The visitors book at Krishna Niwas is fairly indicative of the lifestyle its inhabitants have adopted. Three people visit Virender Sehwag daily — a priest, cook and trainer. There are others, like the odd contractor or driver, even a journalist, who have paid him a visit recently, but it’s apparent the Nawab of Najafgarh loves his peace. There are some others who don’t need to record their entry; Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma visited him recently, the excited security guard tells us.
On the outskirts of Delhi, away from the din of Najafgarh where he grew up, and in the company of some of the wealthiest in town, the one-acre farmland was made his own by Sehwag about two years ago. The desolate piece of land has given way to a palatial abode replete with landscaped lawns, a garage that houses at least four sedans and enclosures for four gorgeously ferocious canines.
It’s that kind of morning which, in the mind’s eye, coaxes you to see Sehwag take the middle-stump guard. A nip in the air, a hint of dew on the grass and significant early freshness would make the ball swing and seam. And Viru, having unfurled a series of early boundaries and having played and missed a few, would settle down for another long haul.
“Sahab aa gaye,” announces the guard. Dressed in a grey woollen tracksuit, armed with an uncertain grin and humming like he famously did at the crease, the Nawab emerges. Sehwag is still bleary-eyed. Apologies elicit an honest and earnest response: “Sir, aap jaldi aa gaye.” The tone for this match, like so many others, is being set by the seasoned opener. Correction: former opener.
Has he made peace with that correction? “Yes, I have. And frankly, it’s not such a big thing. I was anyway out of the national side for close to two years, and I had decided I’ll retire on turning 37. It was a personal decision. I did consult my family, but the decision was mine.”
Why the fixation with number 37? “Because I thought it was the perfect age to call time. Rahul Dravid retired at that age, so did VVS Laxman. Anil Kumble was around 37 when he took the call; Sourav Ganguly was also 37 when he retired.”
The quiet initiation
In the summer of 1993, a 15-year-old boy nicknamed Bholi walked up to coach Amar Nath Sharma at his Vikaspuri Cricket Coaching Centre. The boy had a reputation in the neighbourhood, he could hit the ball long and hard. Sharma made him stand behind the nets for three days. On the fourth day, he got the chance to bat. The trial lasted hardly an over, and Sehwag was deemed fit to be coached.
“I was just checking his patience,” Sharma recalls. “He just wanted to bat and bat.”
The coach noticed Sehwag’s propensity to attack and decided not to force the copybook on him. “Look, there’s no point throwing the coaching manual at the kid. I am a firm believer of not altering natural talent too much. Sehwag was always natural,” he says.
Natural. It’s one word Kesar Choudhary often uses while talking about Sehwag. Kesar and Viru go back to their Delhi under-19 days.
“Oh Viru, what a wonderful man he is! Ekdum natural, 100 % genuine banda,” begins Kesar, who runs the Quetta DAV Academy in Nizamuddin. “He is always there for friends. Even after he became an international cricketer, he used to visit this academy whenever I asked him to. He always tells the kids to be natural and not copy anyone.” Gradually, word spread about the ‘natural’ who tore into bowlers’ egos. In January 1994, at the school nationals in Indore, Delhi were playing Uttar Pradesh. Sehwag, then a middle-order batsman, hit a six over point off a fast bowler whose name Sharma fails to recall. (“It was Arvind Solanki,” Sehwag says later.)
“The bowler was crestfallen. He said it was his best ball. Remember, he hit the six over point and not third man,” Sharma says. The famous uppercut had arrived.
The disastrous debut
Sehwag made his India debut on April Fool’s Day in 1999, against Pakistan in Mohali, and his nervous foray fooled the world of what was to come. He fell leg before to Shoaib Akhtar for one, and conceded 35 runs off three wicketless overs.
“I couldn’t see the ball, it was that quick. Shahid Nazir ki ball par edge lag gayi and jaise taise ek single mil gaya, but Shoaib was really quick. I was sitting alone in the team bus when Sourav Ganguly came up to me and said: ‘ Agar drop hota hai to itne run maarna ki waapas team me aaye.”
