The oldest memory Virender Sehwag has of his childhood is a borrowed one. “My mother tells me that when I was one or two years old, I would calm down once a bat or a ball was given to me. I would cry for hours if my wish was not fulfilled,” he says.
In Sehwag’s narration of his mother’s memory, lies a belief that he may have been destiny’s child, born to dominate the cricketing world one day.
His journey from Najafgarh, a nondescript, dusty suburb of Delhi, to the cricket arenas of the world – and comparisons with such greats as Don Bradman and Viv Richards – should be a scriptwriter’s delight. And Sehwag knows it. “
Is pey to hit film ban sakti hai
(it can be the subject of a successful film),” he comments, recalling the past that shaped his present.
Sehwag’s forefathers came to Najafgarh from Chutani village in Haryana, where they owned 50-100 acres of farming land. The decision to shift closer to Delhi was his
(father’s elder brother). “He was the first graduate in my family and in the absence of any educational and other vocational facilities in the village, he felt the need to be in a place which could fulfill these twin needs, not for him alone but for the entire clan as well,” says Sehwag.
It was a joint family, around fifty of them, living in a six-bedroom flat. They were ‘
(people who live by making a commission out of buying and selling farm produce) and cricket was the last thing they had seen. Sehwag was born in 1978 and by the time he was around 10, playing cricket with his friends in the
had become his only passion in life.
Today, that passion has allowed him to own two floors and a basement of a multistorey apartment in Delhi’s posh Hauz Khas locality – a small investment from the millions he has made through being India’s top player. But the memories of those early days flash through his mind as easily as though he were recounting his most recent, outstanding batting exploits.
As a batsman he has no peers. He is one of a kind. His technique – or the lack of it – is now being revisited to learn what kind of method there is in his madness. His attacking predatory instinct has made a mockery of the best bowlers and his phenomenal run-making ability has left even his worst critics speechless. It won’t be misplaced to say that Sehwag has ushered in a batting revolution, forcing us to review the fundamentals of batsmanship. And this in an era that has already given us technical masters like Sachin Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting and an exceptional stroke-maker like Brian Lara. Where and how did this man learn what the coaching manuals discard, and yet make a success of it?
TV was almost out of bounds for the Sehwag kids. They weren’t allowed to watch anything but the news. So cricket in the
was played without any idea of what the right technique was. When Sehwag was around 13-14, he was allowed to watch live images of the 1992 World Cup, his first contact with the real cricketing world.
“I would watch from early morning, rush to school for my 7th standard exams, do my paper in half an hour and be back in front of the telly,” he says. His parents were angry but could do little about it. Even then, he managed to pass his exams, but cricket had become his soulmate.
There was one cricket academy in town but coach Shashi Kale usually refused to admit ‘
. But the news of Sehwag’s hitting ability soon spread, and finally he was training with players much older than he. He was a lower order batsman and the matches they played ranged from a 10-over-a-side game to 16-over-a-side. He was trained on the philosophy that ‘no ball is meant to be wasted,’ and Sehwag became a brute striker of the ball as much by chance as by design. Defence had no place in his batting armoury and when, much against the expectations of his parents, he passed his Class X Board exams, he was set free to pursue his dream.
He had entered the most crucial phase of his life and the turning point came when Kale took him to coach A N Sharma’s academy in Vikaspuri. The visit to the academy was also the first time that Sehwag set foot in Delhi. The relationship between Sharma and Sehwag is perhaps the most significant, not just to his career but to the cricketing world as well.
“He (Sharma) was not someone who would tamper with a player’s natural ability,” says Sehwag. “He realised that I had this tremendous ability to hit the ball, even if my methods were not straight from the textbooks. He let me be and worked on my strengths.” Even now, Sehwag is grateful to the man who fortified him against the tough challenges ahead. Today, he dismisses the best of balls without troubling his feet much, but the world does not know how much training has gone into perfecting these strokes.
“Sharmaji laid great emphasis on my achieving the right balance while playing my shots, especially the transfer of weight from back to front. His methods of correcting my mistakes were very innovative. For instance, I used to drag my back leg while driving the ball. He tied a string to my leg, and stood behind the wickets while I was batting, holding the string. If I dragged my leg, he would hold the string tight, not letting me do so.”
