Monty Noble, who captained Australia in 15 Tests in the first decade of the 20th century, once said of Victor Trumper, his schoolmate and then comrade in baggy green, that he would politely listen to advice and then go “his own sweet way”. A 100 years on, it’s a sentiment that resonates with Virender Sehwag, one of the most unlikely members of the 100-Test club.
It’s not that Sehwag doesn’t listen. It’s just that he knows what’s best for him. “My funda is very simple,” he said in an interview seven years ago. “Your natural game will take you places as long as you know how to make best of it.”
His childhood coach tried tying Sehwag’s leg to the nets, but Sehwag could never be fettered. In India, where he thrives, or in South Africa, where he has often struggled, he fronts up to the bowlers the same way. When he succeeds, there are seldom animated fist-pumps or gestures to the press box. When he fails, he tucks the bat under arm and walks off.
Think of the great batsmen to have triple-hundreds. Many of them were wonderful technicians, masters at wearing down a bowling attack. Yet, look at the openers who have made 300 more than once. Sehwag and Chris Gayle are purveyors of aggression, not attrition. Not for them wearing down the opposition drip-drip-drip.
In that same interview, I asked Sehwag what his dream match scenario would be. He didn’t particularly care who was bowling. “But I would like to have Sachin [Tendulkar] at other end, and me scoring a hundred,” he said with a laugh. “It’s my dream match. I will score runs and he has to watch.”
Many have come into the team as prodigies and fallen away. Sehwag’s route was very different. “To be honest, I never thought of making it big in international cricket,” he said. “In fact, I didn’t score a hundred as an Under-19 cricketer. I used to think that if I am not good enough to get hundred at this level, how will I succeed at a higher one? But on my Ranji Trophy debut, I got a hundred and then everything happened so fast that I didn’t have time to think about all these things.”
Sehwag also became an opener because of circumstances. With some of the greatest players that India has produced firmly ensconced in the middle order, there was no room for him. On a tour of Sri Lanka in 2001, John Wright and Sourav Ganguly suggested that he open the batting in One-Day Internationals. He responded with a 69-ball hundred. A year later, he was asked to open in whites on a tour of England. He made a century at Trent Bridge.
That innings changed his life. On the eve of this Test, MS Dhoni said as much. “The crucial decision of his career was when he decided that he would open the innings,” said Dhoni. “It was big challenge for him and he accepted it. He is someone who is very different for everyone else, who can play his shots from the very first delivery. He looks to put pressure on the bowler, and it becomes difficult for them to get back into the game.”
For his critics, the Sehwag way is daft. But an average approaching 51 after 99 Tests – he has one more century than Geoff Boycott – doesn’t leave much room for argument. On pitches where others struggle to score at three an over, he has routinely careered along at a run a ball. And as at Chennai in 2008, when India famously chased down 387 against England, a Sehwag blitz has the same effect on the opposition as a sledgehammer to the jaw.
“To play a 100th Test match, you’ve got to have a lot of things going for you besides having natural talent and being a very, very good player,” said Shane Warne with reference to Sehwag’s milestone. “You’ve got to have commitment, you’ve got to have dedication and make sacrifices.
“Viru is probably the most dangerous batsman in the world along with Kevin Pietersen. No one likes bowling to him. I know lot of people doubted him when he first came into the side. He’s been going through a bit of a form slump and it’s great to see him back, smashing the attack as he does. He’s great to watch.” Praise from one great entertainer for another.
After 95 Tests taking on the hard new ball, Sehwag has more than 8000 runs. For someone who scored that hundred on debut at Bloemfontein and those thrilling centuries at Trent Bridge and the MCG, his overseas record is nowhere near as good as it ought to have been. But some of the flat-track-bully criticism is beyond moronic. Batting in subcontinent conditions isn’t easy. It’s a different sort of challenge. There’s only one man with a 278-ball triple. And he’ll continue to do things his own sweet way, regardless of what you or I think.