Virender Sehwag changed Test cricket, or least changed perceptions as to what was possible from an opening batsman in Test cricket. With his positive play from the first ball, Sehwag set new benchmarks for those at the top of the order, doing for five-day cricket what Sanath Jayasuriya had done for one-day cricket in the 1990s with his ultra-attacking mindset against the new ball.
Sehwag’s strike rate as an opener, a role he occupied in 99 Tests and 170 innings for India, was a remarkable 83.10 runs per 100 balls, a figure all the more impressive as he maintained an average of 50 over this long period. It is not possible to calculate career strike rates for most players before the 1970s but for those for whom it is possible and whose careers are complete only Matthew Hayden and Tillekeratne Dilshan among openers possess strike rates of more than even 60, which gives some idea of just how exceptional Sehwag was. David Warner of Australia, who played his first Test in 2011 and has a strike rate in the 70s, seems like Sehwag to have simply brought to the Test arena a style of play that had already worked for him in limited-overs cricket. Sehwag paved the way that Warner is now following.
The really extraordinary thing about Sehwag, though, was his ability to start out with all guns lazing and still get a really big score. The way he played, you might back him to get a quick 30 and be out, but very often he simply kept going. Even Warner has not so far matched him in this respect. More than half Sehwag’s Test centuries – 14 out of 23 to be precise – were in excess of 150 and of those two were converted into triple-centuries and another four into doubles.
A high proportion of those innings were scored at around a run per ball. Of the ten fastest double-centuries scored in Test cricket, Sehwag has made five of them. All of which is testimony to his extraordinary eye and his extraordinary self-belief in playing out-of-the-ordinary shots.
There can be no higher praise than that Sehwag managed to steal some of the
limelight from Sachin Tendulkar, India’s most revered batting champion, who
must have sometimes wished he could have played with the same freedom and
not worried about the consequences. Sehwag was the first and so far remains the
only Indian batsman to score a Test triple century and in 2011 he also took from
Tendulkar the record for the highest individual score in a one-day international
with 219 off 149 balls against West Indies at Indore. That record was itself
subsequently broken by another Indian batsman, Rohit Sharma, in November
Sehwag, who grew up in a relatively poor area of Delhi, where his coaches
attached weights to the back of his bat to make him play straight, never really
altered the way he played. He was given his chance in the India Test side at the
age of 23 after hitting a one-day century against New Zealand off 69 balls. He
had opened the innings on that occasion but started in the Test team in the lower
middle order. So immediate was his impact, though, with a flawless hundred off
a strong South Africa pace attack at Bloemfontein in his first innings, that by his
sixth game he was being asked to open on a tour of England. In his first match
he hit 84 off 96 balls; in his second he scored a battling century at Trent Bridge.
Understandably he was more successful in Asia, where the new ball did less
and the bounce was less exaggerated than in other parts of the world, but he was
good enough to score runs in most conditions. As well as those early hundreds in
South Africa and England, he scored 195 in a Test match in Melbourne, all his
runs coming before the arrival of the second new ball. The criticism of Asian
batsmen is that they tend to be found wanting on pitches with pace and bounce,
but this could not really be said of Sehwag, at least not until he struggled on his
final tours of South Africa and England.
Some of his innings in Asia were simply stupendous. Three such came in He scored 319 in Chennai against a South Africa attack that included Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini, an innings that occupied only 304 balls and included 42 fours and five sixes. Against Muttiah Muralitharan on one of Murali’s favourite stamping grounds of Galle, he carried his bat for 201 in an all-out team total of 329. And against England, again at Chennai, a quick-fire 83 off 68 balls launched India on their way to successfully chasing down 387.
Tendulkar’s century may have completed the job but it was Sehwag who madethe chase possible by snatching the initiative from England in the space of one extraordinary session. That was match-winning batting on a special scale because he scored so fast that it took the pressure off those who came later to keep up with the clock. The following year, batting against Sri Lanka (and
Murali) in Mumbai, he had reached 285 by the time the second new ball became due (he was out soon after for 293). Sehwag in full cry was one of the great sights of the modern game.