Indian cricket is about to take a crucial call on its future when it chooses either Anil Kumble or Virender Sehwag as the new coach. Both were self-made cricketers who shrugged off conventional wisdom but both offer different coaching philosophies. Kumble is better-planned, Sehwag more instinctive. Kumble is hands on, Sehwag less intrusive. The eventual choice, though, should depend on the answer to this question: Does this young team led by a powerful captain need to be reined in at times or does it need to be unshackled? Last year has shown us what Kumble is capable of. The Indian Express shines light on the other candidate and goes beyond the stereotypes to discover what Sehwag the coach can bring to the table.
The Punjab Ranji Trophy coach couldn’t take it anymore; he needed to interject Virender Sehwag’s free-flowing pep-talk. He thought the discourse was getting way too radical for the young and impressionable minds. It’s an old Sehwag story — as told by Sehwag — that needs to be retold.
Earlier that day, with the best of intentions, the zealous coach had requested the India star, and the rival team skipper for this Ranji Trophy tie, to spare some time for his boys. Sehwag had agreed and duly kept his word. After stumps, the much-obliged coach would gather his team and reel off a long introduction for someone who certainly didn’t need any. His every hundred – single, double, triple, debut, match-winning – would get mentioned. The coach’s primer was long and laboured. Finally, when Sehwag got his turn to speak he had the room in splits with his opening line.
“My motivational lecture will be shorter than my introduction that you just heard,” he started. Sehwag had the boys at hello.
He hadn’t retired yet, he wasn’t the ever-trending Twitter sensation of today and his funny bone was still hidden behind his staid flannels.
India’s Olympic circuit had seen several highly-successful, myth-busting, straight-talking coaches from Haryana. But cricket hadn’t yet understood the credo followed by the charming Jat batsman who in the course of his career had debunked every batting philosophy conceived on the Mumbai maidans and subsequently spread around this cricket-crazy land. For the Punjab boys, Sehwag was a welcome change. He didn’t throw the book at them, he asked them to write their own rules. Here was a preacher, who wasn’t preachy.
Sehwag had a mischievous smile as he narrated his early days as a mentor, rather a visiting faculty. “I told them that in cricket, it’s always your decision. What you want to do is up to you. It is your effort – how much you want to improve your game and how you want to enjoy your game. It’s your wish, it’s not the coach’s or manager’s wish. They can’t force you to do this and do that. As I was saying this, the coach had a question,” Sehwag had recalled the Punjab dressing room scene in a 2015 interview with The Indian Express.
The coach’s worries were expected. In a team sport, independent thinkers often get labeled as disrupters, they are seen as selfish spoilers who rock the boat. Anticipating mass absence, or maybe a minor rebellion, at the next training session, the coach blurted out: “What do I do if a player says he doesn’t want to practice?” Sehwag’s answer would light up the fresh young faces around the room. “I said it is fine as long as he scores runs. Most players start playing the game since the time they are six to seven years old. So, say from the age of 7 to 20, a player has trained for about 13 years. He is likely to get bored, even I get bored, I want to get away from the game. I want to go and watch a movie, listen to music … and then come back to the cricket and enjoy it more.”
Sehwag was speaking his mind, the part of his anatomy that has bewildered many students of the game. However, there are some who rather unwisely over-simplify Sehwag. They believe that his uncanny knack of middling of balls — new, old, fast, slow, turning, swinging, seaming — was because of some rare talent that he was born with. It’s a lazy hypothesis which undermines the sweat and sacrifices that have gone into the making of a batting legend. Naturally gifted — is a term that needs to be urgently classified as a slur in sporting circles. Even his power-hitting, we were told, was because of his long history of lacto-addiction.
The most popular of Sehwag anecdotes have his folksy take on the complicated game or his street-smart sledging. His fellow Jat, Delhi bowler Pradeep Sangwan, once shared with the world Sehwag’s batting wisdom: “Stump ka ball roko, baaki sab thoko”.
