Five days after Zaheer Khan announced his international retirement, 37-year old Virender Sehwag – or ‘Viru’, ‘Nawab of Najafgarh’ as he was more commonly known – has done the same, two years after having played his last international game.
With him, that entire golden generation of Indian cricketers – the ones that carried the team through the 2000s right to the top of the world – is now history. All good things must come to an end.
The numbers, of course, are staggering. His hand-eye coordination was off the charts. His disdain for spin bowling and defensive shots was well documented. His utter nonchalance at the crease, treating every international contest like a street-cricket-tennis-ball match, was awe-inspiring. His complete disregard for convention, temperament and landmarks was shocking. His astoundingly successful transition from ODI to Test Cricket was the stuff of legends. His two Test triple centuries at a record-shattering scoring rate made a mockery of the erstwhile longer-format ‘traditions’. His strike rate of 83 in Tests was a testament to his utterly simplistic, ‘bholu’, (his nickname as a budding prodigy) “See ball, hit ball” approach. Anecdotes, stories – most resulting in hapless shocked chuckles, the kind that make you wonder if the man ever comprehended the magnitude of these occasions – have been dropped over the years. For him, it was still a ‘gulli’ cricket game in a narrow lane. As sports journalist Sriram Veera so aptly put it: People likened him to Sachin Tendulkar in his early years on the stage. Later on, those people wished that Tendulkar batted like him – unchanged, untouched and uncompromising.
However, it wasn’t all the stats that defined him, or the fact that he was perhaps India’s most influential and definitive test batsman since Sunil Gavaskar. He showed his country a game they never knew, and against all logic and expectations, he excelled at a risky, aggressive, impulsive game that he often considered to be ‘risk-free’. Many people talk about how so many celebrities, in their hearts, remain the same after all their years at the top. But Sehwag, in a way, epitomized this oft-abused cliché. He literally hadn’t changed the way he approached bowlers ever since he first picked up the bat and learned that the ball must be hit to score runs. Why should those balls be left alone or blocked? The boundary has been created to give a batsman more runs. There is no sense in staying at the crease without scoring runs. Over the years, he of course, used variations of this approach. But even when he played for time, he played for time so that he could explode upon the bowlers once he found a suitable partner or a weaker bowler. He always played on his own terms. Rarely did a bowler ever truly deconstruct him – because he was already such a deconstructed, open-for-all batsman. He had no secrets, and he held no hostages.
I’ve watched Viru bat live on a couple of occasions. But it’s only appropriate that perhaps my most memorable day in the stands as a fan was a direct result of his greatness. In 2009, in the second Test between India and Sri Lanka at Brabourne stadium, on the second day, Virender Sehwag stepped in to open the innings after Sri Lanka scored 390 or so. The fans present in those stands were forever spoiled for cricket after that. Sehwag ended that day on 284; he had scored these runs in less than 3 sessions alone. I had my hand on my head throughout, wondering how a batsman could go the entire day like that. He didn’t go for more than 12 balls without a boundary. In a Test innings. He hit 40 fours and some sixes. He made a mockery of the team that had defeated India just a year ago on their own home pitches. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and every boundary began to be greeted with loud laughter and chuckles of disbelief. Who was this guy? Hadn’t he already scored two test triple centuries? How dare he even think of scoring a third, when no Indian had ever scored more than 281 before (and after) him? Was batting really that simple? Could I go down and join him on the pitch?
He fell, short of his triple century by 7 runs, the next morning. Because his momentum had been halted by trivialities of the game – like taking a break between two days, and all that. If he had batted on that day, Brian Lara would have sweated bullets. 400 looked reachable and smashable. But that single day of test batting perhaps changed my outlook towards Test cricket forever. I hadn’t imagined that I’d ever see such a consistent display of lazy brutality throughout a session – forget an entire day.
There was this everyman aura about him, and yet the things he did were so heroic in context of the game. His centuries were often scored when nobody else would cross 50, and pitches or conditions became irrelevant when he wanted to push the team along. Those 11 successive scores of 150 and more in Tests between 2003 and 2007 were stunning to read; he literally defined Test matches and Test series on the first day itself. India’s destiny and ability to push for outright wins (or losses) were solely dependent on Sehwag’s form. Or his mood, actually. There was no such thing as form for him. His game was anyway meant to break down if he kept going after bowlers without a care in the world.
Sehwag is the guy every kid dreams of batting like when they first play the game. They want that reputation. Big hundreds, sixes, little technique, madness. They want to do it effortlessly. Sehwag didn’t come up without hard work, but one suspects that he didn’t work as hard as others in net sessions – at least from a physical standpoint. And that was the beauty of being Sehwag. And then being able to tell youngsters everywhere that they should do whatever they please, and not bother listening to coaches.
The Indian Test team wouldn’t have reached the pinnacle in 2009 if not for Virender Sehwag’s career. They would have never seen the top of the mountain. And that, in no uncertain words, is the greatest compliment to an individual player in a quintessential team game.
His 3 Greatest Test Knocks:
195 v/s Australia at Melbourne, 2003
So ferocious and dominant was his batting that his team went on to lose the match because he had batted too quickly.
309 v/s Pakistan at Multan, 2004
India’s first ever Test triple centurion shredded to pieces an attack consisting of Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammed Sami and Saqlain Mushtaq. This was India’s first series in Pakistan since 1989, and they won the Test series 2-1, on the back of Sehwag’s stunning assault.
201* v/s Sri Lanka at Galle in 2008
Out of India’s score of 329 runs, Sehwag had made 201 of them, and batted through the innings – becoming only the second Indian to do so. He dragged India to a rare Test win in Galle, squaring the series 1-1, before they lost the final Test. He fought the ‘mysteriousness’ of Mendes by himself, and treated Muralitharan with a certain sense of vengeance for troubling his teammates throughout the doomed series.
There are many other memorable Sehwag phases: His two ODI centuries on green-top New Zealand pitches before the 2003 World Cup, his 319 against South Africa, his 30-odd in the 2011 World Cup semifinal against Pakistan, his 219 against West Indies, his 83 against England in Chennai, his 155 against Australia in Chennai, his 151 against Australia in Adelaide…