Thursday, 17 September 2009

Sehwag Interview

It has been 10 years since your first international game. How has experience changed your batting?
To be fair, I count it only as eight years. I became a regular only in 2001. Till then I had only played few games after my debut, against Pakistan in 1999. As for my batting the best part about it is I have never changed it. I have never changed my thinking, I have never changed my batting style. I have batted the way I batted in local tournaments and then first-class cricket, and I have applied the same approach in international cricket. Because I knew I had got success at Ranji level, I was confident I would get some success in international cricket too. But I was never expecting to become the first Indian to hit two triple-centuries, and become only the third player to do that after [Don] Bradman and [Brian] Lara. But that's destiny.

Would you suggest the same approach to a youngster who comes to international cricket: just play the way you have been playing?
A youngster should know his game first. If he knows his game he can modify it at the top level, if required. But if he doesn't know his game then it is difficult to get success at international level. You will get success occasionally but not regularly. If you know your game you can handle pressure, you can handle any kind of situation, back yourself and play your own game and get success.

But with so many coaches who pass through a player's career, is it not difficult for the youngster to maintain his own game?
The most important thing for any athlete is to know his ability. If you know your ability and have even a little bit of a strong mindset, you can get success, because your ability takes you to success. Then things like technique, hard work and practice come automatically, because when you get success you want more. Then you will work hard on your fitness, on your batting, on your technique, and you will want to learn how to tackle various situations, and start talking to a lot of experienced players.

Were there instances where coaches or senior players tried to change something in your batting?
There were a lot of players who gave me suggestions when I was young. At times they were very good suggestions and I took them seriously, applied them to my batting and got success after that. I will give you a very good example. Mr [Sunil] Gavaskar asked me why I stood on the leg stump. Instead, why didn't I stand on the middle stump because if I did that I would cover more area. He said, in any case I did not move my feet, so if I'm on leg stump then I'm too far from deliveries outside the off stump, and risk nicking them. But if I stand on the middle, I'm in a better position to play the delivery. This was around 2006, when England came to play India.

"If you know your ability and have even a little bit of a strong mindset, you can get success, because your ability takes you to success. Then things like technique, hard work and practice come automatically, because when you get success you want more"

The same thing was pointed out by Mr [Kris] Srikkanth, who even suggested I stand on the off stump because I'm very good on the on side and I can pick the ball easily off the pads. According to him, if I'm standing on middle and off and my front leg goes across, the impact will be outside off and I will negate the lbw factor. Also, I have lots of time to play the shot.

So now, depending on the wicket I change the guard: if the wicket is flat then I can manage to stand on the off stump, because nobody wants to bowl into my body as I will easily hit them for fours. So they will pitch it outside off. And if the wicket is doing a little bit, I stand on the middle stump. And I have tried these things straight in a game and never in the nets.

Many former cricketers, especially, tend to believe your game is based solely on attack. Do you agree?
I don't think so. Yes, my game is very aggressive and very positive. I love to play my shots and love to hit fours and sixes. I love to score runs rather than defending or leaving the ball. That is an important aspect of my batting: I don't want to waste balls in any form of the game. When I was growing up we would play a 10-over or 15-over game, and the asking-rate would always be high and I would end up scoring 30 or 40 runs in 15 balls, so I built that mindset right from the beginning and still continue to bat in the same manner.

There is this story about you declining a nightwatchman, where you said you were not an able batsman if you couldn't last 25 balls at the end of the day. Is that true?
It is true. What is the difference between batting at the end of the day or at the start? If you make a mistake you'll get out. So I don't think a batsman really needs a nightwatchman, but it is totally an individual decision. Whenever a captain or coach asked me for a nightwatchman I would say, "No, why? If I can't survive 10 or 20 balls now, then I don't think I'll survive tomorrow morning." I believe that's the best time when you have the opportunity to score runs, when everybody on the field is tired and you can score 20 runs off those 20 balls.

