'My family members are my greatest fans'

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

HE had belted the neighbourhood bowlers with his plastic bat. Now he has extended his domain to the international cricket fields and has emerged quite an entertaining batsman. For Virender Sehwag, the transition has been one long journey of hard work. No doubt, he is a great inspiration for youngsters.

V. V. KRISHNAN

Employed as an Assistant Administrative Officer in the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, the 24-year-old Jat from Delhi has been an asset to the Indian team in both the forms of cricket. A shy man, who actually blushes when you ask him if he has a girlfriend, Sehwag has finished shooting for five commercials. "Part of the game,'' he says with modesty even as he quickly adds, "cricket is my first priority.''

In Delhi, to spend time with his family after the first Test against the West Indies, Sehwag spoke to The Sportstar before leaving for Chennai for the second Test.

Excerpts:

Question : How do you assess your recent success in international cricket?

Answer: I must say it's been thrilling. To have made an impact on a consistent basis can be very encouraging. To tell you the truth I've not been surprised because I was always confident that I would succeed. It was a matter of getting the right kind of boost at the right time and I'm really glad that I grabbed the opportunities that came my way from the time I made my Test debut.

What has been the striking feature in your career?

It won't be fair to judge myself. I would appreciate if others assess my contribution to the team. Of course I'm happy that I've made a place for myself but still I would not say that it's been very satisfying. It's just the beginning for me and I'm glad I've made a confident start to my Test career.

How different does it all appear from the time you played your first one-day international in 2000?

There's a world of difference. I was, in hindsight of course, not really prepared for international cricket when I made my debut. Even at that point I thought I wasn't ready but then it was a challenge one had to accept. I had just no preparation to tackle the challenge that came from the other end (Shoaib Akhtar and Wasim Akram). On my comeback, I was better prepared to tackle the bowlers and it was a joy to be part of the Indian team again.

It was said that you were suspect against fast bowlers?

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. It was not that I was suspect against fast bowling but I played the spinners better. That did not make me a poor batsman against the fast bowlers. Even playing good spinners is an art and no batsman would tell you that it's easier playing spin or easier playing pace. Each has a challenge to offer and I enjoy playing both. It was just that I played the spinners better.

Still it must have been tough facing the fast bowlers?

It was bound to be because in domestic cricket I had not faced one fast bowler of the quality of Akhtar or Akram. They were of a different class and such experienced bowlers. I was baffled by their speed, line and length simply because I had not faced such a bowler even once in domestic cricket. Delhi doesn't play Karnataka often for me to judge Srinath or Prasad. Unless I play quality fast bowlers at home how will I be ready for them in international cricket? That's what happened with me on my debut.

What else do you remember from your first stint in international cricket?

The disappointment of not having done well rankled. Mentally I was tormented by the failure and was keen to get back at the earliest. I realised that the pace one faced in domestic cricket was different from the one in international cricket. And then the pressures were different too. In domestic cricket, there is hardly any public to watch but it's so different in internationmal cricket.

Which was the most important phase in your comeback?

I would say the innings at Mohali against West Zone in Duleep Trophy (2000-01). It was a green top and the conditions were hostile. West had Zaheer (Khan) and Iqbal (Siddiqui) and we were tottering at 112 for five. I was pushed down the order because the captain thought I might get out to the fast bowlers on that pitch if I went in with the ball still new. I was hurt a little and when I walked out I remember making up my mind to give it my best try. I just played my natural game and managed to score an unbeaten 162. The ball was coming on nicely and I really enjoyed the innings because the attack was a quality one and the runs counted a lot. I remember most of that innings and would rate it as one of my best thus far.

There was another innings against Punjab....

Oh yes. How can I ever forget that? It was at Ludhiana. I made 187 on a track very helpful to the spinners. And I batted with high fever. But I couldn't help Delhi take the first innings lead. (Sehwag hit nine sixes in that knock, four off Harbhajan Singh, as Delhi was all out for 527 against Punjab's 530).

So what important lessons have you learnt in the last one season or so?

I have learnt to play my natural game. There's no point in discarding your natural play just because the stage happens to be big. I keep telling myself that it's most important to play the ball than leave it. And then the flow of the bat is very important. I have realised that because of my backlift and the swing of the bat often even my defensive shot sends the ball to the boundary. It can be a nice feeling when you time the ball well and send it where you want.

What sort of technical adjustments have you made now?

None to tell you honestly. I have tried to stay as natural in my approach as possible. In England where the ball swings and seams more it is obvious that you would make some adjustments. I had to restrain my strokeplay in England to a small extent but not at the cost of affecting my batting. I'm sure you wouldn't have noticed much changes in my approach during the England tour.

How was the experience of playing in England?

I would rate it the best tour thus far. To score well in demanding conditions was exciting and to excel in the home of cricket was something that I had always dreamt of. I became a Test opener during that tour and that to me was a very significant development.

Who guided you and who really convinced you to open in Tests?

