All method, no madness (Sports Illustrated India)

Original draft of article published in Sports Illustrated India, January 2010 issue

A disarming, open, friendly and you could even say innocent expression has accompanied some of the most incredulous and succinct responses from the man. “I just tried to hit the bad balls” he said to the interviewer, in that polite and charming manner he has always had, when queried about his exploits on the day. And the smiles burst out on the tired faces of millions who had watched in slack-jawed awe as Virender Sehwag pulverized the Sri Lankan bowling on December 3, 2009, smashing an incredible 284 runs in a single day at the intimate confines of the Brabourne (CCI) Stadium, Mumbai. Friendly and innocent were certainly not the words on the minds of the Sri Lankan bowlers that day: offensive and devious would have been apt from their viewpoint, as they trudged off to the ice-baths, pondering the very meaning of their existence as cricketers on that fateful day.

So, once again, the world of cricket is left to fumble around trying to find the right words in the face of a Virender Sehwag epic. Never having come to grips with having to mention his name in the same breath as Sir Donald Bradman’s in recent years – while nitpicking over the list of flaws in his batting technique – silenced we stand. As we collectively stumble around trying to comprehend the extents and limits of the abilities of this marauding mayhem artiste, he has simply gone about his business, this time coming within a whisker of going past the Don and Brian Lara as the only batsman to score three triple hundreds in the history of Test cricket.

Multan, 2004 was an anomaly; it may have been construed. Chennai, 2008 surely provided food for thought and an opportunity to indulge in some navel gazing. Mumbai has now veritably let the cat out amongst the pigeons. But the cat has long since mauled all the pigeons in the coop. Is it really true that we needed additional reassurance that the devastations he unleashed repeatedly in the years preceding it were not mere blips but true signals of the evidence of genius? Genius of an unconventional sort, yes, but isn’t it time to cast aside our doubts and accept the simple fact that we have been graced with something extraordinarily special in the last decade? No epiphany or momentous realization is necessary to solve the enigma of this seemingly most paradoxical batsman of our age. But then, our rules for acceptance have been of the well-heeled inured type, leading to consternation and internal agony regarding the finality of accepting him into the pantheon. Till his next reminder, and off we go again, agonizing.

That he possesses all the shots in the book (and god knows how many more in that other book only he is privy to) has been evident from his debut in Bloemfontein, 2001 (He scored a hundred, mind you). Perusing the spokes of the wagon-wheel of any Sehwag innings reveals a very democratic distribution of strokes all around the wicket. While the wagon-wheel cannot capture the audacity of execution that invariably accompanied them, the entire expanse of the turf is his domain as his strokes seek out every blade of grass to singe. His successes have been distributed equally democratically from a geographical standpoint with half of his centuries being scored on tours, New Zealand being the only blot. Averaging 49.12 abroad compared to 56.17 at home, he can in no way be construed as a bully at home and a meek bystander in away conditions. And in matches India prevail in, his average rockets up to 60. So, 6000 runs, 17 centuries, an average of 52.50 and an absolutely incredible and eye-popping strike rate of 80 all along: which piece of the picture that would reassure us is he missing now?

Acceptance as a true great in cricket has always placed emphasis on classicism of technique and yes, he tends to confound in this regard. Shots a Vivian Richards or Sachin Tendulkar would have executed with a surety manifested in their feet movement flow from Sehwag from a statuesque and static position. Ungainly and abrupt in comparison he can be evaluated as, but the stark and visceral beauty of the swing of his scimitar-like bat has captivated even the purists of the game, even if morbidly so. His artiste-supreme teammate V.V.S Laxman may have reduced us to speechless wonder with his ability to play the same ball to four different parts of the field with his supple wrist movements. But Sehwag can play it to six more spots potentially, as Muthiah Muralitharan would have admitted ruefully on December 3, 2009 as Sehwag went about his massacre, nonchalantly foiling all attempts at setting a field for him.” He almost manipulates the field. You change it, and it’s like he says: ‘Right, I’m going to hit it somewhere else now’” said Andrew Strauss after a typical Sehwag blitz.