"If somebody is constantly bowling outswingers or outside off, even if he is bowling on length, for me it is boring cricket" © Getty Images

When you take guard, what goes through your mind?
When I take guard I like to clear all the negative thoughts out of the mind first. That I do by singing a song or a bhajan [hymn]. Then, if there is a ball to be hit I will hit it. It doesn't matter if it is the first, fourth, 12th ball. But if it is a good ball I have to respect it, because you cannot hit every ball.

What are the thoughts you look to drive away?
When I take guard, thoughts like "hit the first ball for a four or six" or "try to defend" enter my mind time sometimes. That is a time when my mind is preoccupied with various thoughts. But if my mind is blank, then I will play according to the merit of the ball. So if I'm singing a song, I concentrate hard on getting the right lines and finding a rhythm. And when I'm concentrating on something I'm automatically concentrating on the ball.

So that's your way of switching on. How do you switch off?
Once again by singing a song or talking to the umpires or the batting partner and sharing jokes or something else. But I avoiding speaking about cricket. Yes, you can check about what your partner felt about a particular ball, but not too often. And when I'm in the dressing room and I'm going back to the middle to bat, I just like to chat. If I stay quiet I'm in trouble.

Do you like the bowlers bowling at you?
I'm very happy if the bowler makes me play because then I get opportunities to hit boundaries. If somebody is constantly bowling outswingers or outside off, even if he is bowling on length, for me it is boring cricket. But if somebody is bowling to me, it is a very, very good opportunity for me to play a lot of options.

[Glenn] McGrath, [Muttiah] Muralitharan, [Chaminda] Vaas and [Jacques] Kallis are bowlers who always knew how to frustrate me and play on my patience. But it all depends on how I'm batting: if I'm in the groove then I can stay happy without playing a ball.

Let me give an example. In Multan, where I hit my first triple-century, in 2004, the last half hour the Pakistanis were bowling to an 8-1 field and they were bowling wide outside off stump and I was just leaving every single ball. I played nearly two to three maiden overs. I was batting on 220-odd, so it didn't matter.

Another instance was in Melbourne, when I made 195. In that first session we were just 50 without loss. I had to leave alone balls, defend at times and pay respect to good bowling. But after lunch I opened up. So it is not that Virender Sehwag only tries to score runs, but sometimes I play according to the situation or conditions.

How much in advance do you plan for a Test?
The night before the game I do watch videos to make my plans. Then, if both teams are practising I like to watch the opposition bowlers. A good example I can provide is when I came back during the 2007-08 Australia series. During the first two Tests I was watching all their bowlers closely, how they used their fingers, and I would share my insights with Robin Singh [India's fielding coach] while I was sitting on the bench. The moment I got the opportunity to play in Perth Test, I was ready. So it helps a lot to study the opposition.

"In Adelaide I told Tendulkar that I was absolutely tired. The reason was I was concentrating from both ends: not only when I was taking strike, but I was also thinking how I would face the ball when I was the non-striker. That was the first time something like that happened. Even during my two triple-centuries I was physically tired but not mentally"

There would have been pressure to perform in that series, considering you were not even in the original pool from which the squad was picked?
No, because I was confident despite having flopped for the whole of 2007. Then I even had a bad domestic season, scoring hardly 30-40 runs in the six Ranji innings I played. But I knew if they picked me a big one would come soon. You cannot flop the whole time. I went to Australia with a lot of self-belief and confidence, and I scored 30 and 40 in Perth, then 60-odd in the first innings in Adelaide, and got a big century in the second innings.

There was a first that happened in the first innings in Adelaide. I told [Sachin] Tendulkar that I was absolutely tired. He was curious. The reason was, I was concentrating from both ends: not only when I was taking strike, but I was also thinking how I would face the ball when I was the non-striker. I was putting pressure on myself because I wanted to score runs. I knew the wicket was good, the attack was not great, so I could, if I worked hard, get a hundred. That was the first time something like that happened. Even during my two triple-centuries I was physically tired but not mentally. But in Adelaide I was totally exhausted during those 60 runs. I hope that was the last time, and now I enjoy myself when I'm at the other end.

