Robustus maximus: There are players who manufacture gritty knocks on difficult tracks where they graft runs using a muscle-memory tuned technique. Inumerable number of buckets of sweat and runs are filled and a sloth is made to look like a jet plane during their entire stint at the wicket. So much hard work and sweat that you connect these batsman to reverse osmosis water dispensers when they slug it out at the crease. Examples: Rahul Dravid, Cook, Chanderpaul.
A Flashback to Y2K era: A lot of my friends will attest to the fact that I was a terrible cricketer. I mostly used the bat like a farm implement rather than implement a classy cricketing shot. I was an object of frequent ridicule during my playtime with my friends. I had only recently learnt the intricacies of the binary system and it had crept into my batting as well; I either blasted the ball or didn’t. The subtleties of spending some time and piling on the runs was lost on me. Simply put, I was a love child of Shahid Afridi and Sanath Jayasuriya at a time when big hitting at the top order was viewed with more amazement than TED talks on the internet. My coach was very interested in the various geometries of my joints and their ramifications on my technique. He never took lightly to my perceived bad attitude and often chided me for being a bad example to my fellow campmates. Not that they looked up to me, anyway. Most of my innings were lost in a blur and I would return to the pavilion faster than the cooking time of instant noodles. My fondest memories on the cricket field stem from one innings that I championed, winning one match with a stroke filled 40* (12). 8 boundaries stayed hit, 2 of them were edges and I caused a mini hurricane with my batspeed for the other 2 balls at the crease. Apart from this innings which caused delirium in my camp, it was safe to say that I did not create much waves in cricket.
My father was disappointed with my attitude towards cricket. Being an overactive male child, he had resisted calls of my mother to put me in one of those self defence karate classes to channelize my energy. Being a Tamilian in Delhi meant that apart from knowing the mother tongue at home, scoring a centum at mathematics meant that you were true to your roots. Barring Krishnamachari Srikkanth, of course. The smoking, non- template batsman from Tamil Nadu. Sure, he may have done his bit in the one day game but he was a genuine embarrassment to the state in the Test arena. We, of course, consoled ourselves by looking at the good side- his strike rate. We often name dropped him and Viv Richards in the same breath- blasphemy, I know! A player with a test average of under 30 after 40 test matches only hinted at underachievement. With it, began the association of stroke filled batting with Srikkanth. His reputation would go down a notch with his lustful gaze in an ill-advised advertisement around the 2003 World cup. My brief forays in the cricketing field would only bring back these associations to my father.
Sachin Tendulkar was the sole reason why many Indians became fans of cricket. He was regarded as the solo champion of Indian cricket in the 90s- in contrast, his colleagues (Barring Kumble and Srinath) were hallmarks of incompetence. Why, at the prime of Paaji’s popularity, Times of India, India’s most circulated daily, carried a detailed astrological prediction of his injury at the turn of the 21st century. In an ideal world, an astrologer, especially whose name literally translates to a ‘lifeless bootlegger’, would not be accorded even a whiff of attention but since the news dealt with the incapacitation of the master blaster, alarm bells rang in every corner of the country. There was an additional fairytale connotation to this prophecy as the astrologer was a Parsi, a community known for being successful in everything they ventured into, starting from the industrial empire of Tatas to the Television production house of Ronnie Screwvala (Even in the present day, Tokyo Sexwale’s bid for FIFA presidency might count as a triumph of the Zoroastrian philosophy, as far as christening goes). It was a foregone conclusion that India would lose heavily in all matches, come the year 2000 and the ‘Y2K apocalypse’ prognosis had transcended its digital barriers to spread its outreach. Every future match featuring India would qualify as a ‘torture tolerance training’ tool for the army, in the event of personnel getting captured behind enemy lines; a theme gaining relevance in the background of the ongoing Kargil conflict.
