‘I have never been careless’

“Defeat hurts a lot. I hide my pain and that gives the impression that I am taking things easy. The smile is an effort to kill the pain,” says Virender Sehwag in a chat with Vijay Lokapally.

Virender Sehwag is a rare phenomenon; a batsman who approaches all three formats of cricket with the same mindset. It does not make him careless, instead it makes him determined to scale greater heights. With two triple centuries and one knock of 293, he is one of the most wonderful batsmen to watch. There is never a dull moment when Sehwag is in the middle and in full flow. The explosive opener, who is set to play in his 100th Test (the second Test of the series against England in Mumbai, November 23-27, 2012), shared his thoughts with Sportstar.

Question: How has your journey so far been?

Answer: It has been a long and eventful journey with lots of special moments. I played my first Test in 2001 and made an effort to give my best every time I took guard. My goal was to play 100 Tests and I am happy I would be achieving that milestone in Mumbai. I have worked hard for it, made sacrifices and I will be very happy when that moment arrives.

How do you analyse your progress?

It was hard work. The way I play, I remember, people used to criticise and doubt my abilities. I was thought to be a batsman who took lot of risks because I played my shots early. Some said I was fit only for one-day cricket. I am glad I proved them wrong because I knew my abilities best. It was thanks to people who supported me. Above all, my coaches (A. N. Sharma and Satish Sharma), John Wright and Sourav Ganguly for showing faith in me and the selectors for backing me. I am happy they had the confidence that I could play in Tests too.

Do you remember your first first-class match?

Vividly. We were playing Tamil Nadu in Chennai (February, 1998). They batted first and I took W.V. Raman’s wicket. They scored a lot of runs (473) and we were 183 for four, but I never got a chance to bat. There was an incident of pitch tampering and both teams were banned by the Board. I waited for another eight months for the next Ranji Trophy match before I got to bat. I made a century (against Haryana) at Rohtak.

How much do you remember your first day in the Indian dressing room (against Sri Lanka in a one-day match in Pune in 1999)?

I remember it for the century by Ajay Jadeja (he was the captain). He took my bat and I never got it back. I was new in the team. I was very shy and I was in awe of some of the stars in the dressing room (Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble). I remember speaking to Gyanendra (Pandey) and Nikhil (Chopra) and then gradually with the rest of the guys. I can never forget Ganguly sitting next to me in the team bus and telling me that playing for the country was real cricket. I was motivated by that small conversation. I made my debut the same year (against Pakistan in Mohali) but I made just one (got out to Shoaib Akhtar).

Can you recall the period between getting out to Akhtar and regaining your confidence?

Honestly, I had not faced such fast bowling ever. He was bowling at 145. I just could not react as he bowled at my legs and trapped me plumb. I remember the umpire was from Delhi (S. K. Bansal) and after the game I joked that he should have saved me. We both laughed it off, but the match was a learning experience. I knew international cricket was much harder than I had imagined and I would need to learn to play fast bowling. My coach told me to practise on watered cement pitches with a plastic ball. The ball comes quicker as it skids on water. I practised two to three hours daily and learnt to tackle the fast ball. When I played domestic cricket I found the bowling to be slow because I was mentally prepared to play fast bowling. I gained confidence in international cricket when I faced bowlers who bowled at 140-plus.

How did you establish yourself?

A lot of credit to Ganguly. He backed me for selection in the next series (against Australia) and I grabbed my chance (in Bangalore) with a Man of the Match (58 and 3/59). It was special. The entire team signed on the cheque and Sachin (Tendulkar) wrote “You will have a long career.” It took a while (10 innings) before I got a century and then there was no looking back. I gained a lot in confidence.

How was your Test debut (in South Africa)?

PTI

I was prepared. I had scored a couple of fifties in the triangular series ahead of the Test matches. I was very nervous when I walked in (at 68 for four) and Sachin met me half way. “Do you feel butterflies in your stomach,” he asked and I said “Yes.” He assured me that I was ready for Test cricket. “Come and enjoy Test cricket,” he said. It meant so much. When I hit my first boundary (cover drive off Jacques Kallis) I knew I could do it. Sachin warned me about fuller-length deliveries and said not to worry about bouncers. I got a hundred.

What have been the standout moments in your career?

It has to be the triple century against South Africa (319 in Chennai in 2008). I was returning to the team after being dropped, which had shaken me. Again, there was this talk of me being finished. I wanted to score big. The triple century convinced my critics. I have always believed in getting big scores. A century should become a double century and then a triple…

How do you describe the feeling?

It is like seeing your new-born child. The happiness the baby gives is indescribable. You are on top of the world. Everyone around is smiling. It is a great feeling.

And the pain of losing…

It hurts a lot. I hide my pain and that gives the impression that I am taking things easy. You express it in the dressing room. The hurt and pain stays within when we come in public. The smile is an effort to kill the pain. A defeat hurts, but it also makes you understand the meaning of responsibility and discipline.

