Virender Sehwag – The Nawab of Najafgarh
When the name ‘Sehwag’ is brought up in a discussion or a team meeting rather of any opposition, it could usually result in the captain getting irritated and putting his hand on his head, while the bowlers already begin to shiver from within, if they do not show it. This is the impact he can have and it already gives India half the victory. Afterall, he himself says ‘I play the ball, not the bowler’. Irrespective of the field set or the situation, he will go for his shots and so far he has won more than lost with this method of batting. Virender Sehwag can be considered the catalyst of unconventional batting in all formats of the game, following the likes of Viv Richards and Sachin Tendulkar of the 90s.
Indian cricket was given one of its best gifts on October 28, 1978 which is his birth date. He was said to have an affinity for cricket when he was given a small toy cricket bat while he was only seven months old. He went to school but tried spending most of his time playing cricket rather than studying, since he did not believe in his academic abilities and this was something his parents had to live with. He did have to wrestle with his parents wishes for a long time to ensure that he took up cricket as his career which he finally did following his graduation from Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi.
His hard work and passion was rewarded with a Ranji Trophy debut for Delhi in 1997. These were the first games in which Virender Sehwag showed that how destructive he could be, with innings such as a 187 of just 175 balls against Punjab in the competition as well as a 327-ball 275 for North Zone against South Zone in a Duleep Trophy game. Such was his consistency that the Indian selectors did notice him quickly, and selected him to play for the national side in the 1999 Pepsi Cup match against Pakistan. Although his debut was a flop, scoring just 1 run and was hit for 35 runs in 3 overs he bowled as India went to lose the match in Mohali. There was a glimmer of hope yet with his selection in the 30-man probables list for the World Cup in England, but as anticipated he missed out in the final 15, resulting in him not playing an international match for the next 20 months.
It was in March 2001 when Virender Sehwag returned into the Indian ODI side, to play in the home series vs. Australia. And in the very first match in Bangalore, he shot to fame with a 54-ball 58 batting at No.6 against a world champion bowling attack consisting of Glenn McGrath, Damien Fleming and Shane Warne. But he was not finished as he was given the ball by Sourav Ganguly and playing the role of the fifth bowler, it was marvelous to see him pick the wickets of the in-form Matthew Hayden, as well as captain Steve Waugh and Damien Martyn in quick succession. Virender Sehwag rightfully won the player of the match award having assisted India in winning the game by 60 runs and taking a 1-0 lead, and there was no looking back for him after that game.
However, he had not yet been able to cement a place in the team. It had to take a breathtaking ODI century from his blade in Sri Lanka in a match against New Zealand for him to do so. Sachin Tendulkar was injured for this game and India needed an opener in his place to partner Ganguly. Just as the great man was asked in 1994 due to an ironically similar situation, Virender Sehwag was asked to open which he obliged. In a 70-ball 100, Sehwag could have been mistaken by anyone for the vintage Tendulkar, with almost the same back lift when it came to playing back foot strokes on the off side and definitely the same style of playing the straight drive and the whip off his legs using his wrists beautifully.
India went on to win by 7 wickets and it unheralded a new era in one-day cricket for the team. It is also said that after the game, the Little Master personally congratulated him for that scintillating show of batting. It is no wonder that Sehwag considers Sachin as his idol and years later Sachin admitted in an interview that it is Virender Sehwag who resembles his style of batting the closest out of all the others in world cricket. And fittingly, it was Sehwag himself, who broke Sachin’s record of the highest individual score in ODIs in 2011 with 219 against West Indies at Indore.
The year 2001 also saw the Delhi boy making his Test debut at Bloemfontein in South Africa, batting at No.6. Incidentally, it was Tendulkar who was at the other end when he came out to bat. And his nerves were put to rest soon, as he began to play his natural game even in overcast conditions and the ball swinging a bit. He scored a ton on Test debut, alongside the likes of greats as Sourav Ganguly, Mohammad Azharuddin and Gundappa Viswanath. His 105 run knock came in just 173 balls and it gave the hosts a tough fight, after they were expected to walk over the Indian batting line-up. India ended at 373, but unfortunately lost by 9 wickets. Yet, Sehwag’s feat was talked about at the time and he was to be one of the several by-products of Ganguly’s plans to back and groom young players to be regulars in the Indian team.
If it was not for Ganguly and coach John Wright, Sehwag would perhaps not be playing for India currently or maybe would not have turned out to live up to his potential. The captain and coach thought that he could become the ultimate solution of India’s perennial problem of finding a quality opener in Test cricket. And he could change the game single-handedly with his attacking batting and in the process demoralize the opposition, which usually plays with aggressive fields at the start of the innings.
