Virender Sehwag - for the muddle in the middle?
There was a time, not so long ago in the lives of us cricket people, that this was India's top six in a Test match- Sehwag, Gambhir, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman. In Mohali next week only one of these gents will front up to Michael Clarke's Australians. That he was the first among them to debut is staggering, but then all things Tendulkar usually are.
Three of these decorated six have traded the whites for crispy suits and sit comfortably perched in the commentary box these days. One traverses between Twitter accounts while finding phrases not too dissimilar to the ungainly pokes that cost him his Test spot. And the last of those, first in the batting order, has just been cast aside from the third Indian team in a quarter of a year.
Serendipity is one of my favourite words: A fortunate accident. Virender Sehwag as India's Test opener was certainly one. Sehwag was a robust talent Indian cricket couldn't stop talking about. He had caught the keen eye of Sourav Ganguly and muscled his way into reckoning.
The story has been told. Unable to fit him into a middle order bulging with quality, Ganguly dangled a carrot. Confront the new ball and play for India. Sehwag was reluctant and legend is asked an insistent Ganguly straight-faced; "If it doesn't make that much of a difference, why any of you senior guys haven't given it a go?" But this wasn't about winning an argument so Sehwag sought an assurance. "If I fail", he is said to have told his skipper, "Promise me I won't be forgotten. When a spot opens up, you will find me a place in the middle order".
So ignoring advice from VVS Laxman, who had attempted and failed in a similar quest not long before, Sehwag embarked into the unknown. Indian cricket had witnessed an assembly line of openers- regular and non-regular- fall off the map: Hemang Badani, S S Das, Deep Dasgupta, Sadagoppan Ramesh- an endless supply line of footnotes. Yet Sehwag took the plunge. A decade and a bit later he opens the batting with Sunil Gavaskar on most Indian Test dream XIs that cricket nuts pontificate about in their spare time.
A place in history is secure but one in India's playing eleven has just been snatched away. Sehwag will concede he had become an undeserving occupant of that position. Since January of 2011, he had made less than 1000 runs, averaged less than 30 and made all of one century in 18 Tests. It had been five years since he made a century outside Asia. On a slippery slope he just kept sliding downwards till the cesspit arrived and he fell in.
Now this bespectacled colossus is a subject of derision and brutal comedy. His future is a dinner table conversation and a raging debate on social media. It is argued with varying degrees of subtlety that he is old, slow, careless, lazy and under-committed. Perhaps shades of truth lurk from each of these explanations, but has a full-stop already come upon this illustrious career?
It is grotesquely evident that exposing Sehwag to the new red ball is no longer sensible. He is consumed too often by an ungainly stroke or a snorter and appears to have been abandoned by cricket's divinity. Look closely at a couple of his dismissals in the Tests against Australia. The ball bizarrely landing on top of the stumps in the first innings at Chennai after a forward prod off Pattinson. In Hyderabad, Siddle producing the only unplayable delivery of the innings before Vijay and Pujara began their epic stand.
But the excuses have run out and Sehwag isn't in the habit of making those anyway. Indian cricket now has to move forward and target its next spate of challenges. Once these abysmal Australians are cast aside, a lengthy period on the road beckons. Tattered reputations need mending. Do these men form a unit of worthy competitors beyond these shores too? Over eight Test matches in England and then Australia, defeats came with such savagery it shook the faith of India's staunchest supporters. The opportunity to restore their confidence starts in November.
Sehwag can play a role yet in that attempt. His formative years in the game were spent in the middle order, waiting patiently for an opportunity to plunder attacks. He has often publicly spoken of a desire to head back into familiar terrain if the chance becomes available. That time is now.
In South Africa, only two spots between three and six have certain claimants: Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli. There is no certainty yet on whether Tendulkar believes his 40 year old body can go into combat against the world's top ranked team. Dhoni is unlikely to trust himself at six given his mediocre record outside Asia.For all his critic shutting-up efforts in recent skirmishes, the thought of Ravindra Jadeja in the top six isn't too comforting. The likes of Rohit Sharma, Manoj Tiwary, Ajinkya Rahane and several others are contenders yes, but none can be pencilled in for sure.
That leaves Sehwag; an experienced hand in the midst of these untested tyros. In a team that can no longer call turn to Laxman and Dravid to stage rescue acts, is uncertain of Tendulkar's thought-process on the home stretch of his career and can rely on feisty press conferences but not feisty runs from Gambhir, Sehwag could be a considered punt. Against the new ball he will almost certainly falter, but with runs on the board and some breathing space in the dressing room he may yet flower. He may yet tackle a tiring attack against the older ball with aplomb. He may yet plunder the spinner for a few big ones. He may yet.
The shape and form of India's top order on these upcoming trips to South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia will be distinctly untested: Two among Vijay, Rahane and Dhawan might open. Pujara and Kohli, who have just crossed the 1000 run landmark in Tests,will be expected to carry the bulk of the run scoring burden. Introduce Sehwag in that line-up to either build on their work or rescue a tottering innings and there is an air of solidity to it. If Sehwag finds his shot-making mojo with Dhoni to follow at seven, India could build totals that allow its bowling unit to play with runs in the bank.
Admittedly, there are more than a few 'ifs' and 'buts' while making the case for Sehwag to find a middle order spot in India's Test XI. But Indian cricket will do well to remember he is a jewel. In 2007, Sehwag was recalled for the series in Australia as no more than a punt. His domestic numbers since being axed were unimpressive and India had played ten Tests without him. He was in fact left out of the eleven for the first two Tests only returning to the mix in January 2008 at Perth. Sehwag has since made 11 centuries in 52 Tests at an average of nearly 50. His efforts have included a triple ton and near triple ton. Had conventional logic been applied, Sehwag should have never been recalled and may have finished with an acceptable not stunning career. Thankfully, it wasn't and Indian cricket has savoured the fruits of that gamble.
So invest in him this one last time. Don't consign him to the dream XIs yet. As has been suggested, if playing county cricket in the English summer is a gauge, ensure a deal comes through. If the selectors believe he must endure the drudgery of an 'A' tour to South Africa after the IPL, so be it. Virender Sehwag will go down in history as one of India's greatest Test openers. He might still have a chance at being a darn good middle order batsman. Sit down with the man and do the best you can to squeeze the last ounce Indian cricket can get out of him. He is too precious to simply let go.