"Sehwag was included in the Indian team purely as a one-day player. At any cost this century is not going to help him make it to the Test squad." JY Lele, the then convener of the BCCI selection panel, said in 2001 after Virender Sehwag smashed his first international hundred in an ODI against New Zealand. Over a decade later, Sehwag is one of the best opening batsmen the Test world has ever seen.
Until the advent of Sehwag, India’s opening batsmen rarely exhilarated their demanding fans on a regular basis. Sunil Gavaskar was a remorseless accumulator. But a remorseless accumulator is not very exhilarating, except to someone like Sir Geoffrey Boycott. Krishnamachari Srikkanth was mostly cavalier, which made him infuriating more than exhilarating.
Then there was Farokh Engineer, who was flamboyant and ended his career with a record only slightly better than Srikkanth’s. Apart from the aforementioned guys, almost all of India’s openers were about dogged defence. And caution. And studied accretion. Then along came Sehwag.
It was Sehwag who taught Indian cricket fans to do something they had never done before. He taught them to swagger. To Indians so used to being timid, bossed around or, at their best, defensive, this was incredibly liberating. It was like being released from the ‘Hindu rate of growth’. The death of the ‘License Raj’ powered the rise and rise of the Indian middle class. The dawn of Sehwag at the head of the batting order turbo-charged India’s ascent as a Test nation.
India couldn’t have scaled the Test summit without his buccaneering ways. It was only after Sehwag started to take it to the world’s opening bowlers that India began to win more Test matches around the world.
Not every good team is good enough to dominate the world stage. You need to shed your inhibitions to become top dog. If you don’t have bowlers who can blow batsmen away, your batsmen must. And the sooner they do it, the better. Gordon Greenidge did it for the West Indies. Mathew Hayden did it for Australia. And Sehwag does it for India. Promoting him to open the batting was a masterstroke. Whoever suggested it deserves to be congratulated for it, and for putting India on the road to the top.
This is not to say it’s an absolutely must to have an attacking batsman as opener to be a top team. England and South Africa managed to get to the uppermost echelon without swashbuckling openers. But it helps, immensely, if you have someone like Sehwag in your ranks, especially when you don’t have a feared bowling attack. That the West Indies and Australia (to a lesser extent) had both for an extended period of time is one of the reasons they were the world’s most dominant Test nations for longer than the incumbents in recent times. Both these sides had opening batsmen who instilled fear in the hearts of all comers. Without Sehwag opponents had little to fear about India. Sachin, Rahul, Laxman, Sourav, Kumble, Zaheer and Harbhajan inspired respect in varying degrees. With Sehwag India found someone opponents feared.
No opening batsman in this long history of the game has hit as many boundaries, and beyond, as Sehwag. In all probability, few will. There will be more than a few who will score more runs than Sehwag. But there isn’t likely to be anyone who will score as many as Sehwag like Sehwag. India’s decline as a Test nation in recent times has much to do with Sehwag’s inability to boss bowlers like he used to. An Indian Test team without Sehwag at his fearless best is like Arjuna without his Gandiva.
Ed Smith writes in his latest piece, which happens to be on Sehwag, that during the Test between The Rest of the World XI and Australia in 2005, Stuart Clark had this to say to Smith about Australia’s plans for Sehwag, "Just had a bowlers' meeting. The area of the pitch we're supposed to land it on against Sehwag is about two millimetres by two millimetres! That’s a fearful amount of pressure for a bowler to deal with. Well, that’s Sehwag.
The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.