The idea had to be implemented earlier than expected following failures in the top order in Tests against England and Zimbabwe at home and in the West Indies. The tour of England in 2002 was to be the first instance of Sehwag opening the batting in both formats of the game, as in the ODIs the team management wanted to experiment the idea of Sehwag and Ganguly opening and Tendulkar batting at No.4 with the World Cup being only 9 months away.
Sehwag hit 84 in the first Test at Lords against England, to give a glimpse of what he is capable of. This set the tone for an innings with some flaws, but an effective 106 in the following Test at Nottingham which was crucial for India to reach a total of 357 in the first innings, and that was enough for a draw as a total below this would have put India in dire straits. The rest of the tour was mediocre for him but he was in such good form that a few bad outings were put under the table.
In the ICC Champions Trophy 2002 in Sri Lanka, Sehwag hit a staggering 126 off just 104 balls in the quarterfinal against England (once again!) to assure India a thumping 8 wicket win, chasing as many as 271 runs. While the next game was the semifinal against South Africa, who were one of the favourites to win the tournament. Sehwag’s 58-ball 59 and 3/25 in 5 overs, which included massive scalps of Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and Lance Klusener were instrumental in India winning by 10 runs and making it to the finals. Eventually, India shared the championship honours with hosts Sri Lanka.
The tremendous form was carried on in the home series against the West Indies where he hit 147 in the opening Test at Mumbai, this being his third Test ton and his first at home. He ended with 286 runs in 3 Tests, averaging 57.2 which was his highest series average till date. Come the ODIs and he hit 239 runs in 7 games, with one knock being an unbeaten 114 off just 82 balls in Rajkot, which helped India win by 9 wickets despite the WIndies getting to 300.
His increasing maturity was seen in the ODIs in New Zealand, where he scored two centuries in seven games which was brilliant looking at the fact that the other batsmen failed throughout the tour. One of them, a 139-ball 112 in the 6th match at Auckland helped India win the game and end up with 2 victories in an otherwise disastrous series. He was in great form leading up to the World Cup, scoring 1134 runs in the calendar year of 2002 averaging 37.8.
But the World Cup in South Africa turned out to be average in terms of Sehwag’s performances, despite him giving quick starts to India. He averaged 27 throughout the tournament, with his best score being an 81-ball 82 in what was otherwise a completely one-sided final against Australia. Yet, he was persisted with to open the batting in ODIs with Sachin Tendulkar, as Sourav Ganguly decided to continue batting at No.3 following his success in the tournament at the position.
2003 did not see India play much cricket so Sehwag decided to play for Leicestershire in English county cricket. But it was a short stint with a back injury sending him home. He was fit enough to play New Zealand at home in the 2-Test series and scored 130 in the first innings on a featherbed of a pitch in Mohali. This was the innings Sehwag needed to get into rhythm once again following a long layoff from cricket. While in a match against New Zealand at Hyderabad in a tri-series featuring Australia as well, Sehwag smashed incidentally the same score but this was in 134 balls only as he shared a 182 run partnership with the other centurion, Tendulkar. India won that game by 145 runs to fix a date with Australia in the final of the tournament.
India’s rivalry with the Aussies continued, but this time it was Down Under. Sehwag was expected to struggle there with the bouncy pitches and the Australian bowling attack in form despite having no Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. But the 195 at Melbourne set up his stature of being one of the world’s most dangerous batsmen, especially opening batsmen. It came at a brisk pace, in just 233 balls at a strike rate of 83.69. He was hit a couple of times on the helmet by Brett Lee but stuck to his usual shots and although he got out ridiculously to part-timer Simon Katich’s full toss, his 195 is considered to be one of the best ever played by a non-Australian in Australia. He had a decent series averaging 58, with an aggregate of 464 runs as India squared the series.
But come 2004 and his ODI form began to look patchy. He hit only two fifties on the tours of Australia and Pakistan, while he hit two more fifties throughout the year. However, when it came to Tests, he had one of his best years. In the first Test against Pakistan at Multan, he hit a stunning 309 which came off only 375 balls, taking full advantage of a placid wicket and a mediocre Pakistan bowling attack. Yet, credit cannot be taken away from him as his hitting demoralized the bowlers so much that it was considered lucky for them that they could pick his wicket finally, after he edged the ball to the slip cordon. He broke the record of the highest score by an Indian in Test cricket, that of VVS Laxman’s 281 against Australia in Kolkata in 2001. The knock proved to be crucial for India winning the Test series eventually, although the following innings saw him score only 129 runs.
