Sehwag is a match-winner

K. SRIKKANTH

Virender Sehwag is easily the biggest sensation to hit Indian cricket in recent times, and it is not difficult to comprehend the reason. Entertainers will always hold a special place in the cricketing world, like in any other sport.

My first glimpse of Sehwag was as the under-19 coach of the Indian side. He caught my attention because he could strike the ball so cleanly. In fact, I still remember him putting a few deliveries out of the ground effortlessly.

He was also such a simple kid. I was told he came from a sort of rustic background, even then, he hardly appeared to be overawed by the occasion. He loved hitting the ball, and it was clear that if he trusted his natural ability to play attacking cricket, he would go places.

It is in this context that I am extremely happy that Sehwag has backed his instinct to go for strokes, rather than allow the bowlers to dominate him.

Here, I would like to go back to my own playing days. To the time I was making news in Madras as an aggressive young opener. I was in my college those days, there were many who advised me to change my style of play. They felt I played too many strokes to succeed at the higher level.

Today, I can tell you that if I managed to play with any degree of success for India, it was only because I stuck to what came naturally to me. Had I become a defensively oriented batsman, I probably, would have struggled to play for my State.

The people whom I have come across after my retirement have all remembered me for my strokeplay, and I am sure, Sehwag, say 20 years from now, will find himself in a similar situation.

It is so important for a cricketer to play to his strengths, and I am delighted Sehwag is doing just that. He has an abundance of talent and is putting it to good use.

I watched his sensational hundred against England in the ICC Champions Trophy in Colombo from close quarters — I was commentating in that game — and I must say, it was an innings of absolute brilliance.

Before the Englishmen realised what hit them, he had eased past his 50, and soon he was raising his bat after getting to the three-figure mark. This appeared all too simple and easy for Sehwag.

However, it was his in-born gift of timing and the knack of finding the gaps, that made it appear so simple. Sehwag plays the ball a touch late, and this enables him to spot and find the gaps so easily.

I have played quite a few shots in my career, but never quite anything like Sehwag's imperious strokeplay, square off the wicket on the off-side. That is the area of his strength, and even the good balls are hammered to the fence.

Indeed, Sehwag is not the kind to cash in on only loose deliveries, and he is perfectly capable of dismissing the good ball past the rope or beyond it. That's a great asset.

Not that he doesn't play the other strokes well. He can whip the ball past mid-wicket in a flash, his straight-driving is out of the ordinary, and he can essay the pull stroke contemptuously. There is a talk about Sehwag being uncertain against short-pitched deliveries, especially the ones directed at his rib-cage, but he is sure to overcome these minor hiccups. He does have the ability to survive for long at the international level.

They say his footwork leaves a lot to be desired against the quicker bowlers. However, Sehwag is basically an eye and reflex player and footwork or the lack of it is not really a huge factor in his case.

He does use his feet well against the spinners and can really leave them demoralised, and will always remain a destroyer of the bowling. By the time Sehwag ends his career, he would have dented the morale and confidence of a lot of bowlers around the world.

Being an aggressive opener myself during my playing days, I can tell you that it is a thin line to walk. There will be days when the strokes come off when you will be hailed as a hero. When one of those strokes leads to an early dismissal, you will be criticised for irresponsible batting.

This is something people will have to understand with Sehwag. He will have his share of failures, but when he strikes form, he will win games for his country. He is a match-winner and should be treated as one.

The days ahead will be tough and demanding for Sehwag. The expectations will be high and, he could so easily find himself under a lot of pressure, especially, with the World Cup around the corner.

The good thing is that the young man appears to have a cool, calm head and doesn't overtly react to either success or failure. I hope he stays that way throughout his career.

He is an exciting opener in limited overs cricket, someone who makes maximum use of the field restrictions in the first 15 overs and the fact that he plays the ball late, enabling him to pick the gaps easily, also helps his cause.

I used to go after the bowling in the first 15 overs, and on a lot of occasions, matches are won and lost at this point. It is extremely important for an opener to rattle the bowlers and the fielders. Sehwag does just that.

He has got runs against the better attacks, and believe me, nothing gives a player more pleasure than making the runs off testing bowling. If you ask me, I cherish my innings at the Eden Gardens against the Pakistanis in the 1986-87 season the most, because it came against an attack that consisted of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram, two of the greatest fast bowlers of all time.

And Sehwag's off-spin reminds me of my own bowling stints, off-spin for India, where I had a fair measure of success in the later stages of my career. I must however add that Sehwag is a more regular bowler than I ever was. His spells in the ICC Champion's Trophy matches were crucial.

Sehwag has plenty of cricket left in him, but my genuine feeling is that he would be more successful in the middle order in Test cricket. He made a fine Test hundred as an opener in England, but his long term future in Test cricket lies in the middle-order. In one-day cricket, he will remain one of the biggest threats to the new ball bowlers.