Indian captain Rahul Dravid and chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar could be on the verge of dropping one of the country’s more explosive selection bombshells of recent years as they contemplate axing opening batsmen Virender Sehwag for the deciding third Test against South Africa at Newlands beginning on Tuesday.
Sehwag has struggled throughout the tour, but it is his infuriating refusal to change his attitude and approach to batting at the top of the order, as much as his failure to reach a single half-century, which has led to his current predicament.
Sehwag’s carefree, winner-takes-all style can work wonders on the flatter, less bouncy wickets of the subcontinent but on pitches with moisture and occasionally lavish seam movement, the edges have been flying thick and fast from his bat, and very early in most of his innings.
While Munaf Patel was assured of his return to the side in place of VRV Singh even before Sunday’s final practice session under the inspiring slopes of Table Mountain, and MS Dhoni was told he would play if he could stand the pain in his damaged fingers, Sehwag was still sweating.
By Sunday lunchtime, Dravid was still genuinely undecided about the fate of the man who was his vice-captain during the ill-fated one-day series.
“I have always made the effort to name the 12 the day before the match but this time you’ll have to bear with me as there are a couple of injuries and other issues which I’d like to see to,” Dravid told journalists.
The “injuries”, it seems, were clear-cut: “I’d like Dhoni to have a net and we’ll see how he pulls up with both his batting and his ‘keeping. Munaf is fine, he’s not a problem,” Dravid said.
The “issues”, however, were far less clear-cut.
“Runs at the top of the order has been a problem for us and it’s an area in which we’d like to become better,” Dravid said with the diplomatic skills of a seasoned politician.
“A good, solid start is going to help us achieve our goal of batting for four sessions. So we might look at the top order. But no final decision has yet been made,” Dravid said before insisting he would have the courage of his convictions if he felt a hard decision needed to be taken.
“If the situation demanded it, I wouldn’t be wary of making any dramatic changes, if it meant that it would strengthen the team,” he said before offering what could have been a “last chance” to Sehwag with the words: “But there are various factors that you have to bear in mind — the fact that it is the deciding match in the series and the fact that it could well be a different sort of wicket to those in the first two tests.”
His opposite number Graeme Smith admitted that he was aware of the talk surrounding Sehwag’s place in the side and said his bowlers had specifically targeted the batsman’s weaknesses outside the off stump.
“All the areas in which we have attacked him have been successful. He’s obviously very low on confidence at the moment and we haven’t allowed him to make any starts or get settled,” Smith said. “We’ve really made the first ten balls count against him.”
Having ended a similarly desperate run of form himself with a half-century in Durban, Smith said he understood how Sehwag might be feeling — but had neither the time nor the inclination for sympathy.
“He’s a dangerous player. Even if you declare 350 runs ahead, he can take the game away from you. If he scores a hundred, he scores it quickly. He has been a vital cog in their team for a long time so, if he didn’t play, we’d see that as a success,” Smith said.
The ‘Sehwag issue’ aside, Dravid was confident that his side could still win a series they began as huge underdogs, became overwhelming favourites, and have now returned to being the popular vote to lose.
“It’s time for us to bounce back. We’ve shown throughout the series at various times, that we can do well against South Africa so now we must put all the plans in place and perform when the situation demands it.
“Our best chance is on pitches which give our seamers the best chance of taking 20 wickets as quickly as possible. It means the batsmen have to grit it out and score between 250 and 300 runs... Then we’ll have a great chance.
“We have to bat four sessions and that’s probably the biggest goal which we have failed to achieve,” Dravid said, inadvertently bringing everything back to the cursed problem at the top of the order.