India’s next Test assignment was the big one, playing Australia at home. The team’s morale was at an all-time low following a disastrous ICC Champions Trophy in England but Sehwag again came to the rescue in the second Test at Chennai where he hit a fine 155 in the first innings, with this being even better than his 195 considering the quality of the Australian bowling and the pitch deteriorating as the game goes on. Even the legendary Shane Warne was left spellbound with his counterattack, until he was finally able to dismiss him. The ton gave India a genuine chance to win the Test match, but rain played Judas to their plans on the final day and the match ended in a draw. He ended with 299 runs on aggregate in the series, which was the highest by any Indian batsman because the series was lost 1-2.
But against South Africa, Sehwag was brimming with confidence in his 164 in the first Test at Kanpur which was his third Test century of the year, and all three were scores above 150. Now, he has a world record of the only player to score 11 consecutive hundreds above the score of 150 and has 14 of them in total. He seemed to finally enjoy playing Test cricket and this 164 was the innings which laid the foundations of his success in the longer format of the game rather than the shorter ones. A testimony of his new-found large scoring appetite in Test cricket was the two centuries in the following home series against Pakistan, with one being 173 at Mohali which was another draw and a blazing 262-ball 201 in the final Test in Bangalore which was again a one man effort as India’s batting struggled yet again and the series was squared 1-1 ultimately.
Sehwag’s stupendous performances in Tests earned him a place in the ICC World XI to play Australia in Sydney in October 2005 as well as a nomination of the ICC Test player of the Year, an award which he would eventually go on to win in 2010. He was also the Indian captain for the first time in his career, in the final Test at Ahmedabad against Sri Lanka in December 2005 standing in for Rahul Dravid. India won the Test to take the series 2-0. It was a morale booster for the tour of Pakistan which was up next, and in the first Test at Lahore, he put up 410 for the opening wicket with Dravid with his score being a mammoth 254 off just 247 balls.
But Sehwag’s bête noire has always been inconsistency irrespective of any form of the game and consequently he failed to make a big impact for the rest of the series as Pakistan went on to win 1-0, and it also began a lean patch for the Indian team in 2006 with Sehwag going out of form. In the ODIs, he was able to get starts but not convert it into big scores. He scored only five fifties in the calendar year and following a disastrous tour of South Africa and the World Cup 2007 where despite hitting the only century by an Indian which was against Bermuda, he was dropped from the team.
The Indian selectors realized though that form is temporary and class is permanent. Sehwag worked on his flaws to become a batsman with controlled aggression rather than a reckless slogger. He was a part of the side that won the World T-20 in 2007, and after India’s win in the 2011 World Cup, he has the rare feat of being involved in victories of World Cups in both formats of the game.
However, his comeback to form was in Australia again, a place which can either get the best or the worst of a player to the fore. Anil Kumble, the then Test captain forced the selectors pick Sehwag in the final 15 of the squad as he believed that he had the aggression to unsettle the Aussies. When he returned into the Test team for the Perth Test, he did not hit a fifty in either innings but was instrumental in giving the team a good start which eventually helped the rest of the batsmen and won India the game. Come the final Test at Adelaide and he hit 214 runs in two innings which resulted in Australia having to settle for a stalemate despite outscoring India by a slight margin in the first innings. The sight of Sehwag wearing the handkerchief and raising his bat looking upwards in relief after getting his ton was as if a devotee was thanking God for what he has given him in life.
He had a poor ODI series in Australia where he was back opening the batting with Tendulkar, following Ganguly’s surprise omission from the side. But it was not talked about much following his ravishing 319 against South Africa in Chennai, again in the first Test of a series. He broke his own record and scored his second triple hundred in Test cricket, being only the third player to do so after batting legends, Sir Don Bradman and Brian Lara. Chris Gayle entered the list in 2010. He could have scored his third triple ton against Sri Lanka in December 2009, but missed out by 7 runs in the Mumbai Test.
But his 319 was far more exciting and skillful than his 309 considering the quality of South Africa’s bowling department and the strike rate being above 100! It went to show that no opposition had actually found a way to curb Sehwag’s maniac run scoring in the last seven years, and has not till date. It was a tribute to his ability to think differently and wonderful placement of each shot rather than timing, showing that in Test cricket, it is the head which has to rule over the heart.
