Sport

The Lightness of Being Virender

File photo of Virender Sehwag. The legendary batsman announced his retirement from international cricket in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

File photo of Virender Sehwag. The legendary batsman announced his retirement from international cricket in New Delhi on Tuesday. Credit: PTI

Rahul Bhattacharya’s surreally brilliant The Sly Company of People Who Care, has a scene where the protagonist finds himself conversing with a group of Guyanese men somewhere in the backwoods. The rum flowed freely and the conversation inevitably turned to movies and cricket, those two staples for desis of every hue anywhere in this duniya: “We talked about flims (sic), about Dharmendra, about Veeru of Sholay and Veeru Sehwag of cricket. ‘Man bat like he sleeping with one eye open and give one bap to mosquito’.”

Of the many efforts over the years to render Virender Sehwag’s batting into prose, the unknown Guyanese man’s “one bap to mosquito” is possibly the best I’ve read. Sehwag standing absolutely still as the world’s fastest bowlers (Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar or Dale Steyn) came tearing in at full pelt – Sehwag’s bat suddenly arcing through the air in a breathtaking flash – the ball bisecting the fielders to crash into the billboards at cover-point. Bap!

Sehwag always looked as if he could be out any ball. And yet over a hundred tests after his century-on-debut at Bloemfontein (he walked in with India an all-too-familiar 4 down for 65 on the opening day of the first test of a series in South Africa) Sehwag retires with an average of over 48; two triple-centuries; five double-hundreds; 23 test centuries (22 of them as an opener); and the highest strike-rate bar none of any batsman who has scored over 2000 runs in test cricket. There’s a strong – maybe impregnable –  case to be made for Sehwag as opener for the greatest Indian XI of all-time.

There’s plenty being written out there in tribute to one of the most entertaining players to have ever played the game. I’ll recount three of my favourite Sehwag stories here; to my mind at least, they epitomise the man. The first is from one of Sehwag’s county-cricket teammates when he played for Leicestershire. They were batting together one day and the ball was moving around a lot, even for England, making life rather difficult. A mid-wicket conference ensued and Sehwag announced to his partner there was something wrong with the ball and he would get rid of it forthwith. His partner was wondering how he proposed to do that when Sehwag hit the ball so hard and clean out of the park that it was declared lost and had to be replaced. Problem solved, game on.

The second is from that phlegmatic New Zealander, John Wright, who was India’s coach for much of Sehwag’s early years as an India player. They were once on a flight into Melbourne when the plane ran into turbulence. Wright looked distinctly uncomfortable much to the unconcerned Sehwag’s merriment. As Wright has it, Sehwag told him, “… if the plane goes down, it goes down. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

And the third is from the time that he and Rahul Dravid came within a boundary of breaking the all-time record for the opening wicket in test matches held by Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy (413 runs) when Sehwag got out to a rash shot. While presumably Dravid (ever the thinking man’s cricketer) and our typically records-obsessed press corps agonized over how close the pair had come to achieving a statistical landmark, Sehwag could not understand what all the fuss was about. Who, he wanted to know, was this Vinoo Mankad anyway?

Virender Sehwag plays a shot. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Virender Sehwag plays a shot. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cricket in India is overwhelmingly a middle class obsession. Too many of us tie our sense of personal and national self-worth to the fortunes of a group of young men playing a fickle sport. Our inability to have any perspective about the game in the larger scheme of things adds enormously to the pressure felt by the players. Over the years, they have handled it differently: Dhoni through a remarkable detachment and calm; Ganguly by wearing his passion on his sleeve and a hundred amulets around his neck; Tendulkar by an obsessive perfectionism; Dravid and Kumble through relentless practice and thinking their way to excellence; and Laxman by creating a sensory-deprivation bubble within which his batting could flow effortlessly.

Sehwag’s was the one response that countered this pressure of expectation through jouissance, through the act of revelling in it, embracing it, taking it on rather than seeking to control or escape or rationalise it. The cliché about living in the moment was embodied in his batting. I doubt there has ever been a batsman so amnesiac about the previous ball and so uncaring about the one to come. It was always only ever about the one he was facing now. The disdain for history (“who is this Vinoo Mankad anyway?”) left him unbearably light while all too often his team-mates seemed weighed and worn down by it all. In the blitheness of his spirit, Sehwag was rare in Indian cricket. He played cricket for what it was – a game – and not to make a point about himself or his nation in some weightier contest beyond the boundary.

I suspect that more so than many a cricketer Virender Sehwag will be happy in his retirement. And that’s not because he accomplished so much on the field or because he made a very good living off it. It’s mostly because being happy seems to be his natural or default setting. I’ll miss that buccaneering bandit with the bandana – he gave us eternally tense desi cricket fans a glimpse into another way of being.

Sankaran Krishna is a lifelong cricket tragic who teaches political science at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa in Honolulu, USA. He can be reached at krishna@hawaii.edu