Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Madness of Sehwag

"Let him play his natural game", they say about Virender Sehwag... "That's the only way he can play", etc. Is there such a thing as a natural game? Well yes of course, there is. Some batsmen are naturally attacking, some are naturally defensive, and others' games lie somewhere in between.

Rahul Dravid for example, sets out to defend his wicket at any cost, and score runs only when a clear opportunity presents itself. He is unhurried at the crease, his body language is not particularly expressive, and he doesn't worry about the run rate, or a perceived domination by the bowlers. Note that all this has nothing to do with batting technique, although Dravid of course has immaculate technique as well. But a Shivnarine Chanderpaul bats in the same manner, with a very nontraditional technique.

Sehwag's mindset at the crease, and the resulting body movements, are aggressive. You can sense that he's constantly looking for opportunities to score -- off every ball -- these days. He wants to dominate the bowlers mentally as well as in scorecard terms. Anything else is unsatisfactory from his point of view. Kevin Pietersen is perhaps the one other Test cricketer with an equally aggressive natural game and mental setup.

Sehwag's dismissals in the second Test vs New Zealand triggered a bit of a debate on whether batsmen should stick to their natural game, or be expected to adapt to the situation. Rahul Dravid said for example that batsmen need to play according to the needs of the team. Harsha Bhogle, in his regular column, disagreed, citing the sheer performance and results of a Sehwag or a Pietersen.

It's curious however to note in this context, that a batsman's natural game doesn't necessarily stay static over the course of a career. The obvious modern-day example is Sachin Tendulkar. He spent the first half of his career as an aggressive, dominating batsman. But then, even though his ability or skill didn't drop off, he switched to a less risky style that isn't any less attractive in its execution, and interestingly, isn't any more productive than the earlier version. And it's not as if Sachin appears to be curbing his natural instincts these days -- this is his natural game now. Something similar happened with Sunil Gavaskar, but much earlier in his career. He was an aggressive batsman in his early years, but the team's fragile batting forced him into cutting out risk. In "Sunny Days" he talks about how he consciously cut out the hook shot for example. Much of his career came to be associated with his natural defensive game, but that wasn't his natural game as a youngster. And then towards the end of his career, he did try to revert to an attacking game -- that amazing 100 against the West Indies, or the World Cup century against New Zealand, for example.

Some players go in the other direction. My impression is that Sehwag for example, was not as aggressive in his early years. Even when he started opening the innings, he was reasonably watchful in the early overs, letting the ball go, or playing (and missing!) defensively quite often. But these days, he needs to slam the ball out of sight, at least once in an over. I think his bat speed has also increased... where he earlier used to time the ball sweetly and send it to the boundary, these days he smashes it with power (and usually, timing as well). It appears to me that a streak of madness has crept in.

Reminds me immediately of Mohammad Azharuddin. While he was never a defensive batsman, he started his Test career as a reasonably watchful player who would build an innings, and then pepper the boundary boards. In the latter half of his career though, there was that streak of madness, trying to hit the ball rather than charming it to the boundary like he used to.

For what it's worth, I think Rahul Dravid is right. The great batsmen aren't just naturally gifted -- they have the ability to adjust their game to the playing conditions, to the opposition bowling, to the team's situation, etc. And the very best are the ones who do all that while still playing attractively. Sehwag is a freak, in the nicest possible sense of the word. Freakish enough to score triple hundreds while batting in this state of madness! But his recent batting raises question marks over his place in the pantheon of Indian greats -- he just doesn't seem as well-rounded a batsman as a Gavaskar or a Tendulkar. Or to take a less intimidating comparison, how does one compare him with a VVS Laxman? Laxman is aggressive, attractive in his strokeplay, and nearly as productive. But he also has control, which Sehwag appears to lack. Laxman can play with the tail, play defensive innings when required, play aggressively while being selective about balls to hit. I think Sehwag had that ability, but has lost it. If he can recapture it, he'll be more consistent, more successful overall, and no less attractive to watch. Here's hoping he can do that...


Anonymous said...

Completely agree, I am not at all supportive of Shewag's natural game. His technique is flawed and not ideal for test cricket. He needs to play in the V for while before he plays big shots and he was doing that when he came back from the hiatus but has fallen back into his "natural game".

Vipin said...

Though I don't agree with Sehwag's approach in this particular test series, asyou said, he does has the ability (to adapt). he has _saved_ atleast one test for india in the past (india vs aus, adelaide 07/08) where he batted patiently (from his standard's anyways) for a well made 151 off 236 balls when no other batsmen made more than 20 !

Neeran Karnik said...

@Vipul: Right, this "madness" of his seems to be a more recent phenomenon. Earlier he used to play "Test" cricket in some sense. Now it's just T20 mode...