Tendulkar has said that when a player goes through a bad patch his technique remains the same, but every time you enter the ground it is your mind that keeps changing. Can you relate to that?
It is true. Referring to my batting in 2007, I don't think there was anything wrong with my batting or that I was making any mistakes. But in such a scenario the mind likes to deal with the situation in two ways: score quickly, or play with extra caution. But what remains the same is the technique; what does change is the mindset. You are asking too many questions and you are not concentrating on the ball and that's what was happening to me in 2007, which was the worst phase of my life.

I worked hard to come back and did some breathing exercises, used the [Rudi] Webster [psychologist who worked on and off with the team] method of backing myself and it worked out well. I didn't change anything in my batting. The only thing that changed was the mindset, the biggest change.

Did anyone, a selector, former player call up and lend a helping hand?
Srikkanth was the first to call me and tell me not to get disheartened. He motivated me, saying I'm a bloody talented player, and that when I came out of the bad patch I would score a double- or triple-hundred. He just asked me to spend quality time with my family, and when my time came I would score big runs.

"Ganguly was a good reader of the mind, and that's why he was such a great captain" © Cricinfo Ltd

His words came true on my comeback, after I scored a double-century in Sri Lanka, triple-ton against South Africa and more than 1000 runs in Test cricket. So if a youngster is not scoring runs and is out of the team, even an SMS to him will give him a lot of confidence. He might think, "At least Viru bhai has belief in me". Apart from Srikkanth, Anil bhai [Kumble], [Rahul] Dravid, Tendulkar, [Sourav] Ganguly, [VVS] Laxman said the same to me. I felt good.

Do you think that since you enjoy your batting it helps you build those big innings?
You can say that. I love to hit fours and sixes. When you are doing that you are enjoying yourself and people will enjoy your batting and you are not tired mentally. You are not concentrating very hard - you just see the ball, hit the ball, and if you see the gap hit it there. If you hit those fours and sixes, you have the comfort to relax every few balls.

Sourav Ganguly once said this about you: "The best way to know how Virender Sehwag's mind works is to sit next to him in the players' balcony when India are batting. Every few minutes he will clutch his head and yell, "Chauka gaya" or "Chhakka gaya". That's his way of expressing disappointment at somebody's failure to take advantage of a ball that he thought deserved to be hit for four or six. That's how he thinks, in fours and sixes."
He was a good reader of the mind, and that's why he was such a great captain. He knew what the player was thinking and he would back him and give him the confidence by saying, "You can play the way you want to play, nobody will touch you, nobody will drop you."

It is absolutely true. Even now, if you ask anyone in the dressing room, I still say the same things. But that is for me, not for the player in the middle because if I was there I could easily hit the ball for a four or six, but I'm not blaming anyone else.

What do you focus on in the nets?
I try to hit the ball along the ground, especially against fast bowlers. I also like the bat to come down in the right position and check if my body position is correct. If I'm really watching the ball carefully then automatically I'm in a good position to hit it down the ground. The last two to three minutes I like to hit fours and sixes, but if I'm batting for, say, 15 minutes, the first 10 I concentrate and in the last five I experiment with the shots.

John Wright had a simple way with you. In his book he writes, "All I say is, 'How's your mom, hope she is well? And what are you going to do today?'" He [Sehwag] would say, 'Watch the ball, play straight.'
Because we never discussed cricket it was good. He would come to me and ask how I was feeling. I would say "good". Then he would ask how my mom's back was. I would say, "Little bit of a problem, but she is managing really well." He would then ask, "So what are we going to do tomorrow?" I would say, "Watch the ball and play the ball." I would tell him, if there is a ball to be hit, I will hit it, and as a coach I know you will back me, and you have to back me. We had a lot of laughs. That helped me a lot as there was no pressure on me from either Wright or [Sourav] Ganguly. That is their job, to give confidence to the player and let him do what he wants because everybody wants to perform at international level. That is the key.

Did Greg Chappell give you any sort of valuable tips?

What about Gary Kirsten?
Kirsten was himself an experienced player with more than 100 Tests and 150-plus ODIs. He knows what players want to do at international level, and the best way is to give the player his space and talk to him and give him confidence. The best thing after Kirsten has come in as a coach is optional practice. He says, "If you think you want to practise, you come, but if you think you are happy staying back in the hotel, that's fine, but do your fitness." That's his way of coaching. He is not like some captains and coaches who force the player to come to practice. And if he thinks something is wrong in your batting he comes and tells you that he has noticed over a couple of months that you've changed something in your batting. And he makes the player aware of what his thoughts are on the changes and leaves it to the player to implement his suggestions.