This insight was widely acknowledged and generously celebrated. It fitted perfectly with the back story of the village boy who was once earmarked to inherit the chair at his family’s shop at anaaj mandi but it was a twist of fate, and a modest school coach’s belief, that made him an uncomplicated never-seen-before record breaking batting sensation. The ‘roko-thoko’ line was catchy, as expected it caught on too. It still guarantees laughs but it isn’t the truth. Actually, it’s just pulp fiction.
Sehwag, in another conversation, had given the real story about his batting, one worthy of being part of his bonafide biopic. It had science, it was anything but ‘roko-thoko’. While explaining his 2011-12 batting slump in England and Australia, he had spoken about his biggest strength. “During the Australia and England tour, my eyesight was giving me a headache. I was asked to wear glasses as I had ‘cylindrical minus 0.5′ power. Things at a distance seem blurred,” he said before spelling out his myopia-triggered batting problem, and the secret of his success.
“I was not able to pick the ball from the bowler’s hand. All my life my strength was I used to pick the ball early. I used to do that when I was at my peak. When I pick the ball early, I can adjust myself and hit the ball through the line,” he said.
This made more sense. You can’t score those triple Test hundreds, ODI double hundreds by gulping milk or by banking on some fortuitous ‘roko-thoko’ theory.
For the uninitiated, “picking the ball early” means judging the trajectory of the ball from the moment it leaves the bowler’s hand. The instinctive estimation of the exact line and length is done by spotting some early subtle clues. As soon as the images of the ball held in the bowler’s hand gets burnt on the retina, the muscle memory directs the hands towards ball. Repeating this act ball after ball doesn’t just require 20-20 vision, it also needs unflinching concentration and an analytical mind that reads the bowler’s hand like an expert palmist. Ajanta Mendis’ raised little finger told Sehwag a googly was on the way. Shoaib Akhtar’s loading was a memo mentioning that a toe-crushing missile was about to be launched.
Towards the end of that long interview, Sehwag had mentioned that he couldn’t read Murali. “Why?” was the obvious supplementary. “Sachin once told me that if Murali’s thumb is up, he will bowl a doosra, but because of his dark complexion, I was never able to spot it,” he had said matter-of-factly. Sehwag’s unvarnished Murali quote would become the talking point. Once again, the straight-talking Sehwag had pushed the thinking cricketer in him to the background.
There’s another anecdote that often gets narrated to understand Sehwag the captain. Once again it’s only half the story that gets frequently peddled. Leading Delhi Daredevils, Sehwag, in the final over of a typical IPL thriller, was approached by his pacer Umesh Yadav. The bowler wanted to know what to bowl and where. “Bowler tu hai ki main?” was Sehwag’s counter query.
It was a punch line, any stand-up would be proud of. Again, Sehwag’s retort fitted his popular image. He was after all the quintessential boy from Najafgarh, the part of the world where niceties are for sissies.
Sehwag explains his advice to Yadav. “My job is to bat. Nobody is telling me how to bat. So I can’t tell the bowler where to bowl. His job is to bowl, take wickets and defend runs. As long as he knows his job why should I interfere? My job as a captain is to back him till the end. I will take the blame. If you are a good captain you can bring out 100 per cent from everybody. You cannot force players to do things,” he had said. Bowler tu hai ki main – that’s how they speak in Sehwag-land. It wasn’t an attempt at comedy, it wasn’t a putdown. This was Sehwag making Yadav an independent thinker.
It’s a virtue that he has lived by all his life and is now stringently promoting as a parent. “I insist that my boys do their own work. I tell my wife not to help them with their homework, let them make mistakes, let them do what they want,” he had said.
Sehwag did best under coaches who believed in “let them do what they want”. The “one of his kind” batting prodigy wasn’t a rebel but was plain stubborn. Self-belief was sacred to him and the faith in his batting approach was unshakeable. Even with the world-acclaimed, technically superior batsmen around him in the India XI, Sehwag, even during his worst slumps, wasn’t swayed to change his approach.
Since his early days, he never believed in being part of the herd. He always did things his way, at times defying the majority opinion just for kicks. “Everybody in my family had a Maruti. So I got a Santro. They told me it was a wrong choice,” he had said.