Tendulkar’s injury promptly arrived in 2001 and although India had discovered talents like Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan, the heroes of the Champions Trophy 2000, the ODI team’s performance depended heavily on Paaji’s shoulders. Coca Cola cup 2001 featured the unfairly underrated team from New Zealand and a dangerous Sri Lanka, who had become a subcontinent force after their 1996 world cup victory. India, as usual were getting battered in most games and nervously salvaged a few victories against Sri Lanka to stay alive till the final leg of the tourney. As a testament to the vacuum created in the opening position, 4 different combinations were tried out by India in their first 4 matches. An aggressive, bandana wearing hillbilly opener, Amay Khurasia, who suffered from acute leg stump apathy also featured in this Indianized Russian roulette. New Zealand, in particular, were expertly utilizing the seaming conditions to magnify India’s top order struggles. In the 9th match of the tournament they made 264, the highest total of the tournament (excluding the final), which in the era of lax fielding restrictions was also a steep target. Losing hope, I decided to conduct more meaningful business like counting my eyelashes and having a headache for the rest of the day. In the evening as I was just sauntering through different TV channels, Tendulkar was unleashing an array of strokes in one of them. When did Tendulkar come back from his injury? Even more surprising was the fact that it was not a highlights reel but a ball by ball replay of the day’s match. Curiously, this ball-by-ball replay his innings was swifter than any highlights package of “The best of Rahul Dravid’s” innings. To rouse my curiosity further, the television showed no close-ups of the player nor the scorecard, something akin to a bride groom waiting for the veil of suspense to be lifted. My eyes were confronted with a miracle- here was SRT, hitting the ball like he was on some nerve shattering narcotics- or was I on narcotics, dreaming of this scenario all this while? Finally, the screen flashed his name: Virender Sehwag, The Nawab of Najafgadh. Sehwag was successfully mimicking Tendulkar’s stance and also demonstrating the extremities of destruction associated with it. He scored a 100 from 70 balls which resulted in an Indian victory, but yet his century had a more compelling effect in the news. It may not have been as extraordinary as Houdini pulling out an Eiffel Tower from his hat or as groundbreaking as Gandhi buying some salt from the East India company mall, but it still meant that we could wait for an additional Tendulkar to get out before switching off our TV sets in disappointment. However, critics chose to write him off as a copycat who did not have restraint in shot selection or perfection in balance that the master blaster possessed. “He is a flat track bully, a one trick pony” they said. News agencies were so bad at writing him off that they had not even learnt how to write his name correctly. He was called “Shewag” for while, a name that might one day be associated with a rap artist or a colorful item number.
In hindsight, since the careers of explosive subconitinent batsmen like Krishnamachari Srikkanth, and Shahid Afridi have indelible marks of inconsistency which translates to failures in pivotal moments and long term frustration for fans, it seemed wise to treat Sehwag’s innings as a flash in the pan. However, A truly impatient, short-sighted, Indian fan always remembers utterly insignificant moments and elevates even smaller flashes- in- a –larger- pan performances to monumental levels, only to later ruefully extend to unremarkable cricketing careers.
In the next match, Sri Lanka put 295 on the board and Sehwag flags off the chase with a boundary off the first ball he faces. Instantly, Indian spectators pin the quest of victory on the new master blaster, the copycat torch bearer. As with every modern soap opera which features four mother-in-laws and their motherless daughter-in-law, tragedy strikes early. Sehwag is run out. Match over. Time to switch off the TV sets again. This was just another interrupted wet dream.
Utterly failicus: There are batsmen who the snobbish, elite spectators owe their existence to their burgeoning vocabulary and daily bread to. Spectators, who have an entitled overview of things in every sphere, while attaching flowery jargon like sheer magnetism, perfect synergy of poise and movement, nimble footedness, exuberant minimalistic strokeplay for a person wielding nothing but a carved log of wood (which might otherwise have been more useful as a leg for someone’s dining room furniture or a poor man’s fishing pole or even as door for tiny men in some undiscovered rainforest). These celebrated players also indulge in excesses such as over the top tumbling while taking regulation catches and marathon- run celebrations after taking the wicket of a rank tail-ender, with their part-time neither off nor leg spin. Justifiably, the type of players who are subjected to the above mentioned extravagant praise are also responsible for causing massive batting collapses. Example: A passing mention of Rohit Sharma’s name in India (circa 2012) evokes a feeling you get when you enter a wedding hall to eat your full, but leave empty stomached as the cook has eloped with the bride just minutes ago.
Flashback to Y2K era: Batting on fast and green pitches is difficult for our batsmen, as I would find out after many inept displays. Add wind and cloud cover and you are at the eye of the tornado. You may even fancy batting on the top of a bus or a taxi like this Nike ad campaign would suggest years later. India was touring NZ and batsmen were obviously struggling to muster double digit scores on either side of the innings. Sehwag was prematurely written off owing to his leaden footed, blade flashing characteristics. Indians were chasing a target of 200, which in those playing conditions was equivalent to chasing 400 on benign surfaces. What followed was an absolute carnage unleashed by Virender Sehwag on his way to a century. Swing? What swing? Only the swing of a bat to banish the ball. ‘Beyond a boundary’ seemed like a memoir associated with a ball hit by Sehwag rather than a book written by C. L. R. James. He singlehandedly wins the match for India, though true fans would argue that it was Nehraji’s single greatest contribution to cricket until Wayne Parnell declared him his idol. The match even featured Paaji, who was batting at number 4 in the batting order. This fact alone could count as a true mark of Virender Sehwag’s effectiveness for he had temporarily dislodged the most celebrated batsman of the world from his regular position. Perhaps the strategy behind keeping Paaji in the middle order was to strengthen our middle order but it also implicitly suggested that the top order had enough ammunition to handle the start of the innings. Or it was probably an understanding that the Butcher of Najafgadh will complete matches on his own and provide some deserving rest to the weary hands of the little genius. In some ways he was a vacation package for Paaji. India may have lost the series 2-5, but the art of toying with the oppositions was invented.
