passage either.
And though it does hurt – immensely so – to see him bow out of international cricketdom with such finality, there’s also relief. There’s no sense of being in a state of limbo; of not knowing whether he would get to make a comeback and hoping that he does get another chance to end it all on his terms. The end of his career then may not have been on his terms, but the manner of its definition came about entirely the way he wanted.
He signed off with a remarkable flourish singular to him alone by scoring this one last century.