Virender Sehwag, bat in hand, looks a traveller between parallel universes. He wrinkles space-time: distances lengthen and the clock ticks slower as the ball begins its part in the fulfilment of a brutal fate, writes S. RAM MAHESH

Bill Waterson, creator of the much-loved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, once wrote of how cartooning was the "distillation of the barest essence", of how each panel left little space to depict buildup and release. The moment had to be captured.

Virender Sehwag's preferred medium for comic relief may or may not be the funnies in a newspaper, but his ability to freeze frame a game into its moments so he can exist in them can make a cartoonist jealous.

"Indians have got a gem on their hands," said Ian Frazer, the biomechanist with Team India. "He does amazing things for the team, and not just on the ground. Any guy who gets out and five minutes later can actually forget he played that innings is a huge godsend within an Indian culture which tends to reflect on things over and over again."

Indeed, few men stay in the `here and now' as well as Sehwag does. "I don't think about the pace of my batting," said the man who strikes at over 70 runs every 100 balls in Tests. "The only thing on my mind is that I have to hit the loose balls to the boundary. If I miss out I always think I can do it off the next ball."

Frazer's observation on reflection is all the more interesting considering Sehwag opens — a position normally filled by strong, silent men prone to brooding bouts of introspection.

Identified by coach Greg Chappell as the team pest (a term of endearment for one who's always on the lookout for a spot of fun), Sehwag's cricket brings together disparate elements. While he represents the percolation of the game into India's rural areas, he is a product of the age of television.

When the Najafgarh resident said he hadn't heard of Mankad and Roy, whose record he nearly broke in Lahore in partnership with his skipper, eyebrows were raised. How could he not know from where he sprang?

Elsewhere, former Indian batsman Dilip Vengsarkar spoke of how his seniors had schooled him in the game's history and how his generation had passed it down. This tradition, prevalent in big cricketing cities, is yet to find root in small centres.

Yet Sehwag's batting is a consequence of our times — a little surprising because popular perception suggests only urban India is `with it'. When he burst on the scene (after a dismal debut), word, not necessarily uncharitable, was out that a clone of Sachin Tendulkar had arrived.

Forty Tests and 3574 runs later, the 27-year-old is his own man. But the similarity of his more ornate composition of stroke with Tendulkar's compact productions is an advertisement for the benefits of TV viewing. And an indication of Sehwag's genius.

The words `genius' and `great' are bandied about a great deal, bestowed as if they were mutually inclusive. Greatness and genius, though, can and often mount different beasts. Simon Barnes, in The Times, writes of how those touched by genius seem to inhabit a world where the natural order does not apply. Sehwag, bat in hand, does look a traveller between parallel universes. He wrinkles space-time: distances lengthen and the clock ticks slower as the ball begins its part in the fulfilment of a brutal fate. But then so do other very good batsmen.

Barnes further notes "sporting genius involves something of an illusion" and this illusion often takes the form of an acquiescent dance: the opponent seemingly helps in his downfall.

Sehwag prefers another illusion — that of vincibility. Openers minimise risk. They abridge backlifts, soften hands, let most balls alone, and drink in the fount of technical rectitude; Sehwag is an infidel.

Critics carp: his bat descends from the Alps; his feet are set in treacle; he has no business lofting the ball. He will be found out abroad, they say. Sehwag's counter: Test centuries in Bloemfontein, Nottingham, Melbourne, and ODI hundreds on that infamous tour of green wickets in New Zealand. But he takes too many risks; the monumental innings is beyond him, they persist. India's first triple centurion in the asphyxiating pressure of an India-Pakistan encounter, two other double hundreds, seven scores in all of over 150, the one in Melbourne ending when the six that would have brought him a double was intercepted.

Interestingly, the same critics often allow batsmen of brio such as Sehwag leeway if the numbers don't stack up — surely such a batsman's quality can't be reduced to cold black on white. What of the shades of gray?

