Back on the road

While Virender Sehwag has not been in the best ODI form these past couple of seasons, Shoaib Akhtar has had to address issues tangential to the playground. But both are, without doubt, match-winners, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

Keeping Virender Sehwag out of the Indian one-day squad for too long might seem counter-intuitive given his potential to score heavily at nearly a run-a-ball.

AP

Under circumstances that couldn’t have been more dissimilar, two men, best described as sporadic stars, made a comeback in the current One-day International cricket series between India and Pakistan. Or perhaps not a “comeback”, technically. Shoaib Akhtar played in the last one-dayer against South Africa, and his rehabilitation continues against India. Meanwhile, Virender Sehwag did not play the first game, and after Gautam Gambhir’s good form, it w ill be interesting to see how space can be created for the Delhi batsman.

Without doubt, both Sehwag and Akhtar are match-winners, although Sehwag has proved himself as such on a less consistent basis than the Rawalpindi paceman. The Delhi opener has not been in the best ODI form these past couple of seasons. Sehwag was chosen ahead of the likes of S. Badrinath and it remains to be seen if he will be discarded without trial, usually a fate reserved for lesser-known players — like Badrinath himself.

In 2005, Sehwag turned out for the ICC World XI — a team comprising the then-leading figures in one-day cricket — in a three-match series against Australia. Rahul Dravid also made the squad. (Sachin Tendulkar was named in the squad, but opted out.) It’s another matter that Sehwag scored 6, 21 and 37. The point is, at one stage he was considered good enough to fit in that composition. Since then, however, Sehwag’s form has dropped so alarmingly as to put a question mark on his international future in the shorter version.

Keeping him out of the Indian one-day squad for too long might seem counter-intuitive given his potential to score heavily at nearly a run-a-ball. Words like form don’t always apply to Sehwag. On the other hand, potential obviously needs to be translated into numbers. In the past, when Sehwag went through rough patches, successive captains usually indulged him, and nearly always gave him the freedom to apply his slam-bang method, irrespective of the situation. Whether the carefree approach genuinely helped his mental state fall in line with the execution (as Mohammed Azharuddin would claim in his own case, from time to time), or if he got luckier than usual, is a moot point. The truth of the matter perhaps lies in between.

Sehwag’s hand-eye co-ordination is still widely regarded as outstanding, although the label ‘Tendulkar’s heir’ is no longer applied — partly because there exists little similarity in their batting styles, but mostly because of his absence from the media spotlight.

For the moment, Sehwag’s luck appears to have deserted him. But if his prolonged slump in ODIs is a source of disappointment, his success in the Test arena during the same period, and overall, defies logic. One way to view this is, the law of averages is apparently compensating for Sehwag’s successes. The selectors’ decision to drop him for the Test series against England earlier this year didn’t provoke cat-calls; a below-par Sehwag was unlikely to do much in difficult conditions. The strange thing is, after 52 Tests, Sehwag’s career average is just a shade under 50.

He is the only Indian to score a triple century in Tests. It isn’t as though Sehwag takes much longer to settle down during a Test innings; self-preservation was never a natural instinct in his case. At any rate, it is largely his Test performances that kept him in the reckoning for so long.

Akhtar’s problems, meanwhile, were of a different nature. These past few years he has had to address issues tangential to the playground. His career has suffered several interruptions through injury and controversy. Making comebacks has become almost as much of a habit as playing for Pakistan. In his case though, returning to the fold hasn’t proved so hard because the side realises his worth as a bowler — as his recent four-wicket haul against South Africa, earned immediately after a 13-match absence, proves. Nevertheless his last misdemeanour — which involved him, Imran Khan’s reputation, a cricket bat and fellow fast bowler Mohammed Asif’s left thigh — warranted a serious punishment; such was the provocation, on top of his past record, that the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) at first banned him indefinitely.

Shoaib Akhtar’s career has suffered several interruptions through injury and controversy.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Shoaib Akhtar’s

Dealing with boorish behaviour is a tricky thing: the idea is to rehabilitate an individual, not stigmatise him and risk permanently losing him. Pakistan is a team in transition, and needs all the experience at its disposal. Still, Akhtar should not presume that his talent will set him free. His ego, by many accounts, is fragile like an eggshell, which makes him a poor team-player. Part of his problem is that he wants to bowl quicker than any bowler in the world, and this has sometimes led to breakdown — curious, on the face of it, considering he is often accused of not trying hard enough — but the motivation for aggression arises more from personal ambition, not the context of a match. Akhtar has an inflated sense of self. Nonetheless, that is not a fault unique to him: many famous sportsmen have trouble with perspective.

Certainly, Akhtar’s problems ought to be dealt with by employing a firm hand. In particular, the drug allegations from last year are yet to be fully rebutted; the ICC doesn’t sound entirely convinced about certain aspects of the PCB investigation. But for as long as he is able to perform at his best, Pakistan should adopt a policy of tough love, and take all possible measures to rein in the quickest bowler in the world. It is not too late to save Akhtar from himself.