New Delhi: In the annals of cricket – and indeed more so in Indian cricket - the abbreviation BS will come to be identified in much the same way that historians use the epoch BC in dating years prior to the estimated birth of Jesus.
Before Sehwag, successful Test openers were typified by technique and tolerance. Sunil Gavaskar, Graham Gooch, Geoffrey Boycott, even Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, all had technical resonance to their individual games, and their basic recipe for success was the age-old formula of having a solid technique. Even as one-day cricket grew in popularity, Test openers refrained from going at the bowling in the first session of a match. There was the odd exception – Michael Slater, Sanath Jayasuriya, Herschelle Gibbs – but overall Test openers refrained from daredevilry until truly set. And very few were able to impose themselves from the start of a Test.
Then along came Virender Sehwag. The one-day basher. His feet don’t move, they said. He was a Tendulkar clone all right, they said, but he would struggle in Tests. But Sehwag proved his critics wrong. He rewrote the rules about technique, and gave a completely different dimension to the opener’s role in Tests. “Virender destroys all strategies. He brings the excitement and drama from the first ball. If Test cricket is still alive, it is because of players like him,” said Matthew Hayden, the opener with which Sehwag has most often been bracketed.
But Sehwag is different. He combines speed and greed so fluently and consistently that it is scary. His ability to dismantle bowling attacks, to demolish the opposition in such a manner that it undermines the bowler’s ability to due his duty against others, is perhaps unparallel. Sehwag scores big, against the best attacks, regardless of the state of the game. He evokes fear in the other team, and it is no coincidence that he has scored two of the three fastest triple-centuries in Test cricket.
Sehwag backed himself to prove himself while being himself. And he began doing so in England, the country where to survive as an opener you needed to have impeccable footwork, as an opener at Nottingham in 2002. There was no looking back.
Now, ten years on from his Test debut, how do you judge the impact Sehwag has had? The numbers are remarkable: 89 matches, 7735 runs, 22 centuries, 27 half-centuries, and batting average of 52.26. Then there’s the strike-rate: 81.69, which jumps to 82.63 when he opens the batting and makes him the most attacking Test opener in cricket’s history, even with the charitable cut-off of at least 1000 Test runs. As an opener, Sehwag averages more than Sunil Gavasar and 75 per cent of his centuries have been in excess of 150. And unlike several Asian ‘giants’ of this era who heap runs at home, Sehwag averages 47.47 outside India as an opener and nine of his 22 centuries have come overseas.
Probed about his reaction to his effect on the game, Sehwag has always maintained that he has never tampered with his natural game. “My approach has been to look for scoring runs rather than stay put there. If there is a ball to be hit, I hit,” was his most recent assessment. “In Test matches, you get a lot of gaps too. Teams try to attack you with close-in fielders. So, opportunities to score are many. I try to play as many shots as I can. My natural instinct is to look for runs.”
Simple. The ball flies off the middle of his bat to the extra-cover boundary. And it is that natural instinct which has yielded some sensational innings. An audacious 195 on the opening day of the Boxing Day Test in 2003-04, which many critics rate as one of the best innings by an opener in Australia; the first triple-century by an Indian; a supremely-crafted 151 in Adelaide to save a Test; the fastest triple-century in Tests; an unbeaten 201 out of a total of 329 in Galle; an unforgettable cameo to set India on their way to overhauling a target of 387 against England; that 293 against Sri Lanka, a brutal assault that broke several records – the most double-centuries by an Indian, the second-highest number of 250-plus scores, the most runs by an Indian in a day - and gave India the impetus to become the No 1 Test team; a 174-ball 165 against South Africa at Eden Gardens in a match India needed to win to level the series and stay No 1.
These are definitive innings of the past decade, and innings which enhanced India’s reputation. Before Sehwag, Indian cricket had long been searching for an opener of the class of Gavaskar (the list of makeshift and experimental openers during the nineties is too long). Where would Indian cricket be without Sehwag? Would they have reached No 1? Where would the public’s interest have been without him? It is worth thinking.
Sehwag’s hunger for big scores allied with a one-day run rate makes him the most devastative Test cricketer ever, and he is not done. Thank you, Sehwag, for ten unforgettable years.