Downward, slowly and surely

Virender Sehwag -- Akhilesh Kumar   -  THE HINDU;THE HINDU

Nawab retires: VirenderSehwag led India to many avictory -- Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  THE HINDU

Virender Sehwag recently announced his retirement from international cricket. What explains the decline of his career?

Virender Sehwag seldom took a backward step during his 14-year-long career. But did being caught on the wrong foot at an inopportune juncture lead to this downward spiral?

Like many of the game’s greats, Sehwag’s entry into international cricket was an anticlimax. In an ODI against Pakistan, on April 1, 1999, Sehwag batting at number seven, fell to Shoaib Akhtar for a single run.

Following that, it took the Delhi lad over two years to make his presence felt. But he did so in terrific style, and when it mattered most.

It was a must-win game for India when they took on New Zealand in a tri-series competition in 2001. The winner would advance to the final against the hosts, Sri Lanka. The Kiwis batted first and finished with an imposing 264/7 off their 50 overs. Opening with skipper Sourav Ganguly, Sehwag smashed 19 fours and a six, scored a century off 70 balls, and was involved in a first-wicket partnership of 143 runs, which helped win the match. Sehwag was well on his way now.

Later that year he scored a century on his Test debut against South Africa and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history.

In the years to come, Sehwag would become one of the mainstays of the Indian top order, along with Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. Whether it was Tests or one-dayers, his uncomplicated see-the-ball, hit-the-ball approach laid the foundation for many an Indian victory. Everything about him defied logic. What worked for him also went against him. He was a prolific scorer on the off-side, but then he would hit the ball in the air more often than not. Like most Indian batsmen, he was suspect against short-pitched stuff, especially directed at the body; but was no mug with the horizontal bat shots. His success rate in the second innings of a Test was not a patch on his first innings’ contributions, but he set up some of India’s most memorable victories with his mammoth effort the first time around. For most of his career, he was more successful in the longer version of the game, which was contradictory to his aggressive style of play.

At times, Sehwag was much more than a part-time off-spinner. His five-wicket haul against the Australians during a Test match in Delhi in 2008, and a couple of crucial wickets against the same opposition earlier in the year at the WACA, Perth, are two examples which stand out.

It would probably be fair to say that Sehwag’s problems started in 2005 as a result of Ganguly and Team India’s turbulent ride with Greg Chappell, who was at the helm till 2007. If one is to go by the accounts of Ganguly and Harbhajan Singh, Sehwag was among the senior players who the then India coach Chappell wanted dropped from the side.

The storm eventually blew over and the dashing Indian opener — the ‘Nawab of Najafgarh’ — led the team in five (out of a total of 12) ODIs, way before Mahendra Singh Dhoni was considered as skipper. In 2011, Duncan Fletcher replaced Gary Kirsten as India coach, following which the team lost all eight of their away Tests against England and Australia. Sehwag fared miserably, scoring 239 runs in 12 innings at an average of 19.91. His Delhi teammate Gautam Gambhir’s performance was equally dismal: 283 runs in 14 innings at an average of 20.21. However, matters peaked during that ill-fated Australian summer when it became evident that all was not well between Dhoni and Sehwag, and perhaps even Gambhir.

During the 2012 tri-series involving hosts Australia, India and Sri Lanka, it appeared Dhoni was not pleased with Sehwag’s fielding. There was also a touch of unrest when Sehwag captained India in a match against the Lankans during that competition. The tension was obvious when off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin mankaded Lahiru Thirimanne, without a warning, for backing up too far. It was only after Tendulkar’s intervention that Sehwag agreed to withdraw the appeal. During the closing stages of that game, which India went on to lose, Dhoni observed the proceedings from the boundary ropes anxiously. India did not make the finals of the tournament; Sehwag managed a measly 65 runs in five matches at an average of 13. However, Dhoni continued to be in charge. It was Sehwag who fell by the wayside soon after.

Although he donned Indian colours every now and then after that disastrous tour Down Under, the writing was on the wall. He was never the same player again. After a string of indifferent performances, Sehwag played his last Test during Australia’s return tour of India in 2012-13 in the second match of the series in Hyderabad. Incidentally, the Indians whitewashed the Aussies 4-0, redeeming the loss they had suffered 12 months back. Earlier that year, Sehwag was dropped from the one-day team during a bilateral series against Pakistan in which India played hosts. The result was 2-1 in favour of the visitors, and Sehwag was never picked for an ODI featuring Team India again.

Interestingly, the last ODI that Gambhir played for his country was in January 2013. There seems to be a pattern to Gambhir and Sehwag’s loss of form. Is there something more than what meets the eye? One might add that Yuvraj Singh, the hero of India’s 2011 World Cup triumph, continues to be out of Dhoni’s favour. Cancer played its part, but so did Dhoni, if one is to go by father Yograj Singh’s outburst against the Indian skipper earlier this year.

Was there a rift in the team after Kirsten’s departure in 2011 or was the arrival of Fletcher seen as an opportunity by some to bring about a change at the top?

Whatever the case, the damage had been done, at least as far as Sehwag was concerned.

(Udayan Nag is a Delhi-based sports writer)

Published on October 30, 2015
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