Eleven years ago, a 23-year-old found himself on a murky evening in Bloemfontein. It was supposedly his debut Test. India’s scorecard, a familiar 68 for four, should have made any youngster quail. South African quicks Shaun Pollock, Nantie Hayward, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini and Lance Klusener were breathing menace. Now, it was getting darker and the floodlights had to be put on. But our protagonist, according to a colleague, moved with an unshakeable air of self-belief.
He was batting at No 6; and after a heroic stand with Sachin Tendulkar, he started counselling a young wicketkeeper who, too, was serving his apprenticeship in Tests. This is how Virender Sehwag initiated himself to Test cricket.
Wicketkeeper Deep Dasgupta remembers how the ball was swerving around, leading to a play-and-miss sequence. “Sab ka hota hain. Unka bhi ho raha tha (These misses happen with everybody, even they struggled),” Sehwag assured him.
Soon, Dasgupta ducked a bumper awkwardly. The ball kissed the edge, flew over slip, and rippled over to the fence. Sehwag again walked towards him and said, “You got a four, didn’t you? So does it matter how you played it? It’s the result that counts.”
Dasgupta recalls, “That attitude was so refreshing. Here was a man in his debut Test and yet having fun. From his first game, he was sure what he was doing. He didn’t ever give the impression that he was playing his first Test. You knew instantly that this guy was good, someone special.”
And so it’s been 11 years during which he’s been hailed as India’s greatest impact player, scored two triple tons, endured vagaries of form and still can’t discriminate between a 99 and a 100. This man is now slated to play his 100th Test at the Wankhede this week.
By the way, there’s a Sehwag joke too which goes: When was the last time Viru moved his feet? The answer? When he was in his cradle.
Don’t try sharing this with Shaun Pollock, the then South African captain. “He may not be as technically sound as Jacques Kallis, but his temperament, as we have seen, is phenomenal,” Pollock says.
Pollock remembers the Bloemfontein Test when Sehwag repeatedly squirted the space between backward point and gully. “He was so strong on the off-side. Someone playing like that in a debut Test, it was so rare. These guys — Chris Gayle, David Warner and Viru — like to take on an attack upfront. They will never change.”
We remind that Sehwag hasn’t had a hundred overseas in nearly two years. Have the bowlers become cleverer, or just that Sehwag may not have evolved with time? “You can’t put a finger on it and hold it against him,” Pollock says. “The best players have been found wanting in South Africa and Australia, especially against the quicks. Maybe, Sehwag’s form hasn’t been in conjunction with the demands of the conditions and the attack. I think you have to judge him on the basis of his overall record.”
Geoffrey Boycott recently said that Sehwag, at 34, may have lost the sharpness of his eye. Boycott believes that Sehwag, like Tendulkar, should customise his game in tune with his age. “His natural instinct,” says Pollock, “is to strike the ball. If he gets selective, it wouldn’t work.”
Who but the man about to play his 100th Test would know.