By Partab Ramchand
I have always felt that while the Fab Four in the Indian middle order – arguably the most lustrous batting line up in the game in the first decade of the new millennium - have been the subject of heady praise and rightly so Virender Sehwag has been in their shadow. He has only very rarely got the effusive praise that should have been his and equal in nature to the plaudits Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman have received. Perhaps it is because of his unassuming nature or because he is able to keep his emotions under check. Comparatively low-profile as far his personality is concerned Sehwag’s feats are of the high-profile variety.
That is why I was immensely pleased to read about the latest honour bestowed on him. From 2004 Wisden has named the leading cricketer of the year. Over the first five years the list was impressive – Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Andrew Flintoff, Muthiah Muralitharan and Jacques Kallis. Last year the honour went to Sehwag and while the editor of the almanac made it clear that a cricketer could be eligible for this honour more than once in an increasingly competitive cricketing world it seemed unlikely that anyone would get the accolade twice. And yet we have Sehwag not only getting the honour a second time but also for a second successive year. This has got to be his crowning achievement. As Wisden’s editor Scyld Berry wrote while appreciating Sehwag’s batting approach ``last year he broke Test cricket’s sound barrier by scoring at more than a run a ball, raising the bar even higher than in 2008 when he scored at a strike rate of 85 runs per 100
balls in Tests and 120 in ODIs.’’ He also scored more quickly than any specialist batsman in Tests and ODIs.
In these days of high octane T20 skills when batsmen are hitting the ball higher, harder and farther scoring rates have reached dizzy heights. A few batsmen have been able to maintain a career rate of a run a ball in ODIs. Thus we have had the likes of Shahid Afridi who has a strike rate of over 111. But with the element of risk involved in such a daredevilry approach it is but natural that in the process the average will suffer. Afridi for example averages just over 23. Sehwag however averages over 34 while running up a strike rate that runs Afridi close – 103.5.
Some naturally gifted strikers of the ball are able to maintain a strike rate of 100. Other big hitting batsmen such as Andrew Symonds, Adam Gilchrist and Sanath Jayasuriya all boast a career strike rate of anything between 91 and 96. In Twenty20 the figures associated with buccaneering batsmanship goes up to anything between 130 and 170. But Test cricket given its leisurely, extended format calls for a change in batting approach. Amazingly Sehwag has the kind of strike rate in the game’s traditional format that most batsmen would be proud to possess in ODIs. Here of course the element of risk is that much higher as it is fair to assume that bowling standards are infinitely better which means that the average may not be impressive. Again Sehwag is the hold-out against this theory for he averages 53.5 for a strike rate of almost 81. It must also not be forgotten that Sehwag takes on the opposition from the first ball of India's innings, shredding their
confidence with strokeplay that is nothing short of audacious.
Last year Sehwag played in all of India’s Test matches - a three-match series in New Zealand and another three-match series at home to Sri Lanka and, in steering them to No. 1 in the Test rankings for the first time, Sehwag averaged 70, with a strike-rate of almost 109. In ODIs in 2009 Sehwag had a strike-rate of 136.5 - again, far higher than any batsman of substance has achieved over a lengthy period - while averaging 45.
Former Australian captain Ian Chappell hailed Sehwag’s batting in the Mumbai Test against Sri Lanka as ``the feat of the year’’. Given the background against which Sehwag slammed a near third Test triple hundred it was not hyperbole. Chappell is not the kind to get carried away! One recalls that on the opening day Sri Lanka scored 366 for eight as they attempted, in the last match of the series, to level the series in which India had taken a 1-0 lead. The following morning they were all out for 393. Seventy nine overs remained in the day. Few would have thought of winning the game from this position, rather than settling for a draw – other than Sehwag. At stumps on the second day he had scored 284 not out from 239 balls with 40 fours and seven sixes. He raced to the second-fastest Test double-hundred ever recorded, from only 168 balls. The next morning he was dismissed for 293 from 254 balls. But by then India had taken the first innings lead and
Sehwag had given his team so much time that even though Sri Lanka made more than 300 in their second innings as well, India won by an innings early on the fifth day, taking the series 2-0 to claim top spot in the Test rankings.
By demoralizing bowlers Sehwag has repeatedly made batting that much easier for team-mates. Indeed if there is one player who can enliven Test cricket, who can keep one’s interest in the game’s traditional format going it is Sehwag. If more batsmen adopt his refreshing approach Test cricket would not be threatened by the greater excitement that is perceived in 50-over and 20-over cricket. But then of course not everyone is as naturally gifted as this Indiana Jones of Indian cricket, a player for whom Shane Warne had high praise in his book ``Shane Warne’s century’’ wherein he mentions "Sehwag is one of my favourite batsmen in world cricket and one of my favourite personalities. This is a guy I would pay to watch.’’ So would numerous others.