His Test debut, however, was fairytale stuff. With four down for 68 on a fast Bloemfontein pitch, Sehwag joined Sachin Tendulkar, and the duo dazzled with breathtaking strokeplay not dissimilar to each other.
“As a kid, I had modelled my game on Tendulkar’s. It was a compliment that people compared me with Sachin, but after one or two years, I thought there can’t be another Tendulkar, but there can be one Virender Sehwag. So, I assessed my game and changed it accordingly.”
Getting up to speed
The assessment meant he practiced for hours on hard wickets to counter quality pace bowling.
“The ball really shoots off the surface (on such a track). Sharma sir directed the pacers to target my body, so I had to fend each delivery. That’s where I worked out the flick off the hip,” he says.
Back to Bloemfontein. Tendulkar welcomed Sehwag to the crease with “gudgudi ho rahi hai paet me?” “I said, ‘wo sab chhodo sir, ye batao kya ho raha hai pitch par’. He said the South Africans would try to hurry me with bouncers. ‘ Darna mat, alert rehna’. Then, after some overs, he said, ‘now I’ll hit them over the slips, watch it.’ He began hitting over the slip cordon for fours. I thought let me try this, and succeeded. We added over 200 runs together.” Among their more famous partnerships is the one they had at Centurion, against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. The duo raced to 50 runs in four overs, setting the tone for a steep run chase against the arch-rivals.
Tendulkar unusually took first strike, scoring 98. “That was a high-stakes match, no doubt. Their attack was formidable, but the only bowler I was worried about was Shoaib Akhtar. Also, I didn’t want to face Wasim Akram first-up because the over-the-wicket angle of a left-arm fast bowler bowling to a right-hander is not easy. I asked Sachin if he would take strike. He refused. I asked again while leaving the pavilion, and he again refused. We entered the ground, and he again refused. But as we reached the pitch, he went to take strike. I think even he always wanted the strike, bus mere se maze le rahe the.”
No undue pressure
Next year, India travelled to Pakistan for the first full-fledged series in almost 15 years. A lot had changed since the previous tour in 1989. Sehwag, though, was unconcerned about history and the baggage that accompanied it.
“I didn’t know much about the politics between India and Pakistan. I was excited to go there because everyone was saying we are going there after 15-16 years. I was more eager because I had heard a lot about the jootis, pathani suits and salwar kameez there. I was already engaged by then, so I was looking forward to some wedding shopping too.”
He worked on his reflexes, and his confidence was high after the 195 in Melbourne a few months earlier. Sehwag left India with the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s famous words “Khel hi nahi, dil bhi jeet kar aaiyee” floating in the air.
Viru set the tone in Karachi with a scintillating 57-ball 79, but his form dipped. “After that Karachi ODI, I wasn’t able to do much in the rest of the ODIs. So, when the Test series arrived, I was determined to do well,” Viru recalls.
“In Multan, me and Sachin had a big partnership. After my fourth six, Tendulkar came to me and said, ‘ Mai tere ko bat se maarunga agar tune fir six mara tho’. I was batting on 100-odd then, and till 295, I didn’t hit a six. When I reached 295, I told Sachin, ‘ agar Saqlain ayega to mai chhakka maarunga’. Saqlain came, and I hit a six to get to the triple hundred.”
Method to madness
The casual demeanour belies an astute cricketing brain. “People often said I didn’t move my feet enough. I ask you, will you be able to cross the road when a car is approaching at 150 kph? No, right? It’s the same while facing genuine pace. I used to take a middle and off-stump guard while facing extreme pace. The idea was to meet the straight balls with the full face of the bat.”
His quiet confidence is also well known. During the 2011 World Cup, after India beat Australia in the quarters, he reportedly sent tickets for the final to his friends; and in the final, Sehwag was confident India would pull it off. “We never felt we would lose. I was out early. But I knew we needed just one partnership, and slowly the dew would take effect,” he says.
The smog has given way to sunshine at Krishna Niwas. And the afterglow is still intact behind Sehwag’s baseball cap.