Nineteen Ninety Seven. A Jat lad weaves his two-wheeler dexterously. His bumpy journey from Najafgarh has begun, with a stop over at Delhi Cantt, before culminating at the Ferozeshah Kotla, the venue for the Ranji Trophy trials. At the end of the 35-km drive, with the pillion rider precariously perched holding a huge kit bag, the lad shows no sign of fatigue. He is raring to go.
Virender Sehwag remembers those days vividly. So does Ashish Nehra, the brave pillion rider from Delhi Cantt. "It was great fun. I enjoyed Viru's driving. Never felt scared,'' recalled Nehra. Just as the Indian fans now relish Sehwag's attacking batsmanship that gives nightmares to bowlers all over the cricketing world.
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Sehwag's rise is part of folklore. From a milk-gulping kid, terrorising bowlers in the neighbourhood with a plastic bat, he has come to be recognised as the most dangerous batsman to bowl to in international cricket. The length of the ball, and the line, do not matter to him. His free-flowing style allows him the liberty to indulge in a wide range of strokeplay, a trademark of his batting from the time he made his first-class debut on a minefield of a pitch at Rohtak in 1997-98.
True there was little scope for cricket to flourish in Najafgarh, a suburb of West Delhi, dominated by Jats, known more for their wrestling and rustic innocence, but Sehwag was destined to change the mindset of his tribe. "I wanted to do nothing but play cricket,'' Sehwag would say. And he did precisely that, whacking the ball around. There were no indications then of this kid with such precocious talent blossoming into an international cricketer.
The cricket authorities in Delhi, acknowledging his feat of 309 at Multan, have decided to name one of the gates of the new Kotla Stadium after Sehwag. Ironically, the same set of officials was at the helm when Sehwag was turned away from the under-16 trials. "I was dejected,'' Sehwag once told me. But then the misdeed of the DDCA officials only spurred him into working harder.
Let us take a peep into the past when Sehwag was struggling to make an impact, not because of lack of talent, but opportunity. He had no godfather at the Kotla, but found his mentor in Satish Sharma, a modest cricketer who ran the Madras Club. Of course, Sehwag's coach, Amar Nath Sharma, was convinced the boy would make it big but only if he gained a platform to showcase his talent.
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That Sehwag was gifted was never in doubt and Satish Sharma fought for the stocky batsman who had built a reputation of hitting the ball very hard. Sehwag was to join Sonnet Club but he opted for Madras Club for the simple reason that Satish Sharma alone could have pushed his case. Two half centuries in the under-19 league propelled Sehwag into the Indian under-19 World Cup team. The event was held in South Africa and slowly he discovered new admirers and supporters.
"I shall remain indebted to Satish Sir for his help. He was a big source of motivation for me,'' Sehwag maintains to date. But there was another person, unknown to most, who backed his candidature and fought for his inclusion in the Ranji Trophy team in 1997. It should rank as one of the most important days in Sehwag's career, the 24th of September in 1997.
The Delhi selectors met to pick the Ranji team and Hari Gidwani, in his debut meeting, came armed with the agenda to speak for four youngsters — Sehwag, Nehra, Akash Chopra and Mithun Manhas — all having excelled in the under-19 circuit. The meeting was a heated and a prolonged one with Gidwani, a batsman of repute, succeeding in his mission. It is another matter that the scheming DDCA officials unceremoniously removed him from the post at the end of the season. It is a tribute to Gidwani's vision that the four youngsters did not let him down.
Only Gidwani in that committee backed Sehwag. The soft-spoken and modest Gidwani remembered, "I saw Sehwag at the 'nets' and was very impressed with his confidence. He had the potential to become an all-rounder. He would curl the ball in the air and played his shots with authority.''
No doubt Sehwag had a few flaws then, but he had the spark to make it big. He defied the coaching manual by middling the ball without getting right behind the line. "He had a tremendous eye and could get away with certain technical flaws,'' said Gidwani. Even as Sehwag prospered, Gidwani silently enjoyed the dashing batsman's conquests.
