A captain in the making?

When Greg Chappell draws a vision of Virender Sehwag as a possible leader of men in the near future, the managers of Indian cricket cannot brush the idea aside, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

THEY could make a dream combination. Greg Chappell, an avid promoter of unstructured coaching, and Virender Sehwag, a shining illustration of the most uncomplicated approach to the game. When Chappell draws a vision of Sehwag as a possible leader of men in the near future, the managers of Indian cricket cannot brush the idea aside. True, Sourav Ganguly has not been dismissed as a captain yet and Rahul Dravid remains the next logical choice, but there is no denying the fact that Sehwag is not far behind.

But Sehwag is not in a hurry. He has said it in clear terms that captaincy is not at all the priority in his book. "I'll be lying if I say I'm not interested but the truth is that I've not thought about it. I don't think you'll find a cricketer who would say he's not interested in becoming a captain. It is a huge honour and a dream to lead your country but I'm not interested in grabbing, certainly not when you have senior and qualified men in the team to do the job." His response, in keeping with his character, is honest, just as his cricket.

Sehwag is an astonishing phenomenon. Chappell promises a revolution in cricket coaching at all levels with his brilliant ideas. Sehwag, in his own way, has already set off on an eventful course with his unique style of batsmanship, the most compelling to watch as he dominates the bowlers with disdain.

Rising from the dusty environs of rural Najafgarh on the outskirts of Delhi, Sehwag has charted a journey that mimics a thriller right from the first frame. "I was very confident always," he declares, even as he confesses to some difficult times when he failed against Pakistan in a one-day match, his debut, and thought it was almost over for him.

Not many gave him a chance. Faulty technique, misplaced confidence, stiff competition were seen as some of the challenges that he had to contend with in his comeback to the big league. He found his way, and came up with some amazing conquests. In the process, he also gave batting in both forms of the game a new dimension.

All kinds of theories floated around as Sehwag scripted his rise in international cricket. Critics were convinced he would not last and spoke of lack of strength and temperament to counter the varying demands. Aspersions were also cast over his longevity at the highest level of the game. It was said that the swing in England and bounce in Australia would be the ultimate test of his batting skills. He stood up bravely and made his presence strongly with some rousing knocks, all dominating entertaining, helping him establish in the team as an important member of the core group.

"It's important to remember your roots and people who help you at various stages in life," he insists. His mates are welcome any time to seek assistance.

"If I'm their captain, I've to look after their interests. How else can I command loyalty from the players if I remain unavailable when they require help from me."

Unflinching loyalty is what Sehwag values. Who doesn't, but he has proved it. By backing state-mate Aakash Chopra he may not have pleased the team management but it was his way of expressing camaraderie. The same man would in turn expect unwavering support from his mates when he leads the side. "It always works in your favour if you're honest to your job. Unless I'm loyal, how can I expect others to follow suit."

Talking of his leadership qualities, it is easy to identify the strong points in Sehwag's personality. At a recent meeting with officials at the Delhi and District Cricket Association, he bulldozed his way past a reluctant administration to create new facilities for his mates, old and current. Improved infrastructure, modern training equipment, greater say in cricket matters, bigger share in sponsorship money, respect and recognition for cricketers at all level were some of the demands the officials granted Sehwag. No Delhi captain in the past had displayed such authority when dealing with the administration.

Obviously, Chappell was not aware of these qualities when he reflected on Sehwag as a future leader. Chappell may not have seen much of Sehwag off the field but then he has not been off the mark either. As Chappell makes an early assessment of the ammunition at his disposal, he will need little time to identify his potential heroes. Sehwag will rank high in the list for many reasons.

It is to Chappell's credit that he has been able to look at Sehwag in a role few have imagined. Sehwag is clear in his approach. He does not hesitate at the crease, nor in his role as a captain. He may not be as authoritative a captain as a batsman that he is but is firm in his own manner, sticking to his belief. Full marks to Chappell for looking at captaincy material beyond Dravid. "I always backed myself because I was sure that none could stop me from playing my natural game. It was essential that I stuck to my style because it was this style only that carried me thus far. My early times in international cricket were not comfortable but I worked hard and adapted." We know how he worked on his batting and overall cricket.

