Having a Ball

SANJAY RAJAN

IT IS becoming increasingly difficult to classify Virender Sehwag's batting style. Clearly, he is more than the slam-bang type we thought him to be when he first broke into the international scene. With time one realised that the Blaster from Najafgarh actually possesses the most uncomplicated batting technique among his mates in the side. The aggressive ways — unbridled at times but controlled when required — are not an emotionally motivated response, but a style he has formulated for himself based on his strengths. He has fine-tuned it through many hours of practice.

Come to think of it, Sehwag exemplifies all that is captivating when it comes to courage. And if Rahul Dravid has earned the sobriquet `The Wall' for his broad blade and rock-like defence, Sehwag could well be `Bold and Beautiful' for his cavalier attitude.

Sehwag's batting is all about `timing.' It is not just hand and eye but equally about bat speed. The power that he packs into his shots is aided by his high backlift and Sehwag's bat speed is one of the quickest in modern cricket.

Former Test cricketer Chandrakant Pandit says that Sehwag's ways with the willow give one the feeling that he is always sure of making `contact' with the ball. "In a way, he reminds me of Srikkanth, who kept meeting the ball when others were busy talking about his footwork. Sehwag's technique is a refined sort," said the former Test cricketer, who is coach of Ranji champion Mumbai.

The 173 in the first Test against Pakistan at Mohali was Sehwag's ninth century in 32 Tests (average over 50). It took his tally to 611 in five innings against the neighbour at an astounding average of 122.20. Incidentally, it was against Pakistan in Multan last year that Sehwag became India's first — and thus far only — triple centurion (309).

The stroke that stood out in the Mohali innings was the slashed six off medium pacer Naved-ul-Hasan Rana that sailed over the ropes even before the bowler could look up after pitching the ball short! While these audacious shots look chancy, the fact remains that enough practice with hard plastic balls (for bounce) have gone into the mastering of the shots. Sehwag is essentially a `beside the line' player — the cut, pull, glide and an unique flick-drive are his favourite shots. His driving is punchy — all along the ground on the off-side or when hit straight, and usually in the air on the on-side.

Strong off the backfoot, the Delhi batsman has, at times, seemed a little restricted when playing on the front foot, but makes up by playing very `late.' Sehwag's greatest quality is his strength of mind. Nothing seems to ruffle him and no situation seems beyond him. It is this attitude that has seen him get away with some impudent strokes; it is this character that allows him to approach a Test or ODI in similar fashion.

Sehwag agrees that he relies on `feel.' "It could seem from outside like I approach every ball as if it is a bad delivery because of my high backlift and the resultant punch in my shots. The fact is, I focus on middling the ball for the `feel.' And I do like to play the ball hard. There are times when I defend and the ball races away from the willow." He is also the kind who tries to get on top of the bowling early. "Sometimes I get into my rhythm quickly and there are times when I take longer. If I find the gaps easily, I begin to dominate," Sehwag said.

At the same time he is capable of showing caution when needed. Like the measures he took to overcome a lean patch in the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka with that knock of 81 against the host under lights at the Premadasa Stadium.

"In that knock I decided to play the first 60 balls I faced with a defensive blade. Believe me, sound defence gives you tremendous confidence. I played straight, after which I struck the loose deliveries hard. Then on, it was like old times," he remarked.

The opener has not allowed expectations to weigh him down. He put it like this: "My approach to batting is such that it does not allow pressure to influence it. The day it does, I won't be getting runs."

Sehwag had his moments of doubts and was fortunate during his essay at the PCA Stadium. He looked out of sorts after lunch on day three even after scoring a characteristically big hundred. But then, that's Sehwag — a maverick, who will risk reaching a century with a six just because he feels like it, and tell himself that it's just a game after all if he blew it.

Back with a bang

THE Mohali Test saw speedster Lakhshmipathy Balaji make a successful return to international cricket after overcoming a career-threatening abdomen injury (osteitis pubis). The Tamil Nadu cricketer is another one with a strong mind.

Having to stay out due to injury is bad enough; worse is when it lays you down very early in your career. The 24-year-old's previous Test was the third and final one at Rawalpindi on the Pakistan tour last season.

Balaji returned home midway through the Champions Trophy in England last September, with sports medicine experts saying that the injury required more rest than rehabilitation. Those five months were difficult, unnerving even, considering that it would ask for a whole new approach to bowling. Balaji put his mind to it, worked hard to strengthen the core muscles and modified his action thereafter.

"It was a long lay-off for me, as I missed out on eight Tests and two one-day series. Prior to that I hadn't missed any match at any level because of any injury, so that was disappointing. However, I took it as a challenge, worked really hard and today's result showed it paid off," said Balaji, after securing a maiden five-wicket haul in Test cricket.

The fact is that Balaji was only reclaiming his rightful place in the team. There was never any doubt that he would be playing against Pakistan, considering his impressive display in the away series where he took 12 wickets from three Tests, including a particularly impressive four for 63 in the first innings of the deciding Test. So, it was only a matter of the think-tank feeling sure of the lanky seamer's fitness. Statistics revealed that the young man was at his accurate best in the first innings, with a high percentage of his 20.4 overs pitched on and outside the off-stump, forcing the batsmen to play. "I concentrated on hitting the deck. The seam (in the new SG balls) was more pronounced compared to the balls we used to bowl with. On Indian wickets we need to hit the ball hard, and with the enhanced seam there was bound to be some carry and extra movement off the wicket," remarked Balaji, whose spell on the day stood out for use of wrist and intelligent seam work.

Balaji spoke of the adjustments he had made to his action. "I consulted Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation. He had suffered a similar injury in his youth. It was he who advised me to run in faster and head towards the batsman in my followthrough," said the paceman.

MRF PF's head coach T. A. Sekar, who helped with Balaji's rehabilitation, said: "Balaji bowled with tremendous confidence. I thought he was much better in the second innings. He was running in much more stronger, jumped less and forward as advised by Lillee, and followed-through immediately. His wrist position was splendid, seam upright, and he was releasing the ball, not simply pushing it like he used to do earlier."

"I liked the way he brought the ball into the left-hander. He used to find it difficult bowling to southpaws. But he has got the outswinger going now, and that is the nicest thing to happen to a predominantly inswing bowler," Sekar opined.