India – Pakistan matches, for some reason, do not carry the intensity that they used to in the older days.
In an age where every movement, every expression, every word is captured, there seems to a be a blanket of civility over the proceedings. I doubt we will ever witness an Aamir Sohail vs Venkatest Prasad ever again.
I don’t know if it is a good thing or not. For one, the Pakistani side in general seems a lot weaker on most days (I know I am writing this after a loss, but you get the point). Secondly, the losses don’t hurt much these days.
In earlier days, every aspect of an India – Pakistan match was dissected, deconstructed, replayed, review, relived. Now, you simply walk up to the other room and roll a joint. It’s simply not the same.
And so all through the match today, with one eye over the proceedings of the match, my thought drifted away in another direction.
If you’ve watched Indian cricket for about a decade, you’ll notice that the beginnings of Indian innings are a lot more tense these days. Now rewind to a few years ago, and you’ll remember that the beginning of an Indian innings was met not with anxiety, but anticipation.
Sehwag’s entry into the team was the last piece of a gigantic puzzle. We had a side stocked with seasoned campaigners – people who had honed their skills for years, winning accolades, gaining in experience, till our Middle Order was pregnant with batting greats. But yet, one felt that something was missing. The army needed a vanguard.
Somebody who could be at the front, someone who could cock a snook at the opposition. A person who could terrorise the opponent right from the start. A Mel Gibson in our Braveheart.
And that man was Virender Sehwag.
For the cricketing world, caught up in its little traditions and customs, Sehwag was an alien thing. More often that not, one sensed the discomfort the commentators felt while he was at the crease. For, if there was one man who could make the wisest of commentators look foolish, it was Sehwag.
He would poke at deliveries on bouncy pitches, slash hard at deliveries that left his body. The commentator would launch into a long extempore about the importance of footwork and technique on foreign pitches.
And right then, he would slap the bowler through the off side. A whiplash that made such a clear ‘TOK’ sound that you knew would end with the ball crashing into the stands. And then he would do it again, reducing the renowned commentator into a bumbling, embarrassed fool.
Yes, we had the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, and the bludgeoning power of Dhoni, and all the class and style of Dravid and Laxman, but ask anybody in India, and they’ll tell you that there wasn’t anybody as entertaining as Sehwag.
When Sehwag came into the picture, Sachin was already a God. But Sehwag posed no threat to the legacy of Sachin. Admittedly having modeled himself on Tendulkar, Sehwag was soft-spoken and rarely said anything. (Apart from the now legendary quote – “All played well, except the Sreesanth.”) When he features in ads, he seemed shy and reserved.
And very soon, he took over the show from Sachin. For the first time in years, Sachin had someone who could shift to fifth gear at ease, and he could work his way to another century.
Sehwag, inadvertently, was also responsible for the ‘Sachin is a selfish player’ accusation that Sachin haters make against the man. Having grown up with cricketers who slowed down their innings when they neared the 90’s, it was an acceptable habit. Till Sehwag happened.
Sehwag would slash and cut and punch and butcher his way to the 90’s. And then when at 94, while you were expecting him to slow down and take a few singles, he would step out, whack the bowler over Long On, and then raise his bat to the Dressing Room and smile. We as a nation had never seen something like this.
Of all the shots I have seen him play over the years, two will remain firmly entrenched in my mind. One is the murderous cut on the off side. Sehwag would shuffle and scuffle outside the Off Stump, and the bowler would give width on the Off Side, and WHACK! the ball would race the fielder to the ropes. The second would be his backfoot punches, modeled no doubt after the man at the other end.
Watching a Sehwag innings was like going on a date with an attractive serial murderer. There was an edginess to it, a nervous excitement.
All through his golden years, there were the technical problems. Numerous commentators pointed out the flaws in his batting, remarking that he had to change his game over the years. Every ball he missed made him look obsolete, confused. And yet, at the back of our minds, we never thought it was a serious threat. For he would pull one across the ropes and all would be well with the world again.
Perhaps, like Sehwag, we as a nation took his talent for granted. Took it for an akshaya-patra that would keep spilling over with riches. And then, it happened. His shots were either too late, or too early. His batting, built on the foundation of an impeccable Hand – Eye coordination, had Merv Hughes sized holes in it.
I don’t know if history will remember Sehwag as a good player or a great player. I remember Gavaskar talking about the difference between the two. Both of them have good starts to their careers – records, success, fame. But as the body starts to age, the great ones tweak their game, making small changes that keep them going, in spite of their bodies slowing down.
Perhaps Sehwag gave as much respect to such theories, as he gave to the bowlers at the other end. Till his last tournament, he maintained that he would play his natural game. He didn’t say it with arrogance, he didn’t seem stubborn about it. He seemed like he knew no other way to play.
There are a few things I have against statistics and numbers in sport. While revealing a lot, they conceal quite a bit as well. No amount of statistics and averages can truly demonstrate the impact that Sehwag brought to the team.
There are no numbers that measure fear. Fear in the eyes of the bowlers the world over. The utter bafflement they faced as they saw this man lift his bat and strike the ball like it was the climax of a revenge saga.
Numbers will never reveal how he mutilated the opposition. That even a 30 from Sehwag would demoralise the best attacks of the world. There are some things that even Mathematics cannot quantify. Sehwag’s batting was one of those.
By the last few innings, Sehwag was a changed man. In his earlier days, he was never the most aggressive or outspoken. He could be found talking to the keeper and laughing at Slips during his heydays.
But in the last few days, he seemed distraught. His shoulders drooped, his stance shaky. It was like he was asked an Out of Syllabus question in the Board Exam. I remember him coming to Cuttack for a Ranji match. In an interview with a local channel, he seemed bored. He spoke about the game, about Sachin retiring, and then rambled on about a school he had started, where children are encouraged to pursue sports along with their studies. It was hard to see him like that.
And now, when I watch Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, it is like being in an arranged marriage with a person who has already suffered three heart attacks. There is no excitement, just fear.
I know Sports doesn’t work on emotions. I understand that physical and mental toughness matter more than anything else. I also understand that the same sport that elevates mortals into Gods, brings them crashing back down to earth.
But for reasons very personal to me, I wish Sehwag is somehow able to stage a comeback. And for one last time, I see his bat slice through the opposition. And hear that ‘Tok’ sound.