In the history of Indian cricket, Sehwag, would easily go down as the “most advised cricketer”. Looking back, he says, it was like water off a duck’s back. In his interactions with young cricketers, Sehwag keeps reminding them of being wary of unsolicited counseling. “Take the top 10 people in the country, say the Prime Minister, Finance Minister, Home Minister … they all give advice to people but that doesn’t mean that every advice suits you. Out of 10 maybe only one thing you can include in your routine, you cannot apply all 10 in your routines,” says the man who did follow one piece of batting advice he got.
He isn’t sure if it was Sunil Gavaskar or Krishnamachari Srikkanth, but one of the two told him to move his guard to off-middle. With no real footwork, Sehwag, with the conventional leg guard, was stretching himself to reach the ball pitched outside off. In the bargain he was getting caught behind the stumps. The slight shift would give India its first triple centurion.
Never an alarmist, Sehwag firmly believes that with time, flaws do get wiped away. Age and consistency grow together, is his philosophy. “My funda is very clear, if you are playing international cricket, the opposition team, the bowling attack, the conditions will change your batting and you will improve. Look at Rohit Sharma. He was not consistent and not scoring runs, now he has scored 200,” he says. Though, it would need the mind of a Zen master to be that patient and not let failures make you pursue desperate measures.
Sehwag’s uncluttered mind was his crowning jewel, the one that made him a cricketing Buddha. So often during his career, it was evident that Sehwag was cut-off from the outside world, he was deaf to every noise around him. He famously asked “Who’s Vinoo Mankad?” after he and Dravid had narrowly missed breaking the long-standing Mankad-Pankaj Roy opening wicket record.
There’s one personal anecdote too. I had once woken up at 8 am, to see an hour-old Sehwag missed call. On returning the call he informed that he was at Feroz Shah Kotla at around 7 am and had thought of dropping by at our ITO office next door for the long-promised Idea Exchange programme – The Indian Express’ in-house interaction with celebrity guests.
History of the game or a newspapers’ working hours, unsolicited advice or self-doubts, milestones or technical suggestions – Sehwag never burdened his mind with things that would come in way of him perfectly middling the cricket ball. Unarguably he was the man who single-handedly changed Indian cricket with those blistering starts, giving our historically inferior bowling attack enough runs and time to bowl the opposition out twice. Now, can this big backer of “independent thinking” cricketers and a promoter of a liberal and permissive dressing room atmosphere be a game-changer as the national coach?
In the days to come, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman – the men who will be deciding India’s coach for the next three years – have to choose between two unique cricketers with an intimidating body of work and towering international reputations. From two different ends of the cricket pitch, and close to three decades, they have had a keen eye on every aspect of the bat-ball contest. As compared to the other legends from their era, the two have had to work harder to succeed. One hardly turned the ball, the other never used his feet. Sehwag’s runs came from focusing his gaze on the bowler’s hand. Kumble, even today, can give you wicket-taking plans by looking at the batmen’s feet.
Sehwag the coach can’t be judged by his twitter timeline that is ruled by market complusions to be funny, intelligent, erudite and popular, all at the same time. Sehwag, like Kumble, can easily make it to cricket’s Mensa club. While Kumble looks the part, Sehwag, victim of his own image, doesn’t. It’s also a lot to do with their playing days’ image. In a poll between the studious leggie from Bangalore vs the carefree opener from Najafgarh, it’s easy to guess where the neutrals would vote.
Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman know Sehwag better, they wouldn’t be influenced by the spin doctors’ concerted effort to turn the popular TV pundit into a ‘dial a punchline comic’. However, what separates the two is their coaching philosophy, and that’s the reason this isn’t just going to be a Kumble-Or-Sehwag call. By deciding one of the two, the coach-selection committee will be deciding the path Indian cricket is to take in the coming days. Kumble is better-planned, Sehwag more instinctive. Kumble is hands on, Sehwag less intrusive. Before making their choice, the committee first needs to answer another important question: Does this young team led by a powerful captain need to be reined in at times or does it need to be unshackled?