Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sehwag's desire to bat in the middle order makes immense sense

When an opening batsman who has scored more than 8000 runs in Test cricket with characteristic audacity talks about coming down the order and batting with patience, it may surprise many. Arunabha Sengupta, however, argues that Virender Sehwag is on the right track, both for himself and the India team.

This post by the author appeared on Cricket Country on 25.1.2012
It is one of the adrenaline gushing moments of cricket to watch Virender Sehwag’s bat swish in a fast and violent arc outside the off stump, in a flourishing attempt to send the red cherry hurtling to the distant regions of the off side and beyond. If the ball bounces a tad too much or a wee bit less than anticipated and goes thudding into the gloves of the keeper, the result is literally nothing more than a dot ball. No psychological battle is won or lost; no subtle change of technique is encountered. The odds are that the next delivery in the same region will be treated with the same destructive intent, often with very profitable results.

There is innocence about the way one of the most successful openers in the game goes about his business. Failures, be it being beaten by a ball or a string of poor scores, generally make little impression on his celebrated uncluttered mind. The belief in ability remains undiminished, the audacity unimpaired and the full range of strokes unabridged.

Hence, when Sehwag recently disclosed that he was not averse to coming down the order in near future, one was bound to raise an eyebrow. A disbelieving start might also have resulted when he added that he had to show patience against the bowling attacks.

Is the acclaimed arrogance of his game showing signs of mellowing with age? Are the rough edges that endearingly stick out from the repertoire of his phenomenal talent, finally being rounded by the erosive powers of experience?

Lending balance in the middle

Probably, a more believable explanation is that we are seeing a very smart cricketing mind in operation. A mind that is lucid and immune from the internal demons of over analysis, but nonetheless keen and agile – astute without being artful. One simply cannot compile more than 8000 runs in Tests at a 50-plus average without thinking about the game. We need to remember that while no one can list Sehwag as a paragon of patience, he is the only man from India who has gone past 300, that too twice. There is an obvious method which lies obscured by his mayhem mingled madness.

This contradiction is evidenced even in his footwork. The lack of nimble movement of his feet, while relying on outrageous hand-eye coordination when playing quick bowlers, has often left purists shaking their critical heads; but whenever a spinner has come into the fray, the Nuke from Najafgarh has charged down the wicket at the rate of knots.

Just like his feet, the mind at the other extremity of this curious cricketer sprints along when necessary and makes quick calculations.

He spoke of the possibility of moving down the order once the current day giants in the middle of the batting order call it a day. Given that there will be enormous craters left in the wake of the farewell of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, it does not seem too bad an idea. Virat Kohli at No 3 followed by Sehwag at No 4 will definitely be less of a drastic transition than three newcomers walking into the colossal shoes together, tripping and tumbling in unison, the innings – a top heavy structure with a flimsy middle – toppling face down before taking off. With a big name, ten years of experience and 8000 runs in the bank borrowed from the top to balance the recently incurred losses of 36,000, the batting can still revolve around a major giant in the middle.

The man who revolutionised opening the innings

Sehwag, no doubt, revolutionised the way openers start a Test match innings. Men at the top of the order considered to be endowed with comparable boisterous streaks; Matthew Hayden, Chris Gayle and Sanath Jayasuriya had strike rates of 60, 59 and 64 respectively. In comparison, a monster strike-rate of over 80 while compiling over 8000 runs is plainly preposterous.

However, perhaps one of the reasons why he could bat with such gay abandon was the secure knowledge that at one-drop would arrive the broad blade of Dravid, at two down the genius of Tendulkar and after that the magic of Laxman. There can be at least some effect on his natural exuberance at the start of an innings if the three names to follow suddenly change into Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara. It may be much more suitable for Sehwag’s blitzkrieg batting to come down the order, perhaps to shepherd the inexperienced batsmen in the middle – providing a solid structure for the newbies to build upon, albeit the solidity may sometimes resemble bursts of sheer energy by approaching physical limits of velocity.

There is perhaps another reason for his meditations on the virtues of patience as well as the transfer down the order. He is a classic example of a combination of an excellent eye and lightning reflexes. This hand-eye co-ordination, that has helped him mock conventional batting by blasting bowlers with a static foot, can prove to be his undoing as the arrow of time catches up with the flight of his career. A fractional fraying of the reactions can make him plummet from the heights of achievement into the quagmire of mortal mediocrity.

Two contrasting paths

Sehwag has in front of him two diametrically opposite examples of batting superstars who went along divergent ways.

In Vivian Richards was the image of incorrigible machismo, a man who wielded his bat like the all-conquering sword of a triumphant King. Even as he progressed well into his mid-30s, his style remained the same; the walk to the wicket spoke of the same contempt for bowlers, the relentless gum-chewing spoke of belief in truckloads of ability. However, even the great Richards was not able to outrun the tide of time. After he turned 35, he tried to blaze away as was his almost sovereign right of the early years, but ended up dragging himself for the last few seasons. His average, which had stood at 53 before he reached a batsman’s middle age, hovered around, by his standards, a very ordinary 43 when in the wrong half of his 30s. As the breathtaking strokes to the onside came with less and less regularity, the last three seasons witnessed 13 painful Tests without a hundred.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Sehwag’s long-time idol and team mate, Sachin Tendulkar – who had started off with a disdain for bowling that almost matched the great West Indian in his prime. Through the nineties, innumerable bowlers were scorched by the fire of his flashing blade. As the burden of carrying a nation for too long took toll on his overworked body, the master unfurled the new facet of his genius by the wise approach of flowing with time rather than fighting the current. The belligerence did not disappear, but became tempered – discretion and sustenance took precedence over enchantment with erstwhile ego. The blaster became an accumulator, and strangely, since he has turned 35, he has bettered his already scintillating record, scoring 3650 runs in 41 tests at an average of 57.03 with12 hundreds.

Perhaps, Sehwag, a year and a half away from the tipping point of 35, knows which road will lead him to rewards. Moving down the order at this juncture, away from the moving ball, is perhaps a mature step for someone on whom will soon be thrust upon the mantle of the mainstay of Indian batting. He has, in any case, always wanted to bat in the middle order, a desire that has remained wishful thinking given the many splendored riches of Indian batting. With Indian cricket about to enter a new era, this wish may of necessity come true.

Before the ongoing Test, when asked whether he was boosted by the memory of his century at Adelaide in the earlier tour, Sehwag answered, "Tomorrow is a different day, different game, different tour.” This demonstrates the pragmatism that lies underneath the refreshingly straightforward approach. Sehwag does not dwell on the ball that has missed his outside edge by a fraction of an inch. Neither does he rest on past laurels. He knows that time has passed and changes may be required.

This Sehwag, who is the acting skipper of the Indian side, is mature and constantly evolving. Perhaps he is very much aware that he has not struck a hundred outside the sub-continent ever since that last Adelaide effort. He realises that it may benefit both the cause of India and that of her sole remaining batting behemoth in future if he comes in after the fall of a couple of wickets.

In a year or so, we may very well see him coming in at No 4, putting a price on his wicket and holding the innings together – and, being Sehwag, doing all that by scoring at a shade less than a run a ball.

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