Friday, 12 February 2016

The Sehwag Difference

In the last years of his career, Sachin Tendulkar tried to score his 100th century after a long dry spell. It was a long dry spell only by Tendulkar’s high standards – he had begun his third decade in international cricket. Very few of the greatest batsman have a career longer than 15 years. But nevertheless, the fact was unavoidable – Sachin was struggling to make his 100th century. And fans, even young adoring ones, started wondering loudly, whether he should retire.

That the man who scored more centuries than anyone else was struggling to score another, should have helped people realize how incredibly difficult it is to score a century. Sachin made a whole nation assume that a century was easy. Fans expected a century from Sachin, every time he batted.

A few years earlier, in 2003, there was a test match in Australia. The hosts batted first and scored 400 runs on the first day! A humongous score. Ricky Ponting scored a double century. Australia ended the first innings with 566. Going in to the dressing room, VVS Laxman said something memorable: “We need a double century from The Wall.”

The Wall, Rahul Dravid, delivered. He scored 233 after India lost four early wickets, and he put on a show with Australia’s thorn in the flesh, Very Very Special Laxman. In 2001, in Eden Gardens in Calcutta, VVS had scored the most memorable, most remarkable, most unforgettable double century by an Indian.

Laxman’s 281 surpassed what to me was the previous superhuman Test innings by an Indian – Sunil Gavaskar’s 221 at the London Oval, chasing an impossible fourth innings total of 436. As a kid, I watched that match at a friend’s house on black and white television.

In 2001 in Calcutta, in India’s second innings, Laxman was promoted to No. 3 from his usual No. 6 while Dravid was demoted from his usual No. 3 to No. 6 – because Laxman was the only one who batted well in the first innings. Australia had won sixteen Test matches in a row, this one was going to be another cakewalk – except Laxman had other ideas. So did Dravid. The two batted the whole of the fourth day, which was beyond the imagination of Australian cricket team, Australia, and pretty much all of India. “Batting as fine as I have ever seen,” Steve Waugh said about that partnership. Laxman scored 281, Dravid 180. History.

Now, back again in 2003, perhaps the Indian fans were expecting another double ton from Laxman. But, it was Laxman who said – “We need a double century from The Wall.” This, in a nutshell is Rahul Dravid. Of Sachin, the fan expects a century each time he bats. Of Dravid, even Laxman expects a double century in a crisis.

Shortly after this, in a remarkbale turn of history, India toured Pakistan. This was the friendliest tour India has ever had of Pakistan. Crowds were cheering one man. Not Sachin, not Dravid, not Laxman, not even the local boys Inzamam ul Haq or Shoaib Akthar. The crowds everywhere roared one word: “Balaji!” Over and over again, “Balaji, Balaji.” But that is a story for another day.

In Multan, someone finally surpassed Laxman’s 281. And Gavaskar’s 221 (and 236). And Sachin. And Vinoo Mankad. And even Rahul Dravid. Virender Sehwag score 309, scoring the fastest Indian double century on the first day, which he finished 228 not out. He reached his century with a breathtaking six. And the next day he showed no nerves, reaching the first Indian triple century with another six. I thought he might cross 365 the Sobers mark, but he fell at  309. India beat Pakistan by an innings, the most comprehensive victory on their soil. For most fans, his triple century was bigger and more historic than the victory over Pakistan!

In March 2008, South Africa toured India, and played the first test in Madras. One of my two great regrets in life, about sports, is not buying a ticket to see this match in person. The other is not staying up to watch the 1983 World Cup final…

South Africa played great scoring 540 runs in their first innings, well into the second day. I’m glad I didn’t buy a ticket for the first day. But boy am I sorry I didn’t try to buy a ticket for the third day. Because - Sehwag topped Multan, where he scored the fastest Indian double century, by scoring the fastest triple century - ever! By ANY batsman! Dravid who scored a wonderful hundred at the other end, was awed, as was anyone who saw that match. SA coach Mickey Arthur called it the best Test batting he’d ever seen. To open after a day and half fielding, in the Madras heat and humidity, and then to bat another day, at that destructive pace : that was just unbelievable!

Two triple centuries…Sehwag redefined Indian batting, opening batting, orthodoxy, expectations, calculations, statisticians, bowlers’ plans, selection criteria. Sehwag was not an ordinary threat in the way Sachin or Dravid or Laxman or Lara or Gilchrist was a threat. With any other cricketer, he could play his finest innings and his team could still lose. With Sehwag, he scored at such  a torrential pace, the opponent was at risk of losing until Sehwag got out. Ironically, this was one extremely rare occasion – his fastest biggest innings of 319 – where India ended up in a draw.

To me what defined Sehwag was his innings at Bombay against Sri Lanka in 2009. Sri Lanka scored 393 batting first, closing their innings in the first session of the second day. Sehwag hammered 284, India scored 443 in about five hours! India’s run rate was SEVEN runs an over. I remember the days of the electric Srikkanth and Sidhu batting in a one-day match and FIVE runs was considered a sizzling pace. People actually felt a little disappointed that he had not scored his 300 that day. When Murali took his wicket at 293, there was a grand sigh of disappointment. The disappointment was that Sehwag did not become the first person to score three triple centuries on that day.

But here is the Sehwag difference : Almost no one doubted that he would do it, pretty soon. It's a surprise that he never did. Triple centuries are insanely hard.

Sehwag made triple centuries look easy.


6. The Sehwag Paradox - S Dinakar's essay

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