Milburn, and the batsman Sehwag should have been

What does such a what-might-have-been story have to do with Sehwag, who has scored more than 8,500 Test runs and 23 centuries, who was twice named Wisden's Leading Cricketer in the World? Apart from both being opening batsmen, not a lot, you'd think.

Updated: March 21, 2013 14:10 IST
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"X is an even-tempered and modest personality. He is not confused or bothered by theory, which is perhaps the basic reason for his continued success.

'I just try and hit the ball' is his over-simplified explanation of his technique. 'It is my way of playing the game and I want it to stay that way'. Words to shock and offend many a coach, but it is the essential X, a pearl of great price in modern cricket. Few have been blessed with his genius for attack; fewer still with the nerve to go through with it come triumph or failure."

Read that passage once, and maybe a second time. Who does it bring to mind? If you're still not certain, here's a second opinion about the same player.

"Yet I don't think there was anything essentially unconventional about his batting... The difference between him and everyone else was that he would hit a 50-50 ball that anyone else would leave or block, and hit it with immense force."

The average Indian cricket follower would summon up just one name. But no, we're not talking about Virender Sehwag. The first passage appeared in the Wisden Almanack in 1967, more than a decade before he was born. The second extract is from Matthew Engel's must-read essay, first published in 1984. Colin Milburn dropped dead six years later.

He was five months short of his 28th birthday when he lost his left eye in a car crash. In his nine Tests, he scored two centuries. The 126 not out at Lord's spanned just 170 balls, and came against an attack of Hall, Griffith, Sobers and Gibbs. Three years later, he smashed a 163-ball hundred at the fortress that was the National Stadium in Karachi. "He was nearing his peak when his injury removed him from the scene he had illuminated during a period of depressing mediocrity," says the Almanack.

What does such a what-might-have-been story have to do with Sehwag, who has scored more than 8,500 Test runs and 23 centuries, who was twice named Wisden's Leading Cricketer in the World? Apart from both being opening batsmen, not a lot, you'd think. But if you scratch the surface, to look beyond the incredible strike-rate (82.23) and the two triple-hundreds, it's easy to understand why a candid assessment of Sehwag's career comes with the dark shadow of unfulfillment.

If you're one of those cricket tragics prone to hunting down old video clips, search out footage of his debut hundred at Bloemfontein. Watch the two strokes off Shaun Pollock and Lance Klusener that take him to his century. Two back-foot cover-drives, played with the same impeccable balance and piston-timing as his idol, Sachin Tendulkar. That was the batsman Sehwag promised to be.

Of those 23 hundreds, as many as 18 have come in Asia. When people, including Rahul Dravid a day or so ago, question whether Sehwag should be opening for India in South Africa at the end of this year, they're not having a cheap shot when a man's down. It's a legitimate concern, based on more than a decade of wretched underachievement.

India's next three tours are to South Africa, New Zealand and England. In 19 Tests in those three countries, Sehwag has two hundreds – Bloemfontein and Trent Bridge 2002, a lifetime ago. He averages 27.8 in England, 20 in New Zealand and 25.46 in South Africa. If the selectors did pick him, it would be an extraordinary leap of faith.

Had he been just another batsman, the discrepancy between Sehwag's numbers in familiar conditions and elsewhere wouldn't have been so jarring. But talk to anyone who knows something about the game, and they'll tell you about his stillness at the crease, hand-eye coordination and bat-speed that compensate for less than nimble footwork.

When Greg Chappell took charge as India's coach in June 2005, he spoke of how excited he was at the prospect of working with Sehwag. "With such players, there's very little you want to change," he said. Yet, by the end of his tenure, Chappell had more or less given up on him. Those that were there still recall his disgust in Cape Town, when Sehwag batted at No. 7 in the first innings.

Paul Harris had got turn and appreciable bounce from outside leg stump to dismiss Tendulkar, but Ganguly and Sehwag batted beautifully to take India to 395 for 5. Instead of a 500-plus total though, they finished with 414. The trigger for the collapse? Sehwag slogging one against the turn, with the top edge sailing to the man in the deep.

Last year, Chappell wrote in his column for The Hindu: "To say that Viru was one of the great frustrations of my time with the team is an understatement." It spoke of his lackadaisical approach to training, and a marked reluctance to do more than the bare minimum. Chappell can be criticised for not being able to handle certain personalities better, but you can hardly blame him for wanting more of his wards to be like Dravid, whose commitment and work ethic were exceptional even during the worst of times.

When you celebrate Dravid's batsmanship, you tend to recall epics like the Kolkata 180, the Adelaide 233 or even the manner in which he carried his bat at The Oval in 2011. But the true measure of his greatness was seen at Perth in 2008, during what was inarguably the worst phase of his career. He batted nearly five hours, and 183 balls, for 93. At times, he seemed to be playing from memory, dredging up snippets of the batsman he used to be. It was often ugly and painful to watch. But his struggle, on one of the fastest surfaces in the world and against a four-pronged pace attack, gave India the platform from which to push for victory.

That refusal to give it away was the most admirable thing about Dravid. Tendulkar and other greats also reinvented themselves along the way, often shelving risky strokes and fighting the urge to dominate. It was a kind of humility that paid great dividends. There were no this-is-how-I-usually-play excuses.

Sehwag, whose last innings of substance away from Asia came in Adelaide half a decade ago, has carried on regardless, to the extent that his place in the team is far from assured. Maybe the eyes have gone a little, maybe the body is faltering, but it's also hard to escape what Chappell wrote about a man who "wants the prize, but has been unwilling to pay the price".

Milburn's cricket world crashed around him just as it seemed primed for take-off. Fate dealt him a cruel hand. Sehwag once held all the aces, and if his career has now stalled, he has no one to blame but himself.

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