For Virender Sehwag, the only ball that mattered was the one he was about to face
Sehwag was able to play this way because he had beautiful balance and hand-eye co-ordination that would have made Arjuna of the Pandavas jealous.
If you want to learn how to live in the moment, you don’t need to take yoga lessons or visit a monastery or study ancient Buddhist texts. All you need to do is watch Virender Sehwag bat.
With other batsmen, there is a sense of continuity, a sense that what happens with this delivery is predicated on what happened to the previous one and what might happen to the next one. With Sehwag, there was only this ball, this moment. If it was a bad delivery, it would be punished. If it was a good delivery, it might still be punished. If it was a really good delivery, then he might show it some respect.
And then it was on to the next ball. The previous one might have been hit for four or six, or been defended, or nicked through the slips. It didn’t matter. He might have been batting on 5 or 95 or 195. It didn’t matter. The game might be in the balance. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the current moment.
Sometimes Sehwag lost the battle to the bowler. More often, he won. But always he was the same. For him, batting was to be enjoyed and this is how he enjoyed it. There was no reason to complicate matters further.
“When I take guard, thoughts like "hit the first ball for a four or six" or "try to defend" enter my mind time sometimes,” he told ESPNcricinfo in an interview in 2009. “That is a time when my mind is preoccupied with various thoughts. But if my mind is blank, then I will play according to the merit of the ball. So if I'm singing a song, I concentrate hard on getting the right lines and finding a rhythm. And when I'm concentrating on something I'm automatically concentrating on the ball.”
Two well-worn stories illustrate Sehwag’s unique approach. The first is his 195 against Australia in Melbourne in 2003. He had gone from 189 to 195 with a six and from there, 200 was just another six away. Except Sehwag mistimed his shot and was caught. But instead of being mad at missing out on a double-century, Sehwag was upset with himself because he had got out to a bad ball that was there to be hit.
The other has to do with his India record of 309 in Multan in 2004. No Indian batsmen had made a triple-century before. Sehwag had already gone past VVS Laxman’s record of 281 and was on 295. Sachin Tendulkar told Sehwag during the course of that innings: "If you try to hit a six, I will hit you on the bum." But Sehwag couldn’t stop being himself.
“That is why I didn’t hit sixes in Multan, but when I was near 300 I told him [Tendulkar] that I was going to hit Saqlain [Mushtaq] and he could hit me on my bum!”
Of course, Sehwag hit the next ball for six to become the first India player to make a Test triple-century.
Sehwag was able to play this way because he had beautiful balance and hand-eye co-ordination that would have made the best batsman jealous. It was his balance that allowed him to treat even good balls as boundary balls because his body was in the right place to play an attacking shot.
As a result, Sehwag terrified opposing captains and bowlers because he was not subject to traditional cricketing logic. He was a law unto himself. It is no coincidence that India’s best run in Test cricket overlapped with Sehwag at his peak. He gave India a weapon that opposing teams could not stop, only try to contain.
It would be a mistake to think all this means Sehwag was unconcerned with technique or the nuances of the game. He picked the brains of teammates like Tendulkar and understood what was necessary about the art of batting and how the little changes could make a big difference.
Here’s another excerpt from the same ESPNcricinfo that illustrates how clearly Sehwag saw his craft: “It doesn't matter whether you move your feet or not, if your head is still and body is in balance, you can score lots of runs. This I learned from Tendulkar. He pointed out that if your head is still you can see the ball clearly and pick the length quickly. If the head is not still, you will make mistakes. That's why I don't have trigger movements and my body is still and I'm balanced and I have lots of time to play the ball.”
Sehwag’s joyful, unfettered approach yielded 8586 runs from 104 Tests at an average of 49.34 with 23 hundreds. But as with Tendulkar, the numbers don’t come close to telling the story. What Sehwag gave us was a both a new kind of batting and a homage to the ancient art of mindfulness. He wrote his song on the wind and took us along for the ride.
And for that, we will always be grateful.
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