Who is the first Indian to score a triple hundred in Test cricket? This was a trivia question in a quiz book I owned in 2000. The answer to the question then was, of course, none. I remember it like yesterday when VVS Laxman was 275 not out at the end of day 4 of the famous Eden Gardens Test of 2001 and I said to myself that tomorrow I will stick a piece of paper over the word “None” and write Laxman’s name on it. But, alas, that was not to be as the Hyderabad lad fell after a memorable 281 early next morning. I thought to myself that the answer to this question might perhaps remain none forever. But life had a plan; it had in store a phenomenon that will go on to redefine Test cricket from then on.
Virender Sehwag announced himself on the international stage through a man of the match performance of a quick half-century followed by 3 wickets against the Aussies in the first match of the 5-match series that followed the famous Test series in 2001. But, he injured himself and didn’t play the rest of the series that the visitors won 3-2. Destiny plays an important role in a person’s life but this time it was cricket that was destined to have Sehwag’s name associated with it.
During a tri-series in Sri Lanka, an injury to Sachin Tendulkar prompted the management to try Sehwag as an opener. A middle-order batsman all his life, Sehwag scored the then second-fastest 100 by an Indian in ODIs (69 balls) – a record he bettered with a 60-ball ton eight years later - and became a household name.
A Test call-up followed his ODI success. He scored a spectacular century on Test debut against a world-class South Africa bowling attack in testing conditions in Bloemfontein batting at number six. When most of the other batsmen were finding it tough to get bat on ball, he put together a brilliant 200+ 5th wicket partnership with Tendulkar – who scored a century himself. Apart from those two centurions the next highest score in that innings was 34. The world was in awe of the resemblance in their batting style that made it seem like the same batsman batting from both ends.
Viru’s success as an opener in ODI cricket and the search for an opener in Tests led to a revolution. The management slated Sehwag to open in testing conditions in England during the 2002 tour. Sehwag was reluctant to the prospect as a failure might put his position in the team in danger, but he had the captain’s backing who reassured him of retaining his spot even if he didn’t do well. Numerous examples like these make Sourav Ganguly one of the most successful captains India has ever had and resulted in so many talented youngsters blossoming under him.
With nothing to lose, Sehwag went out to open in Tests and the rest is history. He is not only one of the best openers India ever had, but also the one many legends worldwide might consider picking as their opener for an All-Time Test XI. Sehwag raised hopes at Trent Bridge, took a giant leap in Melbourne and created history in Multan. Among the greatest batsmen in Test cricket, there will be a few who were even better hitters than Sehwag, but it is hard to think of anyone with the self-belief and courage to come down the track to hit a ball for a six when on 295*, especially after an experience of getting caught in the deep on 195 while playing the same shot a couple of months back. Out-thinking the opposition by doing something that is least expected, try to maximize the output from every ball was the Sehwag way. Finally, after 3 years of waiting further, I could change the answer to that question in the quiz book.
If asked to pick his favourite ground, Sehwag is highly likely to pick Chepauk for it was here he played three of his best Test innings. First, an outstanding 155 in the second Test of Australia’s tour of India in 2004, against a bowling attack comprising of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne. If not for the rain gods washing out the entire last day with India needing 229 with all 10 wickets in hand and Sehwag in full flow, it might have now been around 50 years since the mighty Aussies have won a series against India in India. Second, the fastest triple hundred ever scored in Test cricket when he thumped Dale Steyn and Co. all over the park on his way to the highest score in Test cricket by an Indian -319. Third, a belligerent 68 -ball 83 on the evening of the 4th day of the 1st Test against England in 2008 that enabled India to chase down a mammoth 387 on the 5th day. If it was not for his innings India would have played for a draw, but Sehwag was different, his spectrum of what is achievable was broader than most.
A lot of his contemporaries validate the margin of error while bowling to Sehwag. “The area of the pitch we’re supposed to land it against Sehwag is about two millimetres by two millimetres”, said the Aussie bowler Stuart Clark before the Australia XI vs World XI match in 2005. Who can forget the time when he single-handedly dominated Ajantha Mendis when all the other legends had no clue of where the ball would go after pitching?
Sehwag’s exploits against Pakistan gives a true reading of his mental strength. In the games where every cricket viewer, let alone the cricketers, are nervous, Sehwag often treated their bowling attack like a club team. One of his least talked about innings against Pakistan is the 25-ball 38 in a pot-boiler of an encounter in the 2011 World Cup semi-final of 2011. Like many times earlier, yet again he appeared batting on a pitch different than the other 21 players batted on. The gap that he created in the first 6 overs of the match was the one that Pakistan could not cover till the end. Well begun is half done they say and when Sehwag was on a roll, his innings was often the difference between the two teams.
Like many other legends, Sehwag teaches a thing or two about life. Even after getting beaten numerously in his quest of attacking from ball one, Sehwag would back himself to play his shots every time. It is all about forgetting what happened in the past, knowing that it cannot be undone, shifting the focus to the next minute with a clear mind, and trying to make the most of it. Live life without regret, even if you have gotten out on 293 and have narrowly missed an opportunity to become the first cricketer ever to score 3 triple 100s in Tests. You can do this only by being the way you want, as Sehwag mentioned in his goodbye note post-retirement, by not letting other’s opinion affect your belief system. With confidence in your ability, smile on your face and a Kishore Kumar song in your head you can make the opposition spend hours on planning the way to get you out the next morning.