Friday, Oct 31, 2014

The unlikely makeover of Virender Sehwag

Virender Sehwag Cricketer Virender Sehwag at Sehwag international School run by him in Jhajjar, Haryana. Express photo by Oinam Anand.
Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | New Delhi | Posted: January 11, 2014 11:52 pm | Updated: January 13, 2014 3:48 pm

Virender Sehwag turns his head to search for the sun in the cloudy winter sky as he steps out of his sparkling white Audi. He is in rural Haryana and is dressed casually. Had he been inside a cricket stadium, wearing India colours, Sehwag’s cursory glance to the heavens, while walking in to bat, would trigger a chorus of ear-piercing whistles from the stands. To borrow a ’80s Bollywood term, that look upwards would have been the first frame of his famous “entry”.

Photos: The lesson – Break the rules

The roar would grow with every step the explosive opener would take towards the pitch. Not long ago, Sehwag striding towards the bowlers was similar to Amitabh Bachchan running straight at a gang in leathers holding chains and knives. It promised riveting action. It dragged you to the edge of your seat. You always wanted to get closer to the entertaining violence. And Sehwag, unlike that tall, angry superstar, went about his job with a smile.

The last time Sehwag heard that din was nine months ago.

India was playing Australia in a Test at Hyderabad. The 35-year-old had finished that game with six runs. That was the first week of March.

Now it’s the last week of 2013, a day after Christmas. Two 20-somethings are building India’s first innings against South Africa in the final Test of the series in Durban. They are part of a young Indian team that is soaking the heady, addictive din of the colosseum.

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Meanwhile, in a different time zone and setting, the former Test opener has taken guard for his second innings. This one isn’t on a cricket field. Sehwag swaggers — he never walks — on to a freshly snipped patch of lawn that looks like a giant, green doormat on the porch of an imposing exposed-brick structure. That is the impressive facade of the Sehwag International School (SIS), which is spread over 23 acres, with numerous buildings that cover an area of 2 lakh square feet. The school is said to be close to Jhajjar district, but it’s actually closer to Silani Pana Keso, a little-known village even in these parts. Call the atmosphere tranquil or eerily silent, but Sehwag’s new workplace doesn’t have the mad din of his day job.

More so today, as the school is taking a winter break. The corridors, courtyards and classrooms are deserted. There are no children around to call him “Sir” but somehow, Sehwag, the face and founder of the school, still looks the part. That in many ways is puzzling. Who would have thought that the man with an ingrained contempt for text-book play and a rebellious approach to batting —singing songs at the crease and hitting sixes while in the 90s isn’t what obedient front-benchers at cricket academies do — would transform into a man with plans to train young minds? The new look has helped Sehwag though. A pair of steel-rimmed glasses has eased his makeover from the bandana-wearing buccaneer, aka Sultan of Multan.

Seated inside the conference hall, Sehwag takes off his glasses. He rubs his eyes, and also the imprints left behind by the spectacles on his nose, as he narrates the story of his school. It starts with Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda gifting him land in 2008 after his second triple ton in Tests. Disregarding advice from friends and family, Sehwag refused tie-ups, stayed away from partnerships, and didn’t invite investment. Like always, he wanted to do it his way. Like always, he didn’t like interference.

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He dug deep into his earnings, signed hefty cheques, managed big loans and built a “KG to Class IX” co-ed school that within two years has 400 students, a cricket field, a football turf, an indoor swimming pool, tennis courts (clay, grass and synthetic), 400m athletics track, modern classrooms, labs, a stable for horses, auditoriums, an amphitheatre and air-conditioned hostels.

He throws his head back and laughs when asked if his own school had any of these facilities. “Arora Vidya Mandir in Najafgarh was built on 200 square yards,” he says. I make a mental assessment. Arora Vidya Mandir could be easily accommodated in one of the corridors that spread out from the conference hall.

From his wonder years, he narrates a yarn that tells you that the Sehwag household at Najafgarh, a Delhi suburb, wasn’t one for the faint-hearted. In that extended Jat family, no one missed a chance to mock the other. When it came to banter, age was no bar. With young Viru preferring sports over studies, most of the wisecracks were directed at him. “I was a cricketer while the other kids in the family would get 80 to 90 per cent marks. My academic record was keenly followed by everyone at home,” he says. The day Sehwag was to get his Class X board results, a crowd gathered at his home. “At least 50 of my family members were waiting for me. They wanted me to fail so that they could all laugh at me,” he says. After a pause, comes the punchline delivered with cinematic relish: “Sadly for them, I had passed. I threw the marksheet at them and said, ‘Anybody who wishes (to cross-check) can take a look at this’.”

From an early age, Viru wasn’t just the toughest of the Sehwags, he was also the most stubborn. “From the time I got paid to play the under-19 World Cup in 1998, I haven’t taken any money from home. They were feeding me all those years, isn’t that enough?” he asks. Very early in his life, he told his father that he wasn’t keen on being a farmer like him or managing the family shops at the anaaj mandi. Sehwag didn’t want to take the beaten path, even when driving a car. “Everybody in my family had a Maruti. So I got a Santro. They told me it was a wrong choice,” he says, a chuckle escaping him.