Can you cite an example?
There were a couple of occasions when my front foot was not going across. He pointed that out, and said my front foot was going in front of the wicket and if it went across towards the off stump, I would cover more area. So if the ball is pitched outside off and comes in and my front foot is straight, there is a lot of gap between bat and pad. These are small adjustments that are vital.

I checked with him once about how whenever I played towards midwicket or square leg the ball usually went in the air. He said, "It doesn't matter if your feet move or not, but your head needs to be in front of your body. When that happens the ball will go along the ground." I practised and noticed it worked. The same thing was told to me by [Sachin] Tendulkar and [Rahul] Dravid. I knew it myself, but you still need people to point it out from time to time.

"I have asked Tendulkar many times what the zone is. He tells me that's when 'I see nothing except the ball'. I have asked Rahul Dravid the same thing. He says sometimes when he is in really good form, he sees the ball and not even the sightscreen, the non-striker, the umpire or who is bowling. I ask how that is possible. I have never entered that zone"

Would you agree batting is not always about technique, it is about adjustments?
In my view, if you have good or bad technique it doesn't matter. But you will survive if you can adjust your game at international level, you are mentally strong, you know your strengths and how to score runs. When you start the game coaches will tell you to do stuff in a particular way and kids do that. But the moment you start first-class cricket the coach needs to tell you "try this, try that" instead of "do this, do that". If you feel comfortable you can take it, otherwise leave it.

Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell have always stressed that you are not just about hand-eye coordination. That you can play all those shots because of one important factor: balance.
They are right. It doesn't matter whether you move your feet or not, if your head is still and body is in balance, you can score lots of runs. This I learned from Tendulkar. He pointed out that if your head is still you can see the ball clearly and pick the length quickly. If the head is not still, you will make mistakes. That's why I don't have trigger movements and my body is still and I'm balanced and I have lots of time to play the ball. Why do you want to go towards the ball? Let it come to you, then you can play it. Tendulkar, in one of my first conversations with him about handling quick bowlers, said, "If you're confident about playing a shot, just go ahead and play. Don't hesitate, because then you will make a mistake."

What about being in the zone? Tendulkar said that what people call the zone, he calls the subconscious mind. "… All you need to do is look at the ball and play and the body is going to react. The concentration is such that you don't think of anything else." What's your definition of being in the zone?
I have asked him many times what the zone is. He tells me that's when "I see nothing except the ball". I ask how that is possible. I have never felt something like that. I have asked Rahul Dravid the same thing. He says sometimes when he is in really good form, he sees only the ball - and not the sightscreen, the non-striker, the umpire or who is bowling, he just sees only the ball. But I have never entered that zone even if I've scored triple-centuries twice. Maybe I will enter that zone they talk about in future.

Perhaps you are always in the zone?
You can say that, maybe. Perhaps the definition of zone is different for me. They have both experienced what I have never experienced. Right from the time I was growing up there would be people moving along the sightscreen, but I would never get distracted. But if somebody shouts and says there is someone near the sightscreen then I will stop and move the guy.

When does the bowler get the upper hand against you?
I can handle swing movement, but when there is seam movement I cannot handle it properly. In New Zealand in 2002 the wickets were really not good for batting and I struggled and scored something like 40 runs in four innings. Nobody did well except for Tendulkar and Dravid. So later I started to spend a lot of time at the wicket. I would cut if it was outside off and flick if it was on my legs. I found out that works on a bad wicket: to stay at the wicket.

"If Kirsten thinks something is wrong in your batting he comes and tells you that he has noticed over a couple of months you've changed something in your batting" © AFP

Are you hampered by doubts or insecurities?
When I faced the likes of Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee for the first time I had a little bit of fear in my mind. My thoughts were, "Would I be able to face them? Would I be able to play them? Would I be able to hit boundaries?" There were so many questions, and fear also that if the ball didn't hit my bat it might hit me on the body. Those doubts come when you are sitting in the dressing room or walking towards the wicket, and that is when I sing a song and drive away those thoughts. Once you play that first ball then you relax and say, "They are good bowlers, but I can hit them for fours and sixes also."