Sehwag was never short of guts. The only problem, as pointed out by his well-wishers then, was his "compulsive strokeplay.'' There were occasions when he would gift his wicket to a silly shot. But Sehwag would argue, "the shot looks silly only when I get out. Otherwise it evokes applause. I'll not discard my natural game.''
What has helped Sehwag the most? I believe it was his struggle in the formative years and his desire to rub shoulders with players he had only seen on television. His 40-km trek in crowded buses from home to the Jamia Millia for practice made him all the more determined to succeed. "I remember every bus stop on that route,'' he jokes today, but it was not easy, leaving home when most in the city slept, and returning exhausted after dusk.
Another little-known fact about Sehwag's cricket education is his association with Manhas, a long-time friend and colleague. At the time of Ranji Trophy matches in Delhi, Sehwag would come and stay with Manhas in the city, the drive from Najafgarh not advisable on days of play. It helped Sehwag that he spent quality time before and during matches with Manhas, who is considered a brilliant student of the game. It rankles Sehwag that Manhas has not represented the country, for he rates his friend high.
Manhas was modest about his role as the cricket brain behind Sehwag's rise. "We have been good friends. I must say that he was always different in his methods but none could match his confidence. He would mark his role and play it to perfection. He was a quick learner and very, very serious about his game. He wouldn't tolerate any complacency during a match. In the dressing room, he would be a quiet person, concentrating on the game. And what I liked most about him was his positive approach. He would not accept defeat and nothing could shake his confidence. His desire to make it big was amazing. I always backed him because he was good. We knew it was only a matter of time before he would make a mark in international cricket,'' Manhas said.
An anecdote sums up Sehwag's approach to cricket. On the eve of a three-day match against Pakistan at Gwalior in 1999, he was asked how he would face the left-right combination of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, considering their pace and guile. Sehwag's response, quite like that of an innocent schoolboy, was sensational: "When facing Wasim I would think of Ashish (Nehra) and Amit (Bhandari) when facing Waqar.'' It is another matter that Sehwag did not play the match, but he smashed the Pakistani pair when they met at the Centurion Park in the last World Cup.
Sehwag would often ask us: "Is Sachin approachable? Will he help if I ask him to?'' It was thus appropriate that Tendulkar was Sehwag's companion in the middle when he heralded his double century and the triple, too, at Multan. Sehwag, a clean striker of the ball, had lived up to the promise.
Critics have often pointed out that Sehwag lacks footwork and temperament, and is too flashy outside the off-stump. Well, his 309 was marked by the very traits, which he is supposed to lack. His footwork was decisive against the spinners and assertive against the fast bowlers. His temperament was his strongest point — a six carried him to 100 and another past 300. Those huge strikes signified his approach as his off-side play dominated and decorated his blazing performance. The 309 came in the role of an opener from a batsman who had never opened for his club, state or zone. This really cemented his reputation as a team man.
Experts and purists have questioned his technique and described him as an entertainer at best, and nothing more. But then people who make these assessments do not remember his big scores in first class cricket. Most of his centuries, and big ones at that, have come when the team needed them badly. The argument that he is suspect against quality bowling was ripped apart at Bloemfontein, Melbourne and Multan. These experts should revise their assessments surely.
There are a few qualities that separate Sehwag from the rest. He was earlier not taken seriously by teammates, opponents and fans. He has changed that impression with some solid work in the past two years. He was remembered more for his cameo performances. That tag too has been shed now. He is no more considered casual or careless. He is no more underestimated by his rivals. If he is unconventional in his approach, so be it. For those who point fingers at his lack of footwork and flawed technique, we must say, "look at the scoreboard too,'' for what matters are the runs and not necessarily how you get them. His average in Tests is 45-plus.
Times have changed for Sehwag. Thanks to his growing reputation, and the municipal department, the roads to Najafgarh have improved; there are very few bumps, and Sehwag now zips around in a black Honda City, his speed matching the flashing course of his square drives on the cricket field.
This article first appeared in the Sportstar issue dated April 10, 2004.
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