The following years witnessed a strange phenomenon. Indian fans were happy to see Sehwag dispatch every other ball to the boundary, even if their team lost. They wanted to see boundaries. They wanted to see audacity. Not the kind involving middle fingers or cuss words or mid- pitch anger conferences, but the kind where a person with a rotund physique is decimating the big names of world cricket. The last time when bowlers with run ups faster than their bowling speed mastered the world was in 1983. Soon people wanted to know what Sehwag has for breakfast and his strong familial ties integrated the phrase ‘Sehwag ki maa’ in the Indian lexicon till Virat Kohli stripped the term ‘maa’ to its Oedipal limits. Purists complain about balance between ball and bat or of conditions forcing one sided matches these days. None of this talk existed when Sehwag batted. He turned one sided matches into adrenaline filled encounters. The new question was “is he going to hit a six or a four?”. A single taken by Sehwag was equivalent to an advertisement break between overs. In the middle of his career, the Nawab of Najafgadh changed his technique involving a higher backlift stating that this modification might help him hit more boundaries. Who talks like that? Such chutzpah from Indian kids earned a well- deserved thrashing from their parents. But the results were there to see. After a few failures, Sehwag became the most destructive batsman on earth. Shoaib Akhtar talked about seeing fear in Paaji’s eyes or forcing Ganguly to flutter his eyelids or making 20 yr old girls wink at him, but no one dared to say that about Sehwag. Writers got kicks out of lauding the fact that he didn’t slow down in the 90s but he was never about milestones. His batting equalized the thrill of winning to the gratification of boundary hitting. Hapless faces of the opposition captain served as a sadistic experience for serial killers and indifferent monks alike. And this was his effect in limited overs cricket, a format where an average of 35 hints at underachievement when compared to his more celebrated peers.
Masterus Strokupus: There are batsmen who have no technical flaws and get dismissed by unconceivable events like unadjusted batting gear (Sachin Tendulkar) or disturbances near the sightscreen (Sangakkara) or by the sheer coincidence of a space satellite being launched some 40000 miles away. Other examples: Steve Waugh, AB de Villiers, Jacques Kallis, Lara.
Indian test cricket has tried many openers. On paper we had the finest middle order there has ever been. It started with Dravid, had Paaji as a transitionary lynchpin and ended with Ganguly and Laxman. Hailed as the fab four, this was an evergreen combination which could, in theory, bat out any opposition in all types of conditions. Being traditional in approach, India never expected runs from a lower order and even now most of the tail looks awkward holding a bat. Of the combinations tried for the opening slot, Ramesh looked good for a while but was dropped for his lack of footwork and sporadic performances. Sehwag was tried at this slot and India, for a brief period, was the top team in the world. We had two world class bowlers in Zaheer and Kumble and one blade flashing demon at the top. There is no doubt that from the perspective of batting, Sehwag alone was responsible for making sure India wins matches. The fab four was a back-up tool to ensure draws or reducing the margins of an innings defeat, on occasions. Statistics will prove that point, since the fab four existed long before Viru made his entry in tests. The talk about being a flat track bully remained. However, the fuss about being a flat track bully also begs the question: If it is so simple why couldn’t other batsmen reproduce such monumental innings? Nevertheless, to lend perspective to such disparaging remarks, it should be mentioned that the man’s first century as an opener came at Trent Bridge, a place that groomed the celebrated swing bowler, James Anderson.
Uglius Performacus: There are batsmen who might look good when standing and posing with energy drinks and bathroom mops, but introducing a bat in their hand causes mirror industries to close down due to unexpected premature shattering of their whole stock. Every shot they play shreds a page in the cricket manual and results in the spontaneous combustion of a piece of art in the Louvre. They qualify as an unsuspecting pedestrian, with poor housekeeping skills, who got selected in a detergent lucky draw contest to try a hand at washing clothes and due to some unfortunate error, entered a cricket stadium. Examples: MS Dhoni, GC Smith.