A glimpse into his preparation reveals how he innovated to be ready for the big bowlers. With no access to bowling machines, and little experience of facing quality fast bowling, he was compelled to ask bowlers in the `nets' to come in from 18 yards, at times from 15 yards. This ingenious exercise improved his game to a large extent.

Captaincy, whenever it comes his way, will not be undeserving for Sehwag. There are any number of stories that establish his credentials as a captain who stands by his players. For his mates in Delhi he is known as the remedy to all the woes that confront the players.

From roping in sponsors for the State team to pushing someone's candidature for a job, Sehwag is always game. "Nothing pleases me more than bringing joy to someone. It doesn't matter if I know the person or not. I believe in sharing and I like helping people." It throws light on his innate desire to be known as different.

Here is a peep into Sehwag's captaincy. "Not many are aware that every time Viru has led the team his intuition has been phenomenal. He studies the opponent, invites the views of the bowlers and plots their dismissals. His communication skills are his strong point really. Younger guys feel free to approach him with their suggestions on and off the field and that is something very few captains encourage," says Asish Nehra, his old friend and team-mate.

Whether playing for State or his employers (ONGC), Sehwag's commitment is no different. Says Mithun Manhas, a close friend and team-mate from Delhi and ONGC, "he gives his hundred per cent on the field and does not give a long rope to any of his mates. The focus is complete in getting the best out of his players, some of them are in awe of him. Playing under Sehwag's captaincy is a joy."

His batting knows no limitations, cannot be shackled by bowlers who adopt negative line. It transgresses the established norms at many times but that also happens to be his forte. It is not that Sehwag throws caution to the winds but it is his unique method to score a point.

Watch him meet the ball even as it kicks off the turf, sheer timing propels the ball to its destination, as if wanting to escape punishment even as the bowler enjoys the stroke. "I count myself lucky that I don't have to bowl to him in a contest, our battles are restricted to `nets' and I say without inhibition that it can be embarrassing bowling to Viru," says Harbhajan Singh, who loves a fight anytime.

What makes Sehwag different from the rest? It is his style, so entertaining, so rare. His batting needs no comparison. How often do you see a six over point in a Test or an effortless punch, seemingly in defence but not in its end result as the ball hits the boundary in a flash. Timing happens to be the key, and of course, the immense confidence he carries with him to the middle. No bowler, no pitch, no condition holds a threat as far as Sehwag is concerned. He has a job to perform and he makes sure he does it to the best of his abilities.

At no point has Sehwag ever suggested that he would like others to imbibe his style. "Each individual has a distinct style and it is better to follow what suits your style. I did what came naturally to me. There is no rule that says one has to be aggressive at the start but then we all follow a certain pattern. Some are aggressive, some very aggressive. It is this degree that decides the line to adopt and I'm honestly very happy with the way things have shaped in the last two years."

For a coach like Chappell, a batsman like Sehwag can just be the force he wishes to develop. Here is a cricketer who revels under pressure, a batsman who pays no attention to the reputation of the bowler or the pitch, Perth or Kotla come alike to this dashing stroke-maker, an individual who has a flexible approach to a situation. As he recently confided, he has, of late, curtailed his strokeplay, probably signs of maturity but not at the cost of allowing the bowlers to dictate. "One has to establish early supremacy," remains his philosophy.

That Sehwag has succeeded in achieving his ambitions speaks for his amazing determination. He has come a long way when he travelled in city buses to reach a match in time. To his credit, he never reported late for `nets' or a match. "The strength that I derived from those hard days keeps me going. I know I've still a long way to go and nothing can shake me from my resolve."

It is also admirable that Sehwag has not allowed success to go to his head. He has remained the affable rustic who enjoyed the company of old friends. True, he keeps popping out of commercials, endorsing various products from toothpaste to cell phone, but at heart he remains a simple man. When not playing cricket, you can find him home, attending to his parents, receiving visitors, acknowledging the affection that comes his way unstinted from fans and well-wishers.

Chappell has observed in his book The Making of Champions that a captain needs to command a place in the team in order to gain respect. Sehwag meets that requirement with enviable consistency at a position he has accepted to bat at in the team's interests. Such a fine team man can be a great asset and Chappell has made no mistake in his choice. It is for Sehwag now to measure up to the expectations whenever the crown is offered to him in the future.