There was another major flaw. Sehwag’s back lift came down from the point region. A pole was erected in front of the off stump and whenever the bat went in the direction of point, it would strike the pole. Sehwag’s trainer was a man who knew what he was doing and in the process, Sharma honed a raw talent (without compromising on natural ability) into a rare gem.
Learning to fly
Sehwag’s cricketing prowess increased, but not his luck. For two consecutive years, he appeared in the Delhi and District Cricket Association’s (DDCA) trials for the Under-19 team, only to be shooed away.
“I would get a couple of balls to face in the nets and then be told to pack up,” he recalls. The journey by bus from Najafgarh to Kotla was a long and arduous one and Sehwag gave up. He would have been lost to the world had another Sharma not played a significant role in finding him a place in the Delhi junior side.
Nelu Sharma, an important member of the DDCA, recognised his talent and gave him a chance to play for his team, the Madras Club, against the full might of the Delhi team. “I knew it was my last chance to prove myself. It was as if I had been waiting all my life for this one opportunity,” says Sehwag. In the match, he played what is now known as a typical Sehwag innings, scattering the ball all over the park, and by the time his innings closed, he had hit 15 sixes.
He was now a force in Delhi’s junior cricket, smashing forties and fifties at number six, taking a couple of wickets with his off spin but never once did it strike him that he could play for India one day. Why? “To believe you are good enough to play for your country, you have to score big runs, hundreds and double hundreds, which I was not doing, so there was no question of my even thinking of playing for India,” Sehwag says.
Even when he was selected to play in the Under-19 World Cup for which Kris Srikkanth was the coach, he had no reason, he says, to believe that he would play for the Indian senior team one day. But Sehwag impressed Srikkanth so much that the former India opener started calling him Richards. It was perhaps the first time he was given that accolade. “I hardly understood any English those days, nor he much Hindi, but I could hear him say ‘Richards’, and the rest I would get translated by the boys in the team who could understand English,” says Sehwag.
He continued to challenge the coaching manuals, never ever trying to implement the advice of those who would tell him to correct his ways if he wanted to become an India player one day. Even as late as 2007, when he found himself out of the Indian team, he would be told to mend his ways or face oblivion.
“It is not that I ignored any suggestion. I listened, but did not feel the need to correct myself. I did not fail once I got into the Delhi Ranji team, getting runs the way I wanted to and also, I always had faith in my ability. Yes, I have made corrections over the years. Experts say that if I did not have a good defense, I would not have survived for so long. Whatever it may appear from the outside, I choose only those balls to hit which are in my range and, according to me, are loose balls,” he explains.
One major correction he had to make was when he failed in his debut one-day match against Pakistan at Mohali. He still remembers Sourav Ganguly’s advice while sitting next to him in the dressing room. Ganguly was yet to become Indian captain but his words: ‘Remember, international cricket is real cricket and domestic cricket is nothing in comparison’, still ring in Sehwag’s ears.
Hero no. 1
Dropped from the team, he told his coach Sharma that he was not good enough to play quick bowling. “Even before my bat was down, Shoaib Akhtar’s delivery had rammed into my pads. I couldn’t even see the ball, leave alone play it,” he says.
By now his desire and ambition had multiplied and a way was found to make Sehwag face genuine pace. Buckets of water were poured on the cemented wicket at Sharmaji’s academy and wet cork balls and tennis balls were bowled at him by pacers from a distance of 16 yards. Balls would fly around him but Sehwag would not be able to connect.
“But once Sharmaji directed the bowlers to bowl at my body, the whole thing worked. I had to defend myself and in no time the ball started to find the meat of my bat.” This practice continued for hours and days and if Sehwag is today a skillful player of genuine pace, he has to thank his coach and his training methods for that.
Even when he was back in the one-day team, he was not a runaway hit, failing more often than scoring big runs. But he had the confidence of his captain, Sourav, who had “assured me a continuous run of 30 matches to cement my place in the team.” It was again Sourav who pushed him to open the innings both in Tests and one-dayers, a move which thrust Sehwag to the forefront in the international arena. No wonder he holds his former captain in such high esteem.
Today, Sehwag, the Jat from Najafgarh, is a terror on the cricket field for teams and bowlers all over the world. He can score a triple hundred at a speed not possible for most to hit even a hundred. What makes him an exceptional player is that despite the risks he takes while batting, his success rate is as good as those who prefer safety first to being adventurous.