How many times in your life have people told you that you are wrong, I ask. With a straight face, he replies, “A thousand times.” Move your feet, play fewer shots, leave the ball, work harder, reinvest in your game, don’t invest in the school. On second thoughts, a thousand is an extremely conservative estimate. Sehwag has defied convention and now preaches what he has practised all his life.

At his school, he encourages children to break templates and write their own script. “I ask them to pick characters from Ramayana, Mahabharata or Romeo and Juliet and write their own classics. You will be amazed with the kind of ideas they come up with,” he says. At home on weekends, six-year-old son Aryavir dresses up as Hanuman — tail, mask, mace, the works — as he rewrites mythology with his parents playing the divine lead couple.

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On the field, Sehwag might not have been the stereotypical “thinking cricketer”, but he pushed those around him to think about their game. When leading a side, Sehwag was known to be a man of few words. During an IPL match, before the final, tense over, Delhi Daredevils pacer Umesh Yadav asked his skipper where he should bowl. “Bowler tu hai ya main?” shot back Sehwag. That day Yadav grew as a bowler.

A few days ago, after a Ranji Trophy game, Punjab’s coach asked Sehwag to give a pep talk to his boys. The highly obliged coach profusely praised Sehwag, going on about his impressive international record, touching each of his highs. Understandably, it took a while. Sehwag just needed one line to break the ice. “My message will be much smaller than this long introduction,” he said. He told the cricketers that how much hard work they wished to put in was up to them. Everything boiled down to enjoying the game, he said, as the Punjab Ranji players nodded collectively. “No coach or manager can force you to do things,” he said. The coach, at this point, panicked. “What if they refuse to train?” “Most serious cricketers start playing by the time they are six years old. When they reach first-class level, they have been playing the game for about 13 years. They can get bored. Even I get bored. I want to watch a movie. But when I come back, I enjoy the game better. Sometimes, time away from the game helps,” was Sehwag’s reply.

Of late, the school has been a healthy distraction for Sehwag. But there was a time when it started eating into much of his time. This was around 2011, the year the school started running. His wife Aarti had seen this coming. Even as Sehwag’s dream was taking shape, she would wonder aloud, “Who from the family would give time to the school?” Maybe, she knew the answer all along. Eventually, Aarti stepped in as the boss. “She is a postgraduate in mass communication,” says her proud husband.
Aarti isn’t far; she is in the room next door, in the middle of a staff meeting. The chairperson, she is mostly on the move, looking after the details. Even the monthly menu for the boarders, uploaded on the website, has her inputs. That includes lauki channa and bharwan karela. The mother of two growing children says, “We want to teach the children that they shouldn’t have an aversion to anything.”

Sehwag believes a focus on the details will eventually take care of the bigger picture. In the same breath, he also mentions a misjudgement. “I should have built this school in stages. Since the entire construction started at one go, the loan amount went up. The fees take care of the operational costs but the interest on the loan needs to be taken care of.” Boarders at the school pay roughly Rs 3 lakh as annual fees, while for day scholars, the figure is Rs 60,000. Never a number cruncher, he says, “I am not worried when we will break even. In the next 10 to 12 years, the business will take care of itself. My priority is to maintain a certain standard,” he says. Sehwag dreams of a day when parents, impressed by a well-groomed “Sehwagite” in the neighbourhood, come searching for his school.

Sehwag has seen something similar happen. He had made it happen. A decade ago, Najafgarh’s budding cricketers went looking for the government school in Vikaspuri and its cricket coach, AN Sharma. They had heard of the boy Sharma had groomed into an international cricket star.

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The coach doesn’t say much about “Sehwag, the teacher”, but can’t stop talking about “Viru, the student”, as the 70-year-old braves Delhi’s late evening cold to oversee a net session and a match. In the late 1990s, Sehwag’s father, after touching his feet, handed over three things to him — a 1 kg box of mithai, Rs 11 and his son. “He told me, ‘Aaj se yeh ladka aapka hua’. Till date, no one has done this. When someone shows so much confidence in you, a bond grows. The child becomes your responsibility,” says the man, who likes a hearty laugh. “I have told this story to many parents. They still don’t get the mithai box.”

Sharma’s biggest favour to Sehwag, and to Indian cricket, was that he didn’t tamper with his student’s natural aggression. He worked on his technique in an unconventional way. When young Sehwag’s backfoot dragged itself out of the crease, Sharma tied it to a pole. On another occasion at the nets, he tied a cloth bag filled with mud on the bulge of his ward’s bat. The next day, Sehwag’s bat flowed freely and fiercely. “When he used to bat in the failing light, I would tell him, ‘Viru, ball nahi dikh rahi mujh ko’. He would reply, “Sir, aap ball pheko mujhe dikh rahi hai’,” Sharma says.

Memories of the time he spent with the player who made him famous makes the old coach melancholic. “These days, children don’t work hard. It’s frustrating.” He goes silent for a while. “Viru had asked me once. I think I should take up his offer and be at his school.”

It is a strange turn of events. Years ago, a young Viru headed to Sharma’s school looking to pursue his passion. Who would have thought that one day Sharma would think about heading to his student’s school with the same purpose? But, before that, who would have thought Sehwag would run a school one day?

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