If either falters his team will be forced into its shell, writes Peter Roebuck
Virender Sehwag and Matthew Hayden will be the most influential batsman in the forthcoming Test series. If one man falters his team will be forced into its shell, and if one dazzles the bowlers may fall back in disarray.
Although far apart in terms of technique and temperament, these openers have in common a desire to impose themselves. Both can set the tone for an entire innings, even a match.
Hayden has risen through power of stroke and force of character. Audacity and eye have been Sehwag’s swords. Neither has been content merely to repulse.
Amidst all the rancour of the Sydney Test it is easily forgotten that Sehwag did not play, and that his replacement scratched around. Had Sehwag performed even moderately the match must have been drawn. Indeed the Delhiite might have taken a few wickets as well.
Sehwag is a superb batsman. At first sight he brings to mind one of literature’s more jovial characters, Pickwick or Micawber or Falstaff.
Certainly he is roundly constructed and has an optimistic air. None of the customary torment can be detected in him; even in his longest innings he remains disconcertingly playful. Because he does meet expectations, he has been judged more on his manner than his record.
Not that he has always made it easy for the selectors. In trouble the anxious tie themselves in knots and the exuberant lash out. Accordingly the opener has been underestimated.
No man succeeds by accident. Always it is by design. Until he started belting them around, the Australians criticised his footwork. Indians were more worried about his brain. But Sehwag is neither a fool nor a clown. Rather he is the most fearless of batsmen, a trait that makes him vulnerable but also dangerous.
Captains fret about opponents capable of upsetting the best laid plans. Moreover, Sehwag’s technique is sounder than it seems. He does not move till he has studied the ball and his head stays still. And though he does sometimes swish errantly outside off-stick, he does not hook and presents a straight bat in defence.
Most of all he is prepared to take singles once the field has been spread, which allows him to bat for long periods without undue strain. Geoff Boycott was wrong about him. Sehwag thinks about his batting. His madness is feigned.
Hayden has long been a formidable opener. It is not so much that he pulverises attacks from the outset. Towards the end of their collaborations he was often outpaced by Justin Langer. Indeed the Queenslander tends to fall cheaply when he seeks immediate domination.
Hayden’s message is clear. When he feels the moment is right he intends to take the bowling apart. Nor is it an idle threat. Till then he is prepared to sit upon the splice.
When he succeeds the Australians are well nigh unstoppable.
Last man standing
Hayden made his name in India and returns as the last man remaining from an extraordinary generation of antipodean cricketers. If anything inhibits him, it might be a growing sense of mortality.
Sehwag is a younger man and his form has been compelling. Although seldom in direct opposition, their performances will be pivotal.