Played in the Head

This was a short tribute to a player who confronted and disproved much of the conventional thinking around opening the batting, while also being a player of underestimated technical orthodoxy.

One of the very best.

For all that Pujara – with his mature, seemingly innate, understanding of the mechanics of batting long on the dead tracks of western India – took India away from England at Ahmedabad, it was Virender Sehwag who set up India’s first innings in the manner which was once customary but has become rarer over recent years.

This wasn’t the 293 at the Brabourne, or the triples in Multan or Chennai, or even the 195 at Melbourne, with attacks scattered to the winds like confetti for session after session.  For a start, England, Swann aside, bowled poorly, and Viru these days is just slightly more moderate in achievement, if not execution or intent.  Two years of fifties – at high strike rates, but fifties nonetheless – have seen to that.  Also, as he himself said at the press conference at the end of the first day, batting wasn’t easy as the ball wasn’t coming on.  It didn’t show.

But as a Test batsman – and even more so as an opener – Sehwag has always been an outlier.  A player who instinctively ignores the textbook and plays simply as he feels.  Where the textbook advocates that a batsman facing the new ball should be watchful and circumspect, Viru has always been ambitious, expansive and destructive, as much in the early moments of an innings as at its glorious conclusion or in its death throes.  This is the essence of his greatness.

But this greatness – for that, conclusively, is what it is – can be disorientating.  According to the conservative logic of the batting manual, Sehwag should have begun failing years ago.  In fact, his career at the highest level should have ended almost as soon as it started.  You can’t play international bowlers with such a disregard for your wicket, or such rigid footwork, or such a penchant for hitting the ball in the air, even if, when you do, it usually goes for six. These things can’t be done.  Except, when Sehwag is batting, they can.

His ability to whip the ball through the leg-side off the back foot and to clear the ropes at will is well-known, but a facet of his approach which has perhaps become more noticeable as he’s aged is the glorious inventiveness of his off-side play.  This is emphasized by the reductive nature of his footwork; to anything pitched on or around a good length with an off-stump line (by most conventional standards this is good bowling, but Viru re-writes the bowling textbook too), he simply plants his leading leg slightly inside the line of the ball and uses his bat to guide it into whichever off-side gap he fancies.  If it is over-pitched it is driven with withering power and timing, if it is sliding away through the air or off the pitch, it is driven square of the wicket or guided between the slips and gully by opening the bat face at precisely the instant of impact.  It is typically Asian in a sense – many another Indian or Pakistani or Lankan player has played in a similar manner – but there is somehow less fragility and more certainty to Sehwag’s off-side play than that of most of his compatriots.

There are two factors in this.  One is his natural eye; that is an accident of birth.  The other is his head.  In this aspect of batting, if few others, Sehwag conforms to the textbook.  In fact, he exceeds it.  The next time you watch Sehwag bat – in all probability this will be tomorrow – watch how still and level his head is.  Like much else about his batting, this is exceptional, but it is also natural and uncontrived.  He has not had to think about it.

Like Jimmy White in his greatest years at the snooker table, Sehwag illustrates the way in which genius can both subvert and reinforce orthodoxy, but, apart from the odd embellishment, neither man has ever spent too much time thinking about what they do.

Sehwag may be reaching the autumn of his career.  But he is a genius.  It is for us to enjoy him while we can.

Different Shades of Green, 18th November 2012