Virender Sehwag

'I've never been in the zone'

In the second part of the interview, the most destructive batsman of our era talks about his respect for Tendulkar, playing spinners, and the influence of various coaches on his game

Interview by Nagraj Gollapudi  |  

Read part one of the interview here

"Tendulkar told me he would hit me on the bum if I hit sixes. At 295 [in Multan, 2004] I told him I was hitting Saqlain for a six and that he could hit me on the bum if he wanted" Jewel Samad / © AFP

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.

Read part one of the interview here

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo