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By Suresh Menon
Just before he turned 30, Cricinfo asked me to answer the question: Is Sehwag a great player? It was tempting to answer 'Yes', and move on. At that stage, his record of 60 Tests, average of 53 and 15 centuries had been bettered only by Sunil Gavaskar. Presumably the best was yet to come, and we should be able to better judge that only after the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, I suggested. “What happens thereafter will decide his place,” I wrote. “Life must be lived forwards, but judgements can only be made in retrospect. Sehwag is climbing the last steps to the pantheon, but these are the toughest ones.”
In the end, Sehwag has disappointed, foregoing a chance to be remembered as a great for the creature comforts of the here and now. This might appear to be a harsh judgement, for Sehwag's two triple centuries and four other doubles, his strike rate of 82, his 98 before lunch on the first day of a Test match, his cavalier treatment of the finest bowlers of his time, all while opening the batting ought to guarantee him a place at the high table alongside Gavaskar, Tendulkar and Dravid.
Yet, greatness also involves longevity and consistency, and Sehwag's reluctance to train and to hone his remarkable gifts is now beginning to affect his career. Former national coach Greg Chappell put it best when he wrote: “Because he had never had to work hard at developing his skill, Viru did not know how to dedicate himself to disciplined training. It was only during periods of relative poor form that he was prepared to spend time getting things back on track. As soon as he made some runs he slipped back into old habits.”
Thus Sehwag: A phenomenally gifted, too-easily satisfied batsman unwilling to put in that extra effort that could so easily have enabled him to cross the line that separates the very good and the truly great.
Thirty four is hardly the age to write the obituary of such a wonderful player, but as thousands have discovered before Sehwag, talent alone is never enough. It is only necessary to look at what his colleagues achieved after the age of 34 to put Sehwag's petering out into perspective. Tendulkar, who turns 40 in a couple of months, has played 61 Tests after turning 34, made 5354 runs with 16 centuries, averaging 53.54 which is nearly his career average. Dravid played 57 Tests for 4114 runs as his average slipped to 43.76, but he had 13 centuries.
Such figures are testimony to amazing mental and physical discipline. When he was training, the boxer Mohammad Ali made a fetish of running well beyond the point of mere tiredness. “That is how I build my reserves,” he said, “that is how I will have more in the tank when I am older.” Without articulating it thus, the Tendulkars and Dravids were indicating the same line of thinking. Put in enough credit in the bank to be spent at a future date.
This was one lesson Sehwag did not learn from his hero Tendulkar. Alone among modern batsmen he could, on occasion, out-Tendulkar the great man, but in sport as in life age comes with both experience and diminishing fitness. Tendulkar and Dravid planned for it from the start, and became monsters at the fitness regimen, at practice above and beyond the call of duty. Sehwag, in the words of Chappell, “did not want to dedicate himself to taking his talent to its zenith. He was happy to turn up and play and accept what came his way. No amount of cajoling from me could shift him from his insouciant way.”
And yet. And yet. Perhaps Sehwag doesn't think he has disappointed. Perhaps he is satisfied with what he has achieved with what he has put into his game. We often make the mistake of being ambitious on behalf of our heroes and when they fall short of our expectations, we blame them. Sehwag played the way he wanted to play, thought like no other player did and lived by his own rules. Why should he change now? Tendulkar-like record-breaking was never in his sights. Dravid-like self-denial was alien to him.
We may be disappointed on his behalf, but for just over a decade he was one of cricket's special players. An hour of crowded glory, as the poet reminds us, is worth an age without a name. And Sehwag had many hours of crowded glory. Let us be grateful for that.