Yet, Sehwag averages 56.73 in Tests, where 50 is an indication of special ability. That's more than Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Graeme Smith, Michael Vaughan, Adam Gilchrist and just a run shy of the consistent Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid.

Sehwag's 40 matches allow for an evening out of spikes a shorter career may enjoy, and though some of the aforementioned have played more games, the squat opener can actually push his average even further. "It's hard to match Viru," said Dravid. "He sometimes plays an incredible shot to a ball which I would have defended." The illusion improves in cunning, when one recalls what Geoffrey Boycott, the media-anointed high priest of technique, said of Sehwag when he first laid eyes on him in South Africa, during the Delhi batsman's Test debut.

The Yorkshireman said he observed how the hands and feet of someone he hadn't seen before moved, and at how still the head was. Sehwag, Boycott said, was doing ok.

Batting is, and experts agree, mostly about picking length early, staying balanced and playing late. Sehwag brews a potent mixture of a quick eye with hands to match, and a stable base. Thus strokes such as the square carve, which some find hard to force fit into a structure they can comprehend, are to Sehwag nearly risk free. `Look! No hands' in his case is `Look! No feet.'

On debut, Sehwag met a Makhaya Ntini in-slider with a straight drive that had his arms describe the classical arc. Many times since, he has unveiled the same stroke. Yet, strains of Metallica are more readily detected than Mozart.

The dangling backlift has the audience fooled. Lara's uncorking is an artistic suspension; Sehwag's is more base but no less thrilling.

The glitch is the batsman's weight, in the absence of a large stride forward as a counter-balance, concentrates itself on the back heel. Late swing or cut off the track then invites the fend off to slip — a foible an opener can do without. The illusion is complete, its deception total. The other chimera Sehwag manages is an impression of a lack of thought in his method.

While his mind is remarkably uncluttered, to assume it is so because of a dearth of ideas is to accept the stereotype at face value.

`See the ball, hit the ball,' is frequently all he'll let on, but at times in press conferences and interviews, a dynamic cricket brain shows itself. His perspicuous observations on bowlers, conditions, and even stitches on a cricket ball are forthright and original. As Sehwag recently said, he overhauled his batting when promoted to open — not something undertaken on a whim. Need further proof that he mulls overs his batting? "I have noticed that he has been using the batting crease in a much better way in the last few months," said Chappell. "That has helped him."

It's curious then that Sehwag hasn't had the same kind of success in the instant format — a more modest average of 32.15 (40 is the watermark). Only a scalding strike rate of nearly 98 offers a hint of what might be. The man thinks it's because he doesn't give himself enough time!

LIGHTER MOMENT. Sehwag with Dean Jones, former Australian cricketer and now commentator at the Gaddafi Stadium.-

In Tests, however, he is a master manipulator of time. The October-born cleaves a game open and buys up match hours with the ease of "Moses parting the Red Sea" as Ian Chappell, not one for over-statement, once wrote. Sehwag averages 70.76 in the first innings of matches — the innings that often determines the texture of the contest. Two discordant notes are now introduced: only twice in 11 centuries has India gone on to win; and in second innings Sehwag averages under 24. The first fact is countered by another: only thrice in those matches has India lost. Six others have ended in stalemates, more a reflection on how cricket is held together by myriad threads, each dynamic, than any lack of initiative from Sehwag.

It also illustrates the folly of rushing to judgement on match-winners. Seldom does everything so align, that a lone hand carries a match or is perceived to have carried the match.

The second is more readily explained in the context of good batting conditions. Often first strikes extend, converting second stints into harried quests for runs, or the playing out of time. Not one to look for the not-out asterix that boosts averages, Sehwag's numbers can suffer. The two defining second-innings knocks have come against Australia, the team of this era. In the famous Adelaide win, he blasted out a 47-size hole in a target of 230.

In 2004, the Chennai Test stood poised on needle point as India needed 229. Sehwag ended the fourth day on 12 off 10 balls — each of his three boundaries etched with intent.

Rain robbed world cricket of a fascinating duel between the bowlers of this age, McGrath and Warne, and a man a short way from greatness.