India's biggest game-changer

India, Nov. 23 -- Those were the days when Virender Sehwag was cutting his teeth in junior level cricket - the moment he'd walk into bat in a domestic match, we'd throw the ball to the medium-pacer and ask him to bowl bouncers. Such tasks were never easy for them.

Sehwag used to bat in the lower middle order and bowling effective bouncers with the old ball on parched pitches in Delhi used to be an arduous job. Yet, it made for an ingenious strategy, for it almost always worked. Sehwag's response to such a tactic was always predictable, that is, go after the bowler.

Even though he triumphed on a few occasions, his success rate (or the lack of it) encouraged us to give it a shot 10 out of 10 times.

Had someone then floated the idea of Sehwag playing 100 Test matches, let alone becoming one of the most successful opener of all times, he'd been scoffed at. In fact, for the longest time, Sehwag played as an all-rounder who could hit the long ball and bowl effective off-spinners with a clean action.

I was one of the biggest fans of his bowling, for his body action allowed him to put enough revolutions on the ball without bending the elbow.

Game-changer

But that was about two decades ago, when we played against each other often in inter-school and inter-club tournaments. A lot has changed since then for a player who was an antithesis of how a Test opener should bat- it's marvelous for him to be playing his 100th Test on Friday. Not only has Sehwag succeeded at the highest level but has also redefined the art of opening in Test cricket.

He's probably the biggest game-changer India has produced, for he not only scores big but also at a clip that gives optimum time to the bowlers to take twenty wickets. It wasn't the work of a magic wand that a batsman who was a walking wicket against pacers has now become a seamers' nightmare.

Handling pacers

Very early in his international career, he'd realised the importance of getting used to high speeds. While he had the astonishing ability to hit spinners into the stands without even coming out of the crease, he needed to work hard on handling the fast bowlers adequately.

In one fog-affected Duleep game he got over 150 runs on a seaming Mohali pitch against the likes of Zaheer and Iqbal Siddiqui, but to improve further he spent hours batting against the bowling machine whenever play was suspended. He would rev the machine up close to 90 miles an hour and practice not just getting used to the pace but also hitting the ball.

Perfect balance

Since moving the feet wasn't his forte, he mastered the cut shot. He also worked a lot on getting the balance right, for that's the foundation of his batting. Even while working on becoming a better player against fast bowlers, he was acutely aware of what he couldn't do and stayed away from it.

He made peace with the fact that while he could score at a strike-rate of 100, he couldn't play the hook or a pull shot.

Once he accepted his limitations, he never tried to push the envelope further by learning more shots. He knew that bowlers can't bowl bouncers all the time and all day long. He backed himself to hit the balls that weren't heading towards his head or the ribcage for boundaries.

Shrewd game sense, immense belief in his abilities and acceptance of his shortcomings have made Sehwag what he is today - one of the best Test opening batsmen ever.

The writer is a former India opener

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.

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