It was written of the legendary outlaw Robin Hood that his charm lay in the fact that he made a sport of life and made life a sport. He was young, a folk hero and a man of men, who did all the things others only dreamt of doing. He exuded a confidence that was almost brash in its flamboyant self-assurance, yet he hid his own deep feelings under a nonchalant exterior. He was a rebel without a cause who often made up one, a man who made his own rules and frequently broke them. But oft, he did things he could not explain, even to himself.
These words could apply to Virender Sehwag, a man who, for so long, has seemed to live by his set of rules and has rarely been troubled by the pressures that have bothered the rest of the world. Even a few days ago, despite a couple of bad games coming upon an iffy season, Sehwag remarked that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his batting. “…Sometimes you get out, sometimes you get runs, so it’s just a matter of getting there, of spending some time at the wicket.”
That is something he hasn’t done for a while and now, for the first time, that enigmatic veneer of insouciance seems to be wearing off and Sehwag, despite those strong words of a few days ago, seems to be acknowledging his own mortality. Even in jest. On Saturday evening, following a twin failure in the tour game against Rest of South Africa, he was chatting with local Indians in the hotel lobby. The opener, told that he could see something of the country on his next visit, laughed self-deprecatingly, adding that there was no way he was coming back!
It was obviously said in jest, but Sehwag himself should be the first to acknowledge that his situation is alarming - from the team’s perspective, and his own. We have constantly heard about the importance of opening partnerships and Sehwag’s role is vital. When he gets going, he sets up the match for India and destroys the opposition bowlers’ confidence with the way he plays.
“I don’t think there is any pressure on me,” he remarked recently. “Pressure is a relative term — if you feel it, you experience it. I just want to go out there and play my natural game. If I get runs, it is good… And if I don’t, it doesn’t bother me. The important thing is the success of the team.” True, but for that to happen, he has to get runs himself. So why is Sehwag failing? It is difficult to get into his head — is it that he is finally feeling the pressure he says he doesn’t feel? Is it that he has achieved whatever he has wanted to? Does he not feel challenged enough? Or is it simply a lack of ideas to combat the present lack of form?
Combined with all this hypothetical reasoning is fact — his loss of vice-captaincy must have stung, as would the talk of him being reportedly hauled up for indiscipline, the allegations of not being fit (which he denied) along with the accusations of not working hard enough, apart from batting at the nets.
On the face of it, he might be suffering from a bit of everything, plus a technical problem of sorts. Talking to HT, Indian coach Greg Chappell had pointed out that the root cause of the problems the Indian batsmen face was that they were not adopting the right approach in South Africa. He pointed out three problem areas:
They tended to think that when they were playing on fast, bouncy wickets, they needed to go back. “You have to come forward,” he said. “Use the pace to play positively. Or you will be too defensive and find yourself cramped and then caught in no man’s land.”
That they were trying too much, too hard. “You have to do the basic things right. On Indian wickets, where the ball comes on lower and slower, you tend to bat lower, bending more. Here, you have to stand more upright in order to get above the ball and play the cross-batted shots more easily.”
For instance, he talked about the need to play the cut (also Sehwag’s favourite shot) differently. Calling it the most productive shot on these tracks, Chappell said that the Indians were making the mistake of playing it the way they did in India. “If you get under it, the bat going under the ball, you’ll end up edging it. You need to get above it to be effective.”
Knowing which ball to leave. “We end up getting caught at the slip cordon because we end up playing at too many balls without judging the length,” said Chappell, adding that judging well was what Ganguly did so well in the first innings. “He (Ganguly) was doing the right thing. In India, players tend to play alongside the ball, to make room to play through the offside. Here, you need to get in line, get behind the ball and play from over it.”
This might well be part of the problem for Sehwag, who has for long depended on his superb hand-eye coordination and powerful reach to get him out of trouble. Here, coupled with a sustained lack of form, he seems to be getting cramped, and is perhaps unable to use the cut effectively simply because he is not in the right position.
The advantage he has is that now — illogically, given his strike rate and the way he bludgeons the ball — up next is his favourite form of the game, Test cricket. Sehwag has not lived up to potential in one-dayers but has done superbly well in Tests overall, even though, in the last series against the Windies, barring the 180 at Gros Islet, he had not much in the four Tests. Still, maybe the confidence of knowing he is a far better Test batsman than a ODI batsman will help him. The coming weeks will tell.
Legend has it that when the aforementioned Robin Hood lay dying, he asked that his famed bow, saying: “Give me my bent bow in my hand, and an arrow I’ll let free, and where that arrow is taken up, there let my grave digged be.” Now whether or not Sehwag’s cricketing grave is dug here in South Africa, only he can decide. “Winning and losing are part of the tour but it’s important that you stay positive and believe in yourself,” he said a week ago. He will have to keep that faith and deliver.