Qaiser Mohammad Ali
After he finished the first day of the Multan Test unbeaten on 228 on 28 March, 2004, Virender Sehwag and I decided that we would have dinner the next day in his room. Of course, neither of us had any inkling that 29 March would be a historic day in the annals of Indian cricket.
The next day Sehwag became the first Indian to hammer a Test triple century, and as per the plan I reached his Holiday Inn in the evening. It was a historic day for Sehwag and the Indian team as well. So, I was surprised to find no hustle and bustle in the hotel lobby, on the corridor of the floor on which the Indian team was lodged, and neither in his room. I was expecting celebrations to commemorate the first ever triple century by an Indian batsman.
Sehwag himself was completely normal. The first thing I asked him was about the celebrations. He said the team had told him that a grand celebration would be organised on the team’s return to India (but to the best of my knowledge, no such celebrations ever took place).
‘Viru’ said he had received letters/faxes from BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya, team sponsor Sahara India and Coca Cola while Hero Honda owner Pawan Munjal sent him a bouquet and two bottles of champagne through someone, besides receiving many phone calls.
After Sehwag placed room service order – vegetarian food, comprising arhar dal and vegetable — the Pakistani masseur that the Indian team had engaged for that tour came to give him a well-deserved massage. The only other person (apart from the person who brought the food) during my two-hour stay in his room was left-arm spinner Murali Karthik, but he stayed for just a few minutes.
The entire idea of recalling the scene at the Indian team’s hotel that evening is to emphasise that Sehwag stayed grounded despite achieving what no other Indian batsman had achieved till then – rather, till today: score a triple century in Test matches. He, in fact, is one of the two batsmen in the 138-year Test history to play three 290-plus knocks, the other being Don Bradman.
At the end of the tour, ‘Viru’ told me, “I went there [to Pakistan] with a blank mind. I only thought of playing well and performing. I was thinking that when I have performed well on the hard and bouncy tracks of Australia, maybe it would be slightly easy in Pakistan.”
Sehwag also did a lot of shopping in Pakistan — bought many DVDs, ladies suits, Peshawari sandals and chappals – as after all he was going to get married soon on returning home.
I have many other good reasons to remember India’s 2004 tour of Pakistan, particularly vis-à-vis Sehwag. He presented me the shirt that he wore while scoring 309 in Multan, after putting his signature on it (photo with this story).
Before the three-match Test series, which India won 2-1, was over, one evening when I was returning from the stadium to my hotel, I received an unexpected call from ‘Viru’, inviting me to dinner with him that evening.
When I reached his room, I got a ‘breaking news’: Sehwag told me he was getting married to Aarti, his long-time acquaintance, on 23 April. He had even got his wedding cards couriered to him in Pakistan from Delhi. It would have been a big scoop for any journalist; a story, accompanied by a photo of the wedding card, would have been a big ‘exclusive’.
But since ‘Viru’ had trusted me – and it was a very personal thing for him — neither did I write that ‘breaking news’ nor told anyone about it till date, except my family on my return to Delhi. This is the first time I am revealing this on public domain.
The reason Sehwag invited me was that he wanted me to help him draw a list of players, with whom he had played with and against, for sending invitation cards. There was a cache of reception invitation cards on his bed that he probably later distributed to his Pakistani friends. He gave me mine then and there, and wrote my name in his own handwriting.
The card clearly mentioned that children would not be allowed at the reception, but he still wrote my five-and-half-year-old son Ammaar’s name on the envelope. Once we finished making the list of invitees came the food, of course, vegetarian.
As I discovered at his wedding reception at hotel ITC Maurya in Delhi, Sehwag’s handwritten invitation card posed a problem for three of us – wife and son – at the entrance of the venue.
There were two printed lists of invitees – one from Sehwag’s side and the other from his wife Aarti’s – with which invitees’ cards were being tallied. I realised I was the odd man out. The people manning the reception hall entrance didn’t find my name in either list, and it took some convincing from me that it was indeed Sehwag’s handwriting before they allowed us in.
Another unforgettable memory of Sehwag is of August 2009, when he sensationally told me that he was fed up with corruption in Delhi cricket and planning to leave for some other state. Late that evening on August 16, a source called me up at my Mail Today office to give the ‘breaking news’. He informed me that Sehwag a couple of other players were seeking NOC.
“It’s a big story,” I uttered instantly. I immediately texted ‘Viru’ and he confirmed what my source had told me, and he was ready to talk about the issue.
While speaking to Sehwag, I realised he was extremely peeved with the state of affairs at the Arun Jaitley-headed DDCA. Mincing no words, he told me that he was fed up with the “rampant corruption” in selection of Delhi teams.
‘Viru’ also told me that if he had deferred taking NOC for a few days it was only because Jaitley wanted him to have a chat with him. After seven days, Sehwag and Nawab Pataudi, who he had taken along to articulate his point of view, met Jaitley he decided to stay back in Delhi after being assured of remedial measures to tackle corruption. However, corruption at the DDCA seems to have only risen since.
DDCA officials hardly treated Sehwag well during their long association. And this became starkly evident also on August 16, 2009, when I contacted a senior DDCA official to get an official quote on ‘Viru’ seeking the NOC to leave Delhi. “No, he hadn’t [contacted me]. But had he come to me I would’ve given him the NOC in a second,” the official told me.
Sehwag has remained grounded till this day, though some people have misunderstood him and, at times, rather uncharitably call him abrasive. But ‘Viru’ is known to speak only in one manner – formally and informally – and it all depends on you to interpret it as ‘arrogance’ or ‘typical Sehwag’.
On his comeback to the Indian team in 2008 – after being dropped for the first time for lack of form the previous year – Sehwag was in great form. In that calendar year, he had amassed 1,462 runs at 56.23 in 27 innings of 14 Tests.
After helping India chase an improbable-looking total against England in the first Test in Chennai in December by scoring a blazing 63-ball 83, he looked relaxed and contented when I visited his Hauz Khas home in Delhi for a detailed interview.
It turned out to be the longest formal interview that I have done with him so far – lasting over an hour, uninterrupted — and during which we had tea twice over.
He was extremely candid on many issues, including his relationship with former coach Greg Chappell; the confidence he got when his first son Aryavir was born, in 2007, a day before his own birthday, when he was dropped from the Indian team; and on what songs/Gurubani he sings while bating with Gautam Gambhir.
After the interview, Sehwag took me to the basement of the building where he had built an ultra-modern gymnasium. He even made me try out a few equipment.
Sehwag has not been kind only to me but also to my son, who would often send him good wishes for matches either in the form of hand-made greeting cards or by recording his voice on tape. ‘Viru’ would either record his reply on tape or write back.
We have had meals/tea in his hotel rooms at various locations, in and outside India. But I never sought any confidential information from Sehwag, nor he did he offer any, ever. Perhaps, it was this solid foundation on which our relationship was built, and perhaps ‘Viru’ quietly acknowledged. The relationship is now 20 years old and going strong.
Qaiser Mohammad Ali is a veteran journalist with more than 24 years of covering international cricket