The important phase…

Getting a chance to play Test cricket. It gave me a chance to play in another format. It helps when you fail in one format and do well in the other. It helps you to stay in focus and gives you more opportunities. It happened in 2006. I did well in Tests and it saved my place in the one-day team.

You can’t be branded…

It is my style. Thinking is positive. If the ball has to be hit, then hit it. Batting does not change but yes the approach might be slightly altered because of the fact that Test cricket is played with a red ball and one-day cricket with white ball. That needs adjustments but you come to understand that as you progress. For me it was simple. Hit the ball if you think it deserves to be hit. Don’t clutter your mind with negative thoughts at the crease. Just react to the ball.

How does a batsman excel overseas?

You have to be mentally tough to score runs overseas. Many have done that. Look at Sachin, Rahul... They helped me a lot, (taught me) how to use the bounce and pace. Their experience guided me and I learnt a lot. On my first trip to Australia, I saw Sachin practising with plastic balls. I learnt from that too. Watching seniors bat was a huge influence. I also don’t worry about how the pitch would be. Best is to go and discover it because it allows me to bat with a free mind.

You are a dashing batsman and have hit two triple centuries and four double centuries. Can you share your thoughts?

Tough for me to say why. My job is to go and make runs. I honestly never looked at making a triple century. It never crossed my mind. The only time I thought about it was when I missed it. I told Sachin I would take something from him if I scored a triple century. “Of course”, he said. And I missed it (293 against Sri Lanka in Mumbai in 2009). It is very difficult to describe how one gets it. On the day I got my second triple century, my under-19 coach (Ajit Chaudhary) called me in the morning to say that it was a great day for me and I should just go out and enjoy the day. I was resuming at 52 and ended the day at 309 not out. That one call from my coach guided me because I quickly knew it was my day. It is about mental strength and believing in yourself.

Natural player but irresponsible — how do you react to the criticism?

If you are irresponsible with your cricket, you will pay for it. You don’t become responsible in a day or two. It comes from years of experience. When you become a father, you become responsible in guiding the child, teaching him the facts of life. I don’t get perturbed by criticisms of my game, but personal thing is bad. Look at how people write and talk about my so-called rift with M. S. Dhoni. It is utter rubbish and we both have laughed at it. He is my captain and I respect his decision because he takes them for the team’s benefit. It was utter rubbish.

Why did you never aspire for captaincy?

You don’t always get something just because you aspire for it. My job is to play cricket to the best of my abilities and it is for the Board and the selectors to decide if I am good enough to lead the team. I was never after captaincy. I wanted to enjoy my cricket. I wanted to score runs after runs and not captaincy. That is my job.

How much value do you put on your wicket?

People say I am not serious about my wicket. That’s not true. Show me one batsman who wants to get out cheaply. The way I am getting out people say I am throwing my wicket. Not correct at all. I get out playing a shot and they say irresponsible. If the same shot fetches a boundary, they applaud. I have never been careless.

Tendulkar told me five years ago that with age a batsman tends to shed or add some strokes. He has done that. What is your view?

I don’t look to restrict myself. Yes, I now give some time to assess. Give respect to the bowlers and then start playing shots (in Tests). At some stage, I will have to be cautious against the new ball and look to give the team a great start.

Can anyone bat like Sehwag?

Maybe there are thousands of Sehwags, you don’t know. You will probably get the same answer from Sachin, (Sunil) Gavaskar, Dravid, Laxman. They would say the same. You can’t say someone is second Tendulkar or second Gavaskar. Each batsman has his identity. The comparisons are only in the initial stages and then you develop your own style and identity.

What does technique mean to you?

A lot. My strong point is my head position. It is very still. My coach (A. N. Sharma) told me to play my shots fully — bend my knee and try to play the shots under the eye.

You don’t often step out?

I tried it a few times but got out. My strength is to hit the ball and I can do that by playing from the crease. It is better to take on the bowlers from the crease. My balance and head position remains firm. When I am still, I see the ball better, use my eye, hands and wrists better. Even (Viv) Richards did not step out much. He moved sideways within the crease, making room to play his shots.

Do you see yourself becoming a coach or doing commentary after you retire?

No. I want to give quality time to my family. Playing cricket has meant being away from them for long periods. I want to stay with them once I stop playing. I won’t think of cricket at least for five years from my retirement day. Then I will take a call.

Future of cricket: Tests or T20?

Test cricket will remain. It will have new stars to keep it going. There is space for Test cricket. Maybe, we can take Test matches to smaller venues but Test cricket is Test cricket. You don’t have to think of having night Test cricket but take it to smaller venues. Crowds will come.

How has the experience of playing with Tendulkar been?

Can you ask for anything bigger than playing alongside your role model? I have enjoyed that privilege. He is amazing. When your role model applauds you, your life is made. When he told someone that I bat like him, it was the best compliment for me. I could not have asked for more.

What does cricket mean to you?

I can’t ask for more. I have a good life, a great family. I thank god for giving me the talent. And my talent gave me good life.