Imagine for a moment that you are opening the batting in a one-day international. You step out onto the field, assailed suddenly by the reality of what you are about to do: the heat, the light, the noise, the scale of the field and of the crowd. Your partner takes strike, and gets a single away immediately. Not much chance for you to have a look. What's this wicket like, then, low? Slow? How long is it since you've faced this guy with a white ball - two years? Three? But hang on - the umpire's signalling a no-ball. Your first delivery will be a free hit. All of a sudden, you loosen up, feel a little better. You set yourself deep in the crease, get outside leg stump and free your arms and the ball sails up and over third man. Four. Easy. Thanks. Out with the bad thoughts. In with the good...
Now consider the difference between yourself and Virender Sehwag, to whom this happened the other day in the first ODI against West Indies. Viru stepped back and carved it over third man too - the difference being that he would have done it anyway, regardless of the no-ball and the free hit, and regardless of the fact it was an ODI and not a Test match or any other type of fixture. Because that is Sehwag, the man who gave the world the irreducible 'see ball, hit ball'.
This blog has long seen Sehwag as an avatar, a vision of the future, an outlier. But perhaps he is something else too; mentor, leader, philosopher king. In the modern age, there have always been attacking opening batsman. Gordon Greenidge, no slouch himself, recalled his partnership with Barry Richards at Hampshire: 'it was not unusual for applause to be ringing round the ground for his fifty while I still had single figures'. Richards once made 325 in a day at Perth against Dennis Lillee amongst others. Then came Jayasuriya, Slater, Hayden, Gayle, McCullum.
Yet none are Sehwag. Jayasuriya, Hayden and Gayle have Test match triple hundreds but Sehwag has two, and came within seven runs of a third. They are power players, yet Sehwag strikes at 20 runs per hundred balls better than any of them. Only Hayden can really claim to be in his class - the others all average about 10 less - and yet Hayden cannot be called a genius; the adjective effortless does not attach itself easily to his game.
Viru doesn't have Gayle's shoulders or Jayasuriya's forearms or Haydos' pecs. He has none of the nervous intensity of Slater or the cross-eyed desire of Hayden. He doesn't really have the insouciance of Gayle or Barry Richards. He is instead an almost implacable little Buddha, soft-edged, calmly accepting of the fates, whether they swing for him or against.
If there is one player he is most like, it is Lara, in that he can hit unstoppably not just for hours but for days. It is they who have built monolithic scores most regularly. Yet Lara didn't open, and he often gave the first hour or so of his innings to the bowler. That has not been Sehwag's way.
His technique is not revolutionary, just thrillingly heightened. What is different about Sehwag is his mind, the way he sees the game. Essentially, he is free. Where tradition insists that the new ball and fresh bowlers and aggressive fields are threats, he sees wide open spaces, a hard ball that will fly off the bat.
Sehwag said as much to David Warner a couple of years ago, when the notion of Warner wearing the Baggy Green was inducing not only ridicule but indignance. 'He said to me, 'you'll be a better Test cricketer than you are a twenty20 player',' Warner recalled a few days ago. 'I looked at him and basically said, 'mate I've not even played a first-class game yet'. But he said, 'all the fielders are around the bat. If the ball's there in your zone, you're still going to hit it. You're going to have ample opportunities to score runs. You've always got to respect the good ball, but you've got to punish the ball you always punish'.'
This week, David Warner made his Test debut. Sehwag was more right than most of Australia. Warner does not have Sehwag's talent, but he shares his worldview. There will be many more who do in the years to come, and then it will become the new orthodoxy. That is Sehwag's true legacy. He has shared an era with Lara, Tendulkar, Dravid, Ponting, Kallis, yet he is not one of them. As great as they are and have been, they are the old order, more connected to the past than to the future.
And there is something more important here than just a mindshift, than changes in tactics or techniques. The game must always move forwards and renew itself. Essentially it must accelerate to match the speed of the culture in which it exists. Test cricket of the 1950s is as distant now as the rest of that decade, with its housewives and its radio plays and its music hall conservatism. David Warner may or may not succeed as a Test match opener - do you want to bet against Viru? - but plenty like him will. At some point or other they will be the norm, and they will be standing on Sehwag's shoulders, the shoulders of a giant. If he is not the best batsman of his time (and he might be), he is the most significant; a genius and a visionary with it.
Richie Benaud 1930 – 2015
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