In contrast to the scrutiny his footwork and hand-eye coordination elicit, nary a fraction of that has been spent in analyzing a salient aspect of his technique: his exceptional balance. Not many batsmen in world cricket in the last decade have bettered him here and therein lies one clue to the method behind the mayhem he unleashes. He waits motionless with a Zen monk’s calm on his face behind the visor, till the body is triggered into the execution of the shot, usually one that his brain has computed in complete contradiction to what the bowler expects him to execute. But the stillness of his head and the minimalistic preciseness of his body movements are evident ball after ball, inning after inning. A Shaolin monk packing a samurai sword he personifies.

Ian Healy once spoke intriguingly about the bubble of silence that surrounds Sachin Tendulkar batting at the crease, referring to the lightness of Tendulkar’s footwork and the quietness of his movements. Sehwag has absorbed well from his idol and exhibits a similar litheness in his movements, albeit minimalistic in his case compared to the master. For a man of noticeably more bulk than his mentor, his decisiveness in positioning himself is exceptional. Never does he seem out of place. While one may retort that he just lets the place come to him, it is palpably evident that there is no shuffling of the feet, being out of position, getting into a tangle or falling over to one side when it comes to Sehwag.

As he sets the game alight with his destructive hitting, another aspect of his batting routinely escapes scrutiny: his immaculate and classical defensive technique. When he utilizes it, and he does routinely, it is a revelation in its textbook-style execution with every body part in perfect position. It startles, especially when it makes its appearance a ball after an agrarian swipe that would have blasted the ball out of shape. This duality of mayhem and classicism can be studied in most of his astonishing innings, with a closer look at the deliveries not smacked away towards the boundary. Almost all of them are usually essayed with classical perfection, all the unorthodoxy being reserved for the belligerent hitting sprinkled in between.

But surely, a singular aspect of his batting when he is on song has been the meditative calm with which he cleanses his mind of the ball just past and awaits the immediate future with a clarity that belies logic. “I sing bhajans (hymns) and songs to myself to clear my mind” he explains. So, was it “Hum ko man ki shakti dena…” that begat that rocket that almost decapitated the fielder at extra-cover, we wonder. More Metallica and Nine Inch Nails in his execution, the fact that he was probably inspired by a Sai bhajan packs a delicious irony into the proceedings that never fails to captivate. An unforgettable image from earlier in the year occurred during the IPL. As he trotted to the non-striker’s end, completing a three after pelting a ball from outside leg stump over extra cover, he could be seen skipping to the beat, head bobbing, mouthing the words to “It’s the time to disco…” blaring from the stands. The umpire was spotted trying to suppress his smile. Unsuccessfully.

But there was a period when it wasn’t all disco and the clarity and absence of clutter in the mind deserted him. We now know that it was not coincidental that this occurred during the reign of Greg Chappell as the coach of the Indian team. It was also the time when his body turned positively portly and rotund. One post-marriage jalebi and rasgulla too many, we had fumed. He cut a forlorn figure those days, especially during a disastrous tour of South Africa. And justly, he was banished for all of 2007, his annus horribilis, with the writ to get back into shape and cleanse his mind of the all the baggage, clutter and knick-knacks that accumulated during Chappell’s stint. John Wright before Guru Greg had balanced his intrusion into Sehwag’s mindspace adroitly and it wasn’t until the arrival of Gary Kirsten that the calmness of mind returned. And the results were there to see, starting with the two most un-Sehwag-like innings at Perth and Adelaide in 2008. “I had never been so mentally drained from concentrating” he was to say after those knocks had reinstated him back at the top of the order. The collective sigh of relief of cricket fans in India was surely audible Down Under.

Sehwag is 31 now, and is about to venture into the latter half of what is considered a batsman’s prime – the 30 to 33 years. Then come the years of declining physical prowess – eyesight being the forerunner, if other injuries brought on by the wear and tear of relentless international cricket don’t pip it at the post. How he adapts and adjusts to the inevitability of nature’s demands on his body will dictate his travails during this time. In his case, they may prove to be a bigger challenge, given the unconventional nature of the mechanics of his batting technique. But as a man acutely aware and knowledgeable about his game and his own limitations, he will probably work out the adjustments he needs to make to the vagaries of age. But before that, we can be assured that there will be other occasions when he will present us with memorable assaults like he did in Mumbai in December.

Only the deluded and the foolhardy can continue to agonize over expressing themselves appropriately in the face of it when that happens.

As for the rest, we can just buckle up for the ride.

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