From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.09 :: Mar. 03, 2011

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COVER STORY

Lasting till the end

The big idea in this World Cup is for Virender Sehwag to stay put for the long haul, ideally, right until the batting Powerplay is served up for consumption. Since his scoring rate on the worst of days is better than most other leading batsmen, time spent in the seat of action signifies a free-flow of runs, if not in hoicks for boundaries, then in pushes and dabs for singles and twos. Over to Kunal Diwan.

It was a scary missive that Virender Sehwag issued in the run-up to the World Cup: “I want to bat for as long as possible.” A commendable line of thought from someone battling to save a Test match, coming from Sehwag it would have evoked in bowlers a deep sense of foreboding.

Against Bangladesh in the World Cup opener in Mirpur, Sehwag made good his announcement, lasting through 48 overs before yielding to temptation. By which time, having faced 140 balls for 175, his highest ODI score, the milk guzzler from Najafgarh had set India on its way to 370 and ended the match as a contest.

No surprises there. Sehwag's ODI strike rate is three points above 100. His average stay at the crease lasts 32 balls. With the entire 50 overs at his disposal at the top of the order, this new-found desire to extend his presence in the middle portends to just one thing: big trouble for the bowlers.

The Indian opener is capable of ruthless acceleration. His fearsome reputation in Test matches is based on several big, brisk innings, two of them racy triple hundreds. Sehwag now wants to bring into ODIs an element of endurance from the classical format, while retaining his original tempo. In Mirpur, he began with a boundary off the first ball and then restrained himself from going over the top, even tiding over a 30-ball boundary-less phase in the middle overs. Commentators called the knock “watchful and careful” – perhaps not the most ideal description of an essay laced with 14 fours and five sixes.

The big idea in this World Cup is for Sehwag to stay put for the long haul, ideally, right until the batting Powerplay is served up for consumption. Since his scoring rate on the worst of days is better than most other leading batsmen, time spent in the seat of action signifies a free-flow of runs, if not in hoicks for boundaries, then in pushes and dabs for singles and twos.

Sounds like an unfamiliar version of the man-who-knew-only-one-way-to-bat? It sure is. Sehwag has always been a special creature. Whether it's his straight-faced admission of artificially-enhanced hirsuteness (a perpetual point of tripping on for British tabloids), forthrightness that borders on insolence, or a natural disinclination to feed the sycophantic frenzy that engulfs successful Indian cricketers, the 32-year-old comes across as one who neither fosters glib talk, nor facilitates it.

And come World Cup, talk and strategies abound. As Sehwag was making clear his intention of sticking around until the death overs, this event with ‘no clear favourite' was already chattering with fool-proof approaches to the trophy. Graeme Smith couldn't stop parroting the importance of Powerplays. Allan Donald was swearing serially by the relevance of reverse swing. Martin Crowe, the class New Zealand bat who led his team into the semifinals in the 1992 edition, held the first 10 overs and batting Powerplay as pivotal.

Crowe should know. He was after all the supreme strategist who master-minded the transformation of Mark Greatbatch from plodder to puncher, of Dipak Patel from harmless offie to new-ball strangler. What Crowe started with Greatbatch in 1992, was taken forward, doubly so, by the Sri Lankan opening pair of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharna in the 1996 World Cup, played in the subcontinent. Since, the early impetus up front has been a cardinal feature of successful ODI teams. But what Sehwag does for India doesn't fall in the same category as the pinch-hitting exploits of Greatbatch and the Lankan openers. Viru's role borrows more from Sachin Tendulkar's or Mark Waugh's in 1996, when the two went about constructing a biggie from the get go, scoring between them five hundreds in the tournament. And lest one forget, Tendulkar is still around, doing what he does best.

In what are generally considered batting friendly conditions, it has always made sense to expose a team's best batsman to the maximum possible overs, especially when the ball is hard and field restrictions are in place. There are others too in this World Cup who've put their trust in the Waugh-Tendulkar-Sehwag model. Australia hopes Shane Watson will provide similar solidity and speed at the top, and England, beset by injuries to key players and a 1-6 whipping at the hands of the Aussies, has looked to its classiest act, Kevin Pietersen, to follow suit.

The No. 4 regular, Pietersen, was bumped up the order, to the opening slot for a couple of practice games, where he acquitted himself favourably. What sparked the move was more desperation than an illuminating early morning dream. In view of Matt Prior's poor form and Eoin Morgan's fractured finger, England's think tank decided to put Pietersen in the thick of action from the outset. The role, Pietersen specified, is not that of a pinch-hitter.

“I will just look to play my normal game. It is not a pinch-hitting role, it is just a role to go out there and play normally,” he said.

Pietersen is not overtly familiar with opening the innings, having opened on just six occasions in List ‘A' cricket. One of those stints came about seven years ago, representing England ‘A' in Bangalore, where the switch-hitter compiled 131 from 122 balls.

“If he just plays the way he can for 30 or 40 overs, he's going to have a big score — and we're going to have an even bigger score,” said Prior, displaced to No. 6 by Pietersen's promotion.

This might bode well for the Pommies, but it isn't just England that's got it all figured out.

After a prolific home ODI series against the old foe, Shane Watson wants to replicate the opening success of Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, players he witnessed mauling attacks in the 2007 World Cup as Watson — then a fixture at No.7 — sat awe-struck in the dressing room. All of Watson's five ODI hundreds have been made at the top of the pile. The latest was an unbeaten 161 at Melbourne where he struck the winning runs in the 50th over, helping Australia chase down England's 294. The multiple roles of opener/anchor/ accelerator he is supposed to assume here and now are something he considers to be a huge responsibility.

“It's a much bigger responsibility opening the batting and trying to lay a great platform for the team, like Hayden and Gilchrist did so beautifully throughout their careers. But I'm really looking forward to it,” he said.

Well begun is half done. But half-measures may not be enough this time, especially in the prevalence of opening acts whose directive is not merely to lash out, but to last till the end.



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