After the Tests, it was time for the IPL and Sehwag was named captain of his home franchise, Delhi Daredevils. He led the team with much success in 2008 and 2009 as they reached the semifinals in both the seasons, with Sehwag heavily scoring in the format which suits his batting the most, T-20s. He resigned as captain in 2010 but returned to the throne in 2011 and played of the finest innings in the tournament even as his team finished as the wooden-spooners. However, the IPL has been blamed for his dip in form recently and has been injured due to it in 2009 which eventually was detrimental with India not being able to defend the World T-20 title in England and in 2010 as well where India failed in the tournament in the Caribbean.
However, post IPL 2008 saw Sehwag’s Test and ODI run aggregates go on an upward curve. He scored 201 not out on a spinning track at Galle with Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan to contend with. The rest struggled and he yet again saved India’s face turning a lost game into victory, although India were defeated 1-2 in the 3 match series. While prior to that, in the Asia Cup in Pakistan, Sehwag was the highest run getter in the tournament as he hit 358 runs in 5 matches with an average of above 70 as India reached the finals atleast.
While in the home series against England, he hammered four fifties in five ODIs as India whitewashed the visitors. And in the first Test at Chennai, India were left to chase a daunting 387 in the fourth innings by England to win the Test. Sehwag was the man responsible for catching Kevin Pietersen and co. off guard with his 68-ball 83 as he set up the platform for a successful run chase as Tendulkar the centurion, himself believed that it was more of Sehwag’s effort rather than his which won India the game. India went to win the series 1-0 ending 2008 in style.
2009 began for India in Sri Lanka where Sehwag hit the first of his three outstanding one-day hundreds of the year. It was a match-winning 90-ball 116 against the hosts in Colombo. His second came against New Zealand in Hamilton where he reached his hundred in just 69 balls and this is a record for being in the top 10 fastest ODI centuries ever. He made maximum use of the small sized Hamilton ground and the Kiwi bowlers were pounded, reminiscent of his efforts in 2002. He was unbeaten on 125 in the end, as India won by 84 runs to go 3-0 up in the series. While his third was also against Sri Lanka but in a home ODI at Rajkot where his 102-ball 146 took India to a massive score of 414, and that innings was extremely instrumental in India winning since Sri Lanka scored 411 in their 50 overs.
Coming to Tests in 2009, India did not play in many of them but Sehwag made the most of it in the home series against Sri Lanka, where he hit two centuries in consecutive innings. His 131 at Kanpur and another magnum opus 293 at Mumbai resulted in India winning both the Tests and Sehwag gaining one more record to his name, as he scored the highest number of runs in one day of a Test match with 284 runs. The end of the series saw India becoming the World No.1 Test team, a reign which lasted for 18 months as he formed one of the finest opening partnerships in Test cricket in the modern era, with his Delhi teammate and childhood acquaintance Gautam Gambhir.
2010 did not begin that well for Sehwag for he was criticized for speaking his mind, especially in Bangladesh for stating that Bangladesh’s bowling attack did not have the capability to pick 20 wickets against India in a Test match. Well, Bangladesh almost upset India in the first Test but fortunately India were more than skilled enough to win both the Tests of the series. One of the regrets he would have is not getting a Test hundred in Bangladesh till date.
However, in the marquee home series against South Africa he began well with a 109 at Nagpur but faced the wrath of many of playing a reckless shot to lose his wicket like in the old times, but that is how Sehwag plays and Indian fans have to understand the beauty of his batting. But his 165 in Kolkata in ideal batting conditions won India the Test match to square the series 1-1 and avoiding a humiliating home series defeat.
What followed was a heap of runs in Sri Lanka and at home against New Zealand, where he added three more tons to his current tally of 22 Test tons. The Sri Lanka series was drawn while India beat New Zealand at home. But that was the last of Sehwag’s success in Tests with his poor form beginning on the tour of South Africa in December 2010 and carrying forward in England and Australia as 2011 was one of his worst years in Test cricket.
While in ODIs, Sehwag had a tremendous World Cup 2011 with his 175 against Bangladesh setting the tone for a cracking tournament, especially for India who would go on to win it. His 380 runs made sure that he was amongst the highest run getters of the tournament. He was injured for the rest of the year courtesy the IPL but ended it in style with a world record 219 against West Indies.
He has over 8000 runs now in both formats of the game with a strike rate of 81 in the Tests and 104.62 in ODIs, just behind Shahid Afridi! He desires to play 100 Tests and bat in the middle order in the future. However, Sehwag should look to play as much as possible and as an opener since the world knows him to have revolutionized the game in this batting position.
May the ‘Upar Cuts’ flow from Sehwag’s bat for as long as his reflexes remain quick!