HUMILITY marks his character

A black Indica, covered in dust, the tinted glasses hiding the occupant, pulls up at the gate of the pavilion at the Khalsa College.

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

A black Indica, covered in dust, the tinted glasses hiding the occupant, pulls up at the gate of the pavilion at the Khalsa College. It is early in the day with the sun not yet harsh. As he unlocks the door, Virender Sehwag throws a glance around and greets one of his old mates from the circuit. The same circuit that taught him to play hard cricket, giving him an early insight into what competition on the field meant in the true sense. "What happened to your Honda City?" I ask him. "I am not noticed if I drive this Indica," he smiles.

"Viru aa gaya hai (Viru has arrived)." The message from coach Pradeep Jain peps up the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation dressing room. Skipper Amit Bhandari and manager Sunil Khanna are discussing the playing XI and Sehwag stays out of the decision-making group. He loses little time in joining his colleagues as they warm up for the contest against Food Corporation of India.

Time-sense

Even though the message has been conveyed to Sehwag that the match is delayed because of overnight rain, the star cricketer reports well ahead of time. He is not known to come late for a training session or a match.

Akash Malhotra, having played first-class cricket with Sehwag, looks at his old mate with a mixed feeling. "Will he meet me the same way he did six years ago?" Malhotra is still contemplating how to approach the star cricketer when Sehwag waves and soon gives Malhotra a warm hug. Malhotra is relieved and his admiration for Sehwag grows instantly. "I am touched by his humility. It confirms he has not changed one bit. I met the same Viru I have known all these years," gushes Malhotra.

Virender Sehwag with his fans at the Modern School in New Delhi. -- Pic: V. V. KRISHNAN-

Word spreads of Sehwag's presence at the Khalsa College ground and fans, young and old, descend in large numbers. The organisers of the Goswami Ganesh Dutt memorial cricket tournament have a task on hand. Crowd control is something they have little experience of. Police is summoned but then the cops are no different either. They turn out to be bigger fans of Sehwag, who now seeks the protection of the dressing room.

It is not that Sehwag fears the crowd. In fact, he loves all the attention. "What am I without them?" he asks plainly. True, what is Sehwag, or any cricketer, without the support of the fans? Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S. Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, all take extra care not to disappoint their fans, especially kids. But there are exceptions in Mohammad Kaif and Irfan Pathan, known for their boorish behaviour with young autograph seekers.

In less than 24 hours of returning to Delhi from his honeymoon in some cold and pleasant spots of Europe, Sehwag is out in the heat and dust of Delhi, playing summer cricket. The ONGC is keen to win the GGD tournament and the Lala Raghubir Singh memorial cricket tournament, the latter the most popular event in the Capital's cricket calendar. Even Sehwag lends his opinion when he says, "I have enjoyed playing the Raghubir tournament. In fact, the summer tournaments in Delhi are a must for anyone wanting to understand the true meaning of professional cricket. Reputations mean nothing in these tournaments."

Driving 30 to 40 kilometres daily — to Khalsa College and Modern School, Barakhamba Road — to play local cricket matches is not a new experience for Sehwag. He has undertaken this drill for years. This time, however, he brings joy to the organisers too, who bask in the media attention as the television crew chases Sehwag for a byte or two and a huge crowd turn out is good advertisement for the tournament, too.

The spectator presence is to be seen to be believed. Some of them have left home at 5 in the morning to catch a glimpse of this jat from Najafgarh. His triple century in Pakistan is fresh and they expect some fireworks from Sehwag. He does crack a few boundaries but then he is not able to sustain the momentum. He looks rusty. But not the following morning.

Big-hitting

Sehwag getting a share of his favourite dish `Chole Bhature' during lunch with his team-mates. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

The next day, he reports at the Modern School. The ambience is encouraging and invites Sehwag to indulge in some big hitting. He goes berserk and six sixes adorn his knock. The audience, dotting the boundary, is delighted. There is no sympathy for the poor bowlers who take the punishment in their stride. Sehwag has done the same to Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar, too.

There is no doubt that Sehwag enjoys every moment of the attention and the adulation. He is at his best in the company of his ONGC mates, regaling them with anecdotes from his international travels. "Thodi exercise bhi karle," he admonishes a colleague who has put on weight. Raju Sharma, a former Ranji cricketer from Jammu and Kashmir, is among his close friends. There is laughter, non-stop, in the ONGC camp when Raju is around as Sehwag gets him to narrate some jokes.

Sehwag's knock has settled the issue and ONGC is on its way to the final. Sehwag is relaxed, having spent a good time in the middle. His 97-run knock stands out for some quality strokeplay. "He used to hit with the same intensity six years ago too," recalls V. K. Baweja, organising secretary of the Raghubir tournament.

Sehwag obliges a young autograph hunter. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

The demand for autographs is huge. Sehwag obliges them all. Suddenly he spots P. K. Roy, an old umpire and a popular figure in Delhi's cricket circle. `Dada' he hugs Roy. Another feature of cricket at the Ferozeshah Kotla — Jai Bhagwan Goel, better known as `Gaekwad' — is given a warm handshake. How can Pradeep `Deepa' Kumar, lag behind? They have all watched Sehwag grow from a junior cricketer and he gives them due respect. It is this quality, this humility that sets Sehwag apart. All three — Roy, Deepa and Gaekwad — are moved by the attention they receive from Sehwag.

Sehwag now returns to the ONGC camp where he is most comfortable. It is time for lunch. His favourite `chole bhature' has arrived from the nearby Bangali Market. A little earlier he had bit into the roti-subzi brought by dear friend Mithun Manhas but nothing can stop Viru from enjoying `chole-bhature'.

What strikes most is the utter humility that marks Sehwag's character. The team management goes out of the way to make him comfortable but Sehwag does not like it. When Pradeep Jain addresses him as `Viru bhai', Sehwag snaps, "Since when have I become Viru bhai for you? Call me Viru." Jain is embarrassed.

Scholarship

Sehwag cracks the ball to the fence during his knock of 97 runs in the local game at the Modern School. -- Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

The match is over and Sehwag empties his kit bag for his mates. There is a bat for somebody, a pair of boots for another. He has remained the same for his colleagues. The demands, however, grow. He is the chief guest at a book release in the afternoon, followed by a prize distribution function of his club — Madras Club — in the evening. He is quick to announce a scholarship for the best young cricketer of his club and is mobbed by kids and grown-ups.

It has been a long day but Sehwag shows no signs of fatigue. How does his family react when he stays away even during off-season? They like it because the exercise gives them and the famous member of the family immense joy. As Sehwag says, "I feel very happy when I realise that I can give someone great joy by just shaking his hands, posing for a picture or signing an autograph. What more can I ask for if people feel happy by just meeting me or seeing me? It doesn't affect my cricket but makes me very happy."

Sehwag has a simple instruction from his family to follow. "Please don't forget your past. Meet everyone pleasantly and remember your old friends and well-wishers." He does not disappoint anyone on this account.

The sun has set, a hectic day of local cricket is over and it is time for Sehwag to return to his family, where wife Aarti is the new addition. The drive back is again a 40-km tedious journey. He jostles his way to the black Indica and as he steps in, a mate reminds him, "Viru, kal subah saat baje Khalsa College.'' Sehwag nods, his smile a firm assurance that he will report before time.