Tendulkar recently told me that he still gets butterflies in the stomach when he goes in to bat. I was surprised, since he has played for 20 years. He said, "True, but the game is like that. If you think you are on top of the game then you will start going down."

You possess one of the most uncomplicated games, free of clutter, yet you have been influenced by mind specialists like Rudi Webster and Paddy Upton. How come?
Basically there are a lot of frustrations inside and you are telling the person who is listening to you all the rubbish. I'm just trying to clear my mind and heart. Once I've taken all that out of me I'm relaxed and happy. Nowadays I do that with my wife and she is a good listener. Webster and Upton have been good, and they have pointed out examples of good and great players and how their minds would work. Webster told me how Viv Richards, regardless of his form, would always walk like a tiger. Richards knew that everybody was scared of him so he would never change that. So the message to me was, "No matter what the situation is, you need to behave like a champion. And at some point you will deliver." So I think, I've scored two triple-centuries, I have scored [one of the] fastest hundreds, and such thoughts give me confidence and I walk out with belief.

Tendulkar has been an integral part of your career. What's you favourite Tendulkar innings?
When he was there in Multan during my first triple-century. Because I batted the full day with him. He always likes to chat and can get serious and caution you not to hit unnecessary shots. During that innings he told me, "If you try to hit a six I will hit you on the bum." He gave me a simple example - about my Melbourne innings in 2003, when I tried to hit a six on 195 and got out. Till then India were in a good position, but after that we couldn't make a big score and we lost the Test. So he made me realise my mistake. That is why I didn't hit sixes in Multan, but when I was near 300 I told him that I was going to hit Saqlain [Mushtaq] and he could hit me on my bum!

Is there one shot of Tendulkar you would like to have?
His cover-drive, but I don't think I can do that probably because of the lack of feet movement.

"In my view if you have good or bad technique it doesn't matter. But you will survive if you can adjust your game at international level, you are mentally strong, you know your strengths and how to score runs"

What's the best compliment you have got from a bowler?
I don't think any bowler has given me good feedback. Shoaib Akhtar was telling me in Multan that I was only hitting him to third man, so the next ball I hit a straight-drive. "Now you have to accept it was a better shot," I told him. He accepted it.

What is it about spinners? You seem to just get turned on by them?
I was a middle-order batsman who was too good against spin and hit sixes consistently in Under-19 and Ranji cricket, and I still have the same confidence. Once Gary Kirsten asked me, "What would you do if there is a long-off, long-on and deep midwicket?" I asked, "Gary sir, do fielders matter to me?" He burst out laughing.

Any big hitter, like Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Tendulkar, all can hit a six but they don't want to get out. There is a 1% risk.

Let me give an example: I was batting on 291 at Chepauk, against South Africa. I told Paul Harris, "Come round the wicket and first ball I'll hit you for a six." He accepted my challenge and the very first ball I hit him for a straight six, and there was a long-off, long-on, deep midwicket and a deep point. I was so tired and he was bowling on the pads and I was getting bored. So rather than spending 10-15 minutes to get to the triple-century I gave him good advice.

Obviously that confidence comes with experience. On the topic of clearing the field, Andrew Strauss made an interesting comment after your match-turning two-hour mayhem in the Chennai Test. "He plays a game most people are unfamiliar with. He almost manipulates the field. You change it, and it's like he says: 'Right, I'm going to hit it somewhere else now'." Do you really do that?
I don't think so. Because I just said fielders don't matter to me wherever they are standing. If there are two slips and two gullies I will still hit them there. But yes, if they change the field and then bowl according to the field and they are getting success then I'll try and change my shots. I did that against Australia a couple of times when they were bowling into my body and had placed two midwickets, a square leg, a deep square-leg - there were five to six fielders on the leg side. So I went outside leg stump and tried to hit to point or cover and get fours but they didn't change their line or the field. But that happens once in a while.

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