With India losing to South Africa both in the shortest and the shorter formats of the game, the cricket fans of the country were also saddened by the retirement of two outstanding cricketers of my generation, Virender Sehwag and Zaheer Khan. I have been fortunate enough to captain some of the greats of the Indian cricket: Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Harbhajan, all of whom went on to play 100 Test matches. It doesn’t happen very much in teams where the entire middle order, other than Sachin, started more or less at the same time and went on to play such number of Test matches, which showed the quality of the players and their contribution to the game.
In spite of all these, here was another outstanding batsman, who not only played 100 Tests, but also stood out among all of them, on his own feet, and was one of the greatest players produced by India. I saw the great Sunil Gavaskar in the latter days of his career, but I am sure that even Mr Gavaskar would consider Viru to be right up there.
Sehwag was a player who brought people to Test matches. He was an out-and-out match-winner. He kept the batsmen after him in the dressing room on their toes, but at the same time, if he got going, he made life a lot easier for the batsmen to follow. He said on his retirement that he was fortunate enough to have Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman to come after him to bat, but I thought the opposite. We were fortunate enough to have Sehwag open for us.
People spoke about Sehwag’s technique. To me it was uncomplicated. No batsman in the world is absolutely perfect technically and Sehwag adjusted to his game fabulously. For me, his greatness was the way he batted as a Test opener, after playing all his life as a middle-order batsman. It’s an amazing feat. I remember asking him to open in a Test at Lord’s against England in 2002. I saw a bit of anxiety on his face about ‘what happens if I fail’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether he would succeed as an opener. But, what I saw after that was history and an absolute rarity. His knock at Trent Bridge on a green-seamer was not only outstanding, but it also paid off one of my biggest gambles, which, before that knock, I did not expect to succeed. He just got better and better. The rest was for the world to see.
What stood out for me in his decade-long career was not only the runs he scored, but his responsibility to the team. He never lost composure, and was a leader in his own right.
I remember walking up to Viru, padded up in overseas conditions, and telling him, “Viru, sambhalke.” I got one answer always: “Chinta mat karo, yeh pata wicket hai.” He said that in Brisbane, Lord’s, Bloemfontein and Mumbai. I had to swallow his words with raised eyebrows many a time, but it gave me an amazing comfort as a batsman coming down the order.
I am a firm believer that it is not ability at the top, but confidence which separates the successful from the non-successful. At times, his confidence turned into arrogance; the triple-hundred at Multan was the prime example of that. A six to get to hundred, a six to get to double-hundred and a six to get his triple-hundred—a remarkable example of his mindset and the way he thought about the game. Many a time, I have sat next to him in the dressing room. He would sit and watch the game, whispering to himself: “This was a four, this was a six.” I had to scold him once, saying, “Everyone can’t bat like you; so please shut up.”
For me what stood out in the players of that generation was the simplicity amid all the madness and the fan-following. I was fortunate enough to play with them.
I remember Zaheer Khan when he first came to Nairobi. Srinath had told me that there was a young fast bowler from Baroda who would bowl at 90mph. When I saw him in Nairobi, I thanked the almighty: maybe, my dream of making India a good team overseas will materialise. He bowled with rapid pace in that tournament, and what stood out for me was that he brought the ball back into the right hander.
His bowling changed over the years. For me, the biggest turnaround for Zaheer Khan came after his stint in Worcester, and I believe that a lot of current Indian fast bowlers need to play a season of county cricket to become better bowlers. Zaheer learnt about his body. It became a lot stronger than when he came in, and he learned how to bowl a long period of time. He broke down a lot in the early part of career, but his body became a lot better as he grew older. For an Indian fast bowler to play 92 Test matches is a remarkable achievement.