Does the fear of failure never bother him? “Cricket is my passion. I enjoy batting, it gives me a lot of pleasure. My thinking is similar to the character Aamir Khan plays in 3 Idiots. I don’t play to make records, nor to make money, I play because that is the thing I enjoy the most,” says Sehwag. If he continues to bat the way he has so far, world cricket may have to invent a new phrase to do justice to his achievements.
The Family Man
Virender Sehwag’s life partner has in more ways than one transformed his shy, reticent public image. It is a love marriage and Sehwag met his future wife, Aarti Ahlawat, a distant relative, at a family function. “Aarti was a great source of strength during one of the low periods of my life, when I was dropped from the Indian team in 2007,” says the Indian opener.
He couldn’t sleep for days together, unable to absorb the shock of being out of the Indian team. “She told me not to brood too much and instead work hard on my fitness to get back into the team,” he says. The advice worked well for him as he shed around eight kilos and was in his prime when recalled to the side.
She also played a role in his picking up the English language, something Sehwag was very uncomfortable with. If today he comes across as a man who is well-versed in English, the credit goes to Aarti.
“I must acknowledge that she is the one who taught me the language and I am not shy of admitting it,” he says with a smile.
Aryaveer, their two-year-old son, like his father was at that age, can’t do without either a bat or a ball in his hand. But unlike his father, the son is born into a family where cricket is the life-blood of their existence.
Sehwag’s show and tell
Sehwag is that rare Indian cricketer who is forthright with his comments on fellow players, coaches or his own game. He has an enduring relationship with his idol and teammate Sachin Tendulkar. He not only holds his batting ability in awe, he also respects Tendulkar for being his guide.
“What haven’t I learnt from him! From learning how to tackle bowlers on their good days, to building an innings, to sorting out minor or major issues of my cricketing career, he has been there right from the day I made my Test debut hundred at Bloemfontein in South Africa,” he says. Sehwag believes that in this Indian team, “Tendulkar is the only one who is ahead of me in thinking (cricketing issues). No one else can teach me anything other than him. I am not saying I am better than others, all I am saying is that the way I think about the game is very similar to what Tendulkar thinks and he is the only one who is ahead of me.”
He thinks it is Tendulkar who deserves the accolade of ‘the greatest batsman of the decade’ rather than himself. “Look at Tendulkar’s staggering achievements. How can anyone rate me ahead of him or even Ricky Ponting? I have played only 72 Tests and won just one match for India. I don’t agree with what people say.”
Sehwag feels honoured when he is compared with Viv Richards but does not think he is as good as Richards was. “I have seen his innings on YouTube and on television and I don’t think I can hit sixes to fast bowlers the way he did.”
He rates Sourav Ganguly as the best captain, and Kumble as very good, someone who planned India’s rise to number one. “MS Dhoni has taken that legacy forward,” he says.
The highest praise is reserved for coach Gary Kirsten. “He is the best coach in the world, be it man-management, giving respect to the players or the manner and the method he applies to communicate. He never imposes himself and it is great to have him there.”
On John Wright he says: “If we lost or if a player dropped a catch, a vigorous training session would await the team or the player.” It was like a panic reaction, he says, which should not happen at this level of the game.
His most acerbic remark is reserved for Greg Chappell. “It will be better not to speak about him at all,” he says.
He believes the triple hundred he scored in Multan against Pakistan is the best he has played so far. “Not because it was a triple but because of the manner in which I scored those runs. I was disappointed that in the previous big innings in Australia I got out at 195 by lofting the ball. The disappointment was not for not scoring a double. It was because we lost the match because I was dismissed. In Multan though, I played my natural game, I did not want to get out at the end of the day’s play. If you see the video of that innings you will notice that I played three consecutive maidens to Shabbir. I just remained glued to the crease, not even moving my neck as my stance was off and middle and I did not want to touch any ball which was not pitched on the stumps.”
While the world believes Sehwag is the player who is the best at figuring out Muralitharan’s doosra, Sehwag says: “I have not been able to figure out in which direction his ball will spin. Tendulkar has decoded him and keeps telling me that when he bowls a doosra his thumb juts out. But I have not been able to figure him out.”
But Sehwag has plundered Murali the most. “When I play my shots against him, I cover for both, the off-spin as well as the doosra so that I get my timing right.” And it is this confidence and the approach to his craft, that sums up Sehwag’s genius.