Sehwag proves a spectacular understudy

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The Independent Online

After almost bringing world cricket to its knees, Virender Sehwag is back to doing what he does best. This is batting, or at least that special form of batting which involves hitting the leather off the ball as it flies to distant parts, taking with it the broken hearts of bowlers.

Sehwag offered England their first glimpse of his gifts during the Test series late last year, and to their undoubted consternation has now furnished them with a more damaging sighting. In the last three one-day games, he has opened India's innings with Sachin Tendulkar and scored 177 runs from 156 balls. It is a simple, deeply worrying statistic from which it is simpler to infer, since he is only 23, what he might be capable of over the next decade.

"In a way, he is a bit like the archetypal Australian cricketer, a country boy who comes to the big city, cuts a dash and makes a name for himself," said Bishen Bedi, the former India captain who coached Sehwag at Delhi. "But he is still raw. It is absolutely stupid to make the comparison with Sachin, just as it is equally foolish to compare Sachin with Bradman. He has a great talent but he has flaws, his footwork is restricted and I would like to see him on English pitches with the ball moving."

But the Tendulkar connection will not go away now. The massive crowds have warmed to the new boy, he has made no secret of the fact that Sachin is his inspiration. "I want to bat like Sachin," he said after he had torn asunder England's finest in Kanpur last Wednesday with an arousing 87 from 62 balls.

As Bedi warned, it would be reckless to overstate his talent, but it is difficult to know whether the fans here are influencing the newspapers or the newspapers are telling the fans. An internet poll asked if Sehwag should continue to open for India in the one-dayers instead of the captain, Sourav Ganguly. Almost 90 per cent said he should.

John Wright, the coach, is aware that his new star is not the finished article, even if he is the real McCoy. "It may be the right thing to keep the form pair in India. We do need a bit more flexibility in our order. When Virender is playing at the top of his game he is devastating and it probably suits his temperament going in as an opener in India, but it may be more difficult for him overseas," he said.

There are similarities between Tendulkar and Sehwag, but it is difficult to see the younger man matching the hunger for runs of the older one. Sehwag, nicknamed Viroo, comes from a farming family in north Delhi, who also run a flour mill, but he always wanted to play cricket. He made a century on his first-class debut and was picked for India's one-day team for the first time three years ago. He was too young, it was too soon. Back in domestic cricket he played a sequence of large, lively innings: 187 in 175 balls followed by 274, of a partnership of 381, in 327 balls.

He was recalled to the national one-day side and won a man of the match award against Australia. Then came Colombo last August. New Zealand had made 264, Sehwag opened because Tendulkar was injured. He scored 100 in 70 balls, the sixth fastest one-day hundred, and prompted a note of congratulationfrom the Little Master.

In November last year he was given his Test debut, against South Africa. India were 59 for 4. He and Tendulkar both scored hundreds to pull India out of the mire. The comparisons hardened.

Whatever he achieves, of course, he will never entirely erase his instrumental part in the episode which took the game to the brink of cataclysm shortly after. Watching him these past few weeks, it is difficult to believe that the bashful, quiet individual could be one and the same.

During the Second Test match at Port Elizabeth last November, Sehwag charged the umpire in making an appeal from short leg and was subsequently banned for one match for intimidation. After deadlock was reached over that and other decisions taken by the match referee, Mike Denness, the International Cricket Council withdrew official status from the third game of the series, for which Sehwag was omitted.

He was then picked for the First Test of the series against England, with his board claiming he had already served his suspension. A stand-off ensued. For days, the cricket world held its breath. If Sehwag was kept in the team, England would have refused to play and the sport would have been split indefinitely.

But the ICC did not wilt, sensing that justice was on their side, and eventually India backed down. Sehwag was withdrawn. England may not think so, but it is good to have him back.