Virender Sehwag, the sprinter with a marathon runner's stamina
Virender Sehwag in his pomp was as natural as they come, the most uncomplicated of ball-strikers. While others swore by notions like 'giving the first session to the bowler', Sehwag did what his eyes told him to.
More than six months after he last wore the India cap and just 24 days before his 35th birthday, Virender Sehwag took the first step on what he hopes will be the road back to the national side. He wasn't tentative either, smashing nine fours and a six in a 38-ball 59 for Delhi against India Blue in the Challenger Trophy. With most attention on the Champions League Twenty20, and quite a few eyes on India A's four-day match against West Indies A, it wasn't a performance to grab the back-page lead. It was a reminder, however, of how quickly we forget.
Three years ago, the Wisden Almanack named Sehwag Leading Cricketer in the World for the second year running. "Sehwag has to be first on the team-sheet to represent the World, whatever the game's format," wrote Scyld Berry, the Almanack editor at the time. "He would take on the Martians, however hostile and alien their attack, disrupting their lines and wavelengths; and, if he succeeded, as he normally does, he would make life so much easier for those who followed."
It wasn't the Challenger game that made me think of Sehwag though. It was a fascinating ABC interview with Arthur Morris, now 91, and a member of Sir Donald Bradman's 1948 Invincibles. If you can spare the time, make sure you listen to it. Unlike many modern-day player interactions centered on cliches, platitudes and plugs for sponsors, this is an interview of genuine substance, with an all-time great unafraid to speak his mind.
It was what Morris said about coaching that made me think of Sehwag, who once had his foot tethered to the net in a bid to restrain his instincts. "If you see kids with a lot of ability, don't coach them," said Morris. "Let them develop their own cricket, because they will learn to bat by watching better players play. Bradman, McCabe, Trumper had no coaches."
Sehwag in his pomp was as natural as they come, the most uncomplicated of ball-strikers. While others swore by notions like 'giving the first session to the bowler', Sehwag did what his eyes told him to. If there was a poor delivery to put away, he did that. It didn't matter whether it was the first ball of a session or the last. Everyone speaks of 'playing a ball on its merits'. Few ever do. Most batsmen play the situation. Sehwag could do that, but he invariably played the ball as well. It didn't matter if it was Dale Steyn running in, or the pitch a green top. If he felt the ball deserved a wallop, he tried to give it one.
That he succeeded so spectacularly, and for so long, is incredible when you think of how far he was from the notions we have of opening batsmen. "Feet are the most important thing in batsmanship," said Morris in the interview. "It goes for everything - football, boxing. If your feet are in the right spot, you're a good player."
How do you explain Sehwag then? More often than not, he didn't care to move his feet. He regularly reached for deliveries a foot away, and the ball routinely disappeared into a gap off the sweet spot. Great hand-eye coordination, said the experts. Exceptional balance and stillness, said others. Nureyev he most certainly wasn't.
But there was something else, another factor that made him so exceptional. At his best, Sehwag didn't just score faster than anyone before or since. He constructed monumental innings. Of his 23 centuries, 14 were scores in excess of 150. He went past 250 four times and 300 twice. He was the sprinter with the marathon runner's stamina.
He may have gained weight, become lazy and a touch complacent as the years passed, but the last few chapters don't mean that whatever went before should be ignored. He has 8,586 runs from 104 Tests, with centuries in seven different countries. He scored his runs at 82.23 every hundred balls, a strike-rate 20 better than Chris Gayle. I'm sorry, but flat-track bullies just don't do that. They can't.
I spoke to him just once, on the tour of Pakistan in 2004. He had made his first triple-century in Multan, and the answers were as crash-bang as the innings he had played. One thing stuck in the mind though. He spoke of how he was able to focus purely on the here and now, and forget all that had gone before.
It was enough to make me think of another batting genius. In an interview with The Guardian in 2002, Sir Garfield Sobers had this to say: "Concentration's like a shower. You don't turn it on until you want to bathe. That was cricket for me. You don't walk out the shower leaving it running. You turn it off, you turn it on.
"On the cricket field you have to have a concentration that you can rely on to take you beyond the average man. You cannot waste those levels of concentration. It has to be fresh and ready when you need it."
Sehwag understood that better than anyone. While some fretted over whether the bat was coming down from third man or first slip, and others obsessed over the bottom hand clutching the bat too tight, Sehwag only had eyes for the next ball. Most often, he hit it.
In that Almanack essay, Berry wrote: "One definition of genius is doing what nobody else can: and in 2009 Sehwag batted like nobody else has ever done for any length of time. Sehwag learned to bat on a driveway of smooth concrete beside his house on the outskirts of Delhi, with a younger brother and neighbours to bowl taped tennis balls quickly. If he had an identical twin, who batted at the same rate as Viru in 2009, India would score 600 in a day of 90 overs."
Those days are long gone. A comeback is highly improbable, if not impossible. But I defy you to look back over the past two decades and find five other cricketers who made watching the game such a joyful, visceral experience. He was the whirling dervish of cricket entertainers, who scaled run-scoring peaks that have eluded some of the most illustrious names in the game. Enjoy that as he rages against the dying light.