Well, the captain (Sourav Ganguly) and coach (John Wright). They were very keen that I opened the batting in Tests and asked me if I was interested. I was prepared to do anything for the team and this was one responsibility I was looking forward to. I thought if I could give something to the team at the start of the innings it would mean a lot. I knew that opening in Test matches was different than opening in one-day internationals. One had to curb strokeplay and one also had to learn to leave the balls. I'm glad I managed to adapt quickly.

What was the one important thing at the back of your mind when you took guard as opener?

I told myself that I must hit the ball. All the time I reminded myself that I had to play positively. Just the way the Australians played their cricket. I cautioned myself not to do anything silly. A big score was what I aimed for as an opener because it was important for the team.

How has it been batting along with Sachin Tendulkar?

Wonderful. I remember his words to only look at the ball and not the bowler. He told me to play according to the situation and not to lose one's wicket to a loose stroke. That's why I felt bad when I got out against Zimbabwe at Colombo (In the Champions Trophy). I cursed myself because my dismissal put pressure on the team. And then I improved my shot selection from watching Sachin from close. It's consistency that I am working on now.

What else can you tell us about your personal experience with Tendulkar?

Let me first request that no comparison should be made between us. There can be none. Sachin is god of cricket. That's it. Now, he's such a fantastic mate to have in the middle. Jovial at times. Guiding you through difficult times. Batting with him is always an education.

Have you approached Sunil Gavaskar for guidance? How was it shooting that commercial with him?

He's such a jovial person. He makes you feel at home quickly and of course he's always wanting to help. I asked him some tips on opening the innings. On whether to concentrate on frontfoot play or backfoot play. He was such a great batsman. He told me that a batsman should give the first hour to the bowler. After all a bowler too is a competitor on the field. You give him the first hour and the rest would be yours. Once you overcome that initial phase, batting becomes a joy at any level. One can dictate terms by batting sensibly at the start and the bat will find the ball far more comfortably.

How much do you work on improving your batting?

A lot. In fact I'm always working to improve. I keep analysing my batting. We have this facility to have all our innings on CDs so that we can watch them later and rectify our mistakes. I always carry all my personal batting CDs with me and watch them regularly.

How often do you go back to your coach (A. N. Sharma)?

As often as possible. Because of the tight schedule I don't get to meet him but then I keep in touch through phone to seek guidance from him.

Did you seek help from great players from other countries you had come across during your tours?

Not really. When we have great players in India why should I seek help from those overseas? I don't mean any disrespect to them but look at the quality of players in our team itself - Rahul (Dravid) has amazing temperament and patience. Sourav (Ganguly) has a tremendous cricketing brain and some outstanding strokes. Well, Sachin, wo to bhagwan hai (he's god). So why should I approach foreign cricketers when I have such a galaxy around me.

Has all this success affected your lifestyle?

Not at all. But I do realise that expectations from me have grown. People want me to succeed more. But I know how to deal with success and failures. For me, cricket comes first and then the other things. People talk of cricketers appearing in so many advertisements but that's not at the cost of my cricket.

How do you react to all this attention?

It feels nice but I tell myself that it's all because of my cricket. So cricket shall remain top priority. I have a lot of time for my friends and well-wishers. I do get a little upset when people push me around but then I tell myself that they only wish us well. I have never turned back anyone who comes for an autograph.

Which moment would you pick as your best cricketing moment thus far?

My century on Test debut. It was a lively track and the conditions were difficullt when I walked in with four wickets down cheaply. And scoring that century against South Africa was a heady feeling really.

Personally, what do you think is your strength?

My belief in myself. I don't go by the reputation of the bowler. I play according to the merit of the ball. I don't watch the bowler. I watch the ball. If it's the first ball I face and it's a bad ball I'll hit it. That's my strength. When I face Lee, Donald or Akhtar, I watch the ball and not them.

What are your memories of early cricket?

Some very pleasant memories please. I remember the plastic bat and ball which formed my cricketing gear. You could stir me at 3 in the morning and I would be up to play cricket. My parents always encouraged me and that to me was the strong point of cricket grooming. I was the only one in the family to play cricket and got the support from everyone.

How was it playing cricket in rustic Najafgarh?

There were no facilities for cricket in Najafgarh. No ground at all until I joined Surmount Club for coaching. I went to Government School in Vikas Puri where I learnt to play good cricket. I was told by my coach to look after my kit very well. I care a lot for my kit. And I'm not superstitious too. I don't keep a collection of my bats. At a time I have four match bats and four bats for practice.

Who would you remember during these good times?

My mentor (late Satish Sharma). I was turned away from the under-19 trials at the DDCA and I was so dejected. And then I hit two centuries for Madras Club. No one knew me but Satish bhai promoted me. He was a noble soul and very helpful to everyone. But for him I wouldn't have been where I am. If he was alive he would've been happier than me.

Do you realise that you have responsibilities now towards helping young cricketers?

Of course and I would love to assume this responsibility. I like to encourage young cricketers and it doesn't matter which zone they belong to. I'm very keen to see Rayudu play in the big league. We have heard so much of him. We shouldn't look at youngsters as competitors. We shouldn't feel jealous if some youngster does well. After all it's good for the team.

Who is your biggest fan?

My family members are my greatest fans and I value their support the most.