It may no longer be a major landmark with the proliferation of Test cricket over the years. But somehow Virender Sehwag playing 100 Tests is rather quaint. Such an extended career is generally associated with the stonewaller or the technician supreme or perhaps even the natural strokeplayer.
But for a swashbuckling batsman whose approach always carries more than an element of risk to get to this mark is rather special. About the only player to match him in style to cross the landmark has been Sanath Jayasuriya but even the Matara Mauler’s record however impressive it is pales before Sehwag’s.
Sehwag will be the 54th cricketer to play 100 Tests at the start of the Mumbai game against England. When England captain Colin Cowdrey became the first player to figure in as many Tests way back in 1968 at Edgbaston against Australia it was hailed as an outstanding feat. Since then only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have no representation in the 100 Tests club and while as I said it is no longer a really special landmark it is significant for the player concerned for it is a tribute to his fitness, skill and durability.
Not that Sehwag will be thinking about such matters right now. A blithe spirit he will probably treat the Mumbai Test is just another game, just another opportunity to hit the ball as only he can in international cricket. With all due credit to other opening batsmen of his ilk – Shahid Afridi and Chris Gayle come quickly to mind – Sehwag has set standards that are hard to emulate.
That’s because one cannot hit the ball all the time which is what Geoff Boycott said once about Afridi "he is a nice lad but someone should tell him that he can’t hit every ball." It is this futile attempt that restricted Afridi to a rather chequered career of just 27 Tests though of course he has been a law unto himself in limited overs cricket. Afridi’s strike rate of almost 87 is superior to Sehwag’s but the lack of consistency has meant that his average is a lowly 36.5.
Gayle would probably come closest to Sehwag when it comes to comparing buccaneering batsmen at the top of the order but even he finishes well behind the 34-year-old Indian as the figures will clearly illustrate. The 33-year-old West Indian who is currently playing his 95th Test has a strike rate of 59.65 and an average of 42 as compared to Sehwag who after 99 Tests has a phenomenal strike rate of 82.45 and an average of 50.89.
How can a batsman whose batting means taking chances be so consistent? One of his predecessors Kris Srikkanth who was a pioneer in the art of swashbuckling batting at the top of the order averaged just under 30 after playing 43 Tests and hitting two hundreds. And yet here we have someone who has played a little more than double the number of matches and has hit 23 hundreds, including four doubles and two triples.
Of course it has not been all smooth sailing for Sehwag in the eleven years that he has played Test cricket. He was out of the team for about a year following a string of low scores. He has had his critics who have hauled him over the coals for being irresponsible and for not putting the interests of his team first. At times he has got out to shocking dismissals but then "that’s the way he bats" goes the general reaction.
This kind of shrugged, guarded criticism is heard for even his detractors know that he is a match winner. Just to cite one – though certainly not an isolated – example. Much has been written about how Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh steered India to a famous victory over England four years ago at Chennai when the home team chased down 387 with six wickets in hand.
But this was made possible by Sehwag’s blitzkrieg on the fourth evening that saw him race to 83 out of a first wicket partnership of 117, the runs coming off just 68 balls. The sedate march of the first three innings meant that only six had been hit. Sehwag now within a short time hit four, one off Steve Harmison, two off Monty Panesar and another of Graeme Swann and made it that much easier for the remaining batsmen to chase down a formidable target – the fourth highest chase in Test history.
In picking Sehwag as the leading cricketer of the year for two years running - a unique honour – Wisden made a note of how had broken Test cricket’s sound barrier in 2009 by scoring at more than a run a ball. That year Sehwag averaged 70 with a strike rate of 108.9. Sehwag’s contemporary Adam Gilchrist had set the benchmark for scoring quickly but he did it from the relative comfort of No 7 though of course he opened for Australia in ODIs.
But at the top of the order Sehwag’s eye-rubbing and mind-blowing strike rate is unique in the history of the game. Not for nothing has Ian Chappell hailed Sehwag as the "greatest destroyer since the U-Boat." Bowlers, captains and coaches have come up with any number of theories in a bid to curb his scoring rate but nothing has really worked.
Much has been said and written about Sehwag’s terrific hand-eye coordination and his unorthodox strokeplay. But the fact remains that he keeps things simple, enjoying hitting bowlers to all parts of the park and conveying that enjoyment to the spectators and TV viewers worldwide.
"I would pay to watch Sehwag bat" is the refrain of not only cricket fans but also experts and former players. That is the ultimate tribute a cricketer can aspire for. Yes, many times his approach will work, sometimes it will not. But taking disappointments and criticism in his stride Sehwag can well say a la Frank Sinatra "I did it my way."