THE DASHER HAS COME TO STAY

G. VISWANATH

VIRENDER SEHWAG has come to stay in Indian cricket. Last November, in his first Test appearance at Bloemfontein, he arrived with a bang, taking heavy toll of a South African attack that was minus 'White Lightning' Allan Donald. He almost matched Sachin Tendulkar, stroke for stroke against Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Jacques Kallis. While Tendulkar was successful in putting the short ball over the slip cordon 10 times, Sehwag slammed the ball on the up through the off side. It was a great spectacle, the 'original' and the 'look-alike' of the Tendulkar brand of batting. The dapper dasher from Delhi made 105 before being bowled by Pollock. After making a glorious debut, he made 31 in the second innings, before getting castled in the same fashion by Pollock.

Jacques Kallis got the better of him for 13 in the first innings of the Port Elizabeth Test that India saved through Rahul Dravid and Deep Dasgupta before the decision of Match Referee Mike Denness, who came down heavily on half a dozen Indian players, dominated the Test.

-N. SRIDHARAN

Sehwag received a one-Test ban and a suspended sentence for appealing excessively and not upholding the spirit of cricket. He did not play the first Test against Nasser Hussain's England at Mohali. Afterwards, his scores were 20, 66 and 74 against England and Zimbabwe before injury forced him to miss the Test series against West Indies. Things have gone his way since he returned to the national team for the full tour of England. A rush of blood saw him dancing down the pitch and falling prey (at 84) to left-arm spinner Ashley Giles in the first innings of the Lord's Test. But he atoned for that lapse on the first day of the second Test at Nottingham. His 106 was made in conditions that were most suitable for the England seamers.

In a manner of speaking Sehwag has taken England by storm, impressed the most hardened critics of the game and won thousands of admirers by his aggressive knocks in the NatWest Trophy and the first two Test matches.

In the circumstances wherein Sehwag has been pushed into the role of an opening batsman, the views of a master opener, become pertinent and significant.

India's little master, Sunil Gavaskar, was in the commentary box to give an insight into Sehwag's success story as an opener.

Gavaskar was the epitome of a batsman who adhered to the coaching manual, showing exemplary technique and temperament. Being a leading commentator with ESPN-Star Sports, Gavaskar has been able to watch the progress of Sehwag since the talented striker really came on the international scene some two years ago. Gavaskar was most candid in responding to a question as to 'What he made out of Sehwag as an opener. "He is a natural stroke player. His shot selection was good in conditions that were helpful to the seamers. Even in the second innings of the Lord's Test, when he made 27, his shot selection was good." Asked further to comment on whether Sehwag could be looked upon as a long-term prospect as an opener, Gavaskar said: "He can be. He has to play his natural game." However, Sehwag has to become a little more compact and play a few more big innings.

Talking about playing one's 'natural game', it would be interesting to know what India's coach John Wright said on the eve of the Nottingham Test. "We don't try to hinder the natural ability of the batsmen who have already turned out to be exciting on the tour. We encourage them to play their natural game."

This was evident even when India chased a huge target in the fourth innings of the Lord's Test and Venkat Sai Laxman and Ajit Agarkar were batting.

"Some of the shots they play on Indian pitches, perhaps cannot be played in conditions here. But we always encourage them to play their natural game," reiterated Wright, who has been in awe of the new crop of batsmen in Yuveraj Singh, Sehwag and Mohammad Kaif.

Sehwag gave a new dimension to his batting during his four-hour tenure in the middle at Trent Bridge, when Matthew Hoggard was able to make the ball wobble and seam it prodigiously off the pitch. In the context of the Test when Sourav Ganguly had opted to bat first, Sehwag played a very responsible innings.

He showed the willingness to wait for the loose ball. Sehwag may not necessarily go by the book, and it's here that a resemblance to Krishnamachari Srikkanth's batting comes. The important thing is Sehwag has no fear of failure, which has hampered the growth of many Indian batsmen. Srikkanth trusted his eyes and turned out to be a hit in one-day internationals scoring 4091 runs in 146 matches with four centuries and 27 half centuries. The flamboyant opener was not as good in the 43 Tests he played and made 2062 with two hundreds and 12 fifties.

There may not be a striking similarity between Sehwag and Srikkanth, who was the coach of India under-19 team for the 1998 World Cup in South Africa. In appearance and the way he plays his shots, Sehwag has drawn comparison with Tendulkar, but what likens him to Srikkanth is his good eye-hand coordination.

Srikkanth defied the book; Sehwag too does not hesitate to improvise and goes out to bat with the aim of hitting the ball. Soon he has come to grips with varied conditions. He admitted that he had never been in a situation where the ball was swinging and seaming all around. He has never played in Australia, where Srikkanth has met with a fair amount of success.

Just the other day, Ganguly argued that if Sanath Jayasuriya could open the innings and score runs for Sri Lanka as an opener, why not Sehwag? More appropriate would be associating Sehwag with Srikkanth, who took risks that purists frown at. Sehwag too takes risks, but he also concentrated hard for 60 overs in the first innings of the Nottingham Test. That's perhaps the reason, why he rated the Trent Bridge century better than his debut 105.

It will not be long before Sehwag is told that he has to look at his India career as an opening batsman in both forms of the game. There is a tendency to judge modern players by their success in one-day internationals, which is wrong. Performances in Test matches count in the end and if Sehwag's first scores in Tests are anything to go by, then he has it in him to go forward and emulate some fine batsmen India has produced.

Sehwag's aggregate in nine Tests is 526 at an average of over 50. He was dismissed for no score for the first time in seven Tests when he offered no shot to a delivery from Hoggard in the second innings at Trent Bridge. That ball might have curved in late and defeated him in the air. Perhaps he was not ready or even too eager to take strike first. This is what Ganguly had to say after the Test match: "Sehwag is batting splendidly. He is starting to solve the problem up there. He is a free flowing batsman and the runs keep coming". Well, Ganguly is backing him and is confident Sehwag will succeed. What Sehwag must do is seek out Sunil Gavaskar and learn more about facing the new ball.