Flashback to 2008: Sri Lanka had produced another unconventional bowler after Murali and Malinga. Unconventional, because no one could understand if he was an offie or a leggie. And he had too many flexible fingers. Rather than diverging and talking about his use of such gifted fingers it is sufficient to acknowledge that Sri Lanka had found a secret weapon. However, the litmus test for any successful spinner is their performance against India on turning tracks. Traditionally, Indian batsman had a habit of feasting on offerings served by Warne and Murali but Mendis was a different threat. Rumour had it that the National literacy commission had come up with a new circular to improve India’s reading of Mendis. The fab four declared that they had seen his videos closely and had plans against him. Paaji suggested he would play him like a medium pacer. However, one test match against Mendis was enough to make the fab four look like farmers planning to buy land in Antartica for growing a tropical fruit. In a dramatic turnaround, India won the next test. But the fab four failed again with Mendis and Murali taking bulk of the wickets. The only difference in the equation was Sehwag, who produced the most brutal batting display ever seen, on his way to a double century while his more celebrated teammates, hailed as the greatest handlers of spin (VVS was known to hit the same ball in two directions with the roll of his wrists), were forced to read textbooks on concepts of frictional rotational dynamics. Mystery spin? What Mystery? Keep your mystery in your English novel, Viru would have said. The fact that both teams batted like a group of monkeys is reminiscent of Sehwag’s ODI innings in Auckland but there was a difference. He single handedly dismantled Mendis’ once promising career. A similar story of Sehwag ending a career with his brutality starred Saqlain Mushtaq in a test match played at Multan. If Paaji was Warne’s nightmare, Sehwag was a nightmare within a nightmare on a loop while you are being fed sleep inducing drips to prolong it.
Spinnus deflatus: Some Batsmen do not understand spin and hate the idea of friction. Most likely to buy and wear fashionable slippers designed from banana peels to promote PETA or recycled products. Play pace well. Examples: Daryl Cullinan, Yuvraj Singh, Every clichéd batsman from England.
There is no madness to Sehwag. He attributes it to the theory of ‘see ball, hit ball’. Though, that is probably not a theory in itself- he surprisingly manufactures elegant strokes to go with his aggression. He does not need to invent shots like the switch hit, Helicopter hit, paddle scoop, dilscoop or muralicharge to scatter the fields set for him. His downfall cannot be classified as the result of a rash stroke possibly induced by rush of blood. We just understand the feelings associated with the man’s desire to to hit a six.
Bloodrush sloggus: The intensity with which they flash their bats at a ball might make one feel that the batsman is lashing out from memories of a painful childhood encounter with a goat. Also probably suffer from some psychological disorder where the spherical shape hurts them so much that their whole lifestyle is based on altering its shape by any means. Do not give two hoots about the match situation Ex.: Shahid Afridi, Yousuf Pathan, the recent West Indies cricket team.
All this glory and we haven’t even touched upon his greatest attribute: his straightforwardness. Just one example is enough to prove that he believes completely in what he is saying. Before India were touring Bangladesh, a journalist asked Sehwag if Bangladesh would give India a good fight. He responded saying that Bangladesh is an ordinary team because they cannot take 20 wickets. Hearing these statements, Bangladesh bowlers expressed their angst and even promised to bite back. Incidentally, India won the match and only lost 18 wickets after which Sehwag just added more salt to their wounds.
While many people can be categorized under various aforementioned species of batsmanship, Sehwag remains a true original. An original to change a mindset. A few months ago, I had been back to my old stomping ground, Delhi. I took a gentle stroll around the bylanes that I had spent plenty of my formative years. My walk around the neighbourhood yielded much surprise; the old buildings were not there, the demographics had changed and the look of the place had changed. The cricket ground was still there though. I went there, for old time’s sake. Truth be told, I had picked the running bug by then and given the paucity of open spaces, a cricket ground offered unhindered space for a run. The choice of music in my earphones suggested that my sensibilities were old as well. I had become the proverbial “uncle” who would stop mid-way through my run and toss the ball back after its unintended journey behind the wickets. Although, one thing had changed. Kids were not intent on leaving the ball anymore and would often hit a shot which many would have avoided in my time. Instead of being pilloried by their coaches and hangers on, I was surprised to see sounds of encouragement. Hit the ball harder to clear the fielder, I heard. I want my childhood back.
Virender Sehwag: Bats like no one. Does not worry about the result. Entertains. Changes the way people view cricket. Changes the way cricket is played. Remains straightforward. Retires from the game in an unperturbed manner, much like his debut.