In Chennai, summer begins as early as February. By the end of March, it swelters. Chepauk is a cauldron on that day in 2008. South Africa had scored almost 550 runs in the first innings. On the third afternoon one of India's batsmen was playing as though they were chasing only 150.
Makhaya Ntini, the tireless South African bowler, has been smashed for a few in the last over before tea. The last ball of the over comes up. Ntini goes around the wicket. The South Africans usually plan well. They have been drilled that this chap doesn't like them just short of a length around his ribs. The batsman is ready; he makes room outside leg and flays it over mid-off for four. His eyes barely follow the ball; he does not even look at his partner - the peerless Rahul Dravid - turns around instantly and takes off his gloves. Job done for the session, Virender Sehwag strides off for tea.
The most accomplished batting quartet in recent memory has been tied into knots by a barely-known spinner. He seemed to slip the ball through his knuckles and control it on a string. India loses the Colombo Test by an innings and plenty and Ajanta Mendis has acquired something of an aura. The experts go gaga over Mendis and understandably so. He can bowl six different deliveries with a similar action.
The action shifts to Galle. Sehwag drives, cuts, flicks and lofts with disdain. He plays with total freedom. He ignores Mendis' action and proceeds to play everything off the pitch. He does it, just in time, just. At the other end, the fabulous four struggle. Sehwag ends with 201 not out of 329 and India go on to win the Test, by 170 runs.
India had won the first Test against Australia at Adelaide. The Aussies spoke of chin music as the Boxing Day Test of 2003 approached. But Aakash Chopra - though inexperienced played with a straight bat and stout heart. Sehwag was restrained for a while. They scored eight runs in the first half hour. They tap and run for a few as they grow bolder.
Brett Lee pings them both on their helmets a few times. The pitch eases a bit in the second session and Sehwag counter-punches. One shot stands out. Stuart MacGill tosses one up on middle and leg and Sehwag's foot moves, not towards the ball but outside the line and arms lash out like a tennis forehand. Four, through long-on. The opening partnership crosses 100 in no time. The 300 comes up well before stumps and there are visions of an Indian win. And then, inexplicably, Sehwag hits a Simon Katich full-toss down deep midwicket's throat attempting to hit a six while he was on 195.
Before the start of the India-Pakistan Test series in 2004 there was quite a bit of verbal sparring between the two sides. Here are two examples.
Former Pakistani captain Javed Miandad bragged: "Your Irfan Pathans are in every galli and mohalla in Pakistan. We don't even bother to look at them." At a news conference, a Pakistani journalist asked: "How will you stop the Rawalpindi Express?"
Came the answer from Saurav Ganguly: "Pull the chain."
The Indian captain was supremely confident. It seemed to be misplaced as Pakistan at home were strong and had two excellent bowlers. Shoaib Akhtar had pace and skill to match his bravado. And then there was Saqlain Mushtaq, the man who developed the doosra into an art form.
One hour into the Multan Test, things looked different. Aakash Chopra was resolute as ever, but Sehwag had scattered Shoaib, Mohammed Sami and Shabbir Ahmed everywhere. The faster and shorter Shoaib bowled, the harder he was hit. India's 100 came up before lunch.
When Shoaib repeatedly kept asking him to play the hook shot. In response, Sehwag tells the close-in fielders: "Yeh bowling kar raha hai ya bheekh maang raha hai? (Is he bowling or begging?)". Even they couldn't stop laughing, the story goes.
Sehwag ends the day on 228 not out as India cross 350. His 300 eventually comes up in quick time on the second day. How else? With a six. The bowler: Saqlain. He concedes more than 200 in the innings. India win the Test by an innings and Saqlain is dropped for the rest of the series.
Sehwag also did his bit as a bowler. In the 2002, Champions Trophy semi-final against South Africa in Colombo, India looked good to score more than 300 but ended up scoring only 260.
South Africa seemed to be on course with Herchelle Gibbs scoring 100 and Jacques Kallis giving strong support. Gibbs retired with cramps. Sehwag, who came on as part-time bowler, started to change things around with his loopy off-breaks. An easy chase became difficult when he got Mark Boucher, Kallis and Lance Klusener. South Africa, who had the match in their back-pocket for the first 40 overs of the chase, choked once again, this time by 10 runs and India were in a final. As Ganguly wiped his face in sheer relief, a stocky, curly-haired teammate, that was not Sachin, ran up from behind and hugged the captain with a laugh.
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