Coming into the second qualifier of the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League between Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, Virender Sehwag was far from the spotlight or any conversation regarding the game.
The match was billed as the final before the final, as both these teams had arguably been the strongest in the group stages. While Punjab finished on top of the table, Chennai were relegated to third following a run of three straight defeats in their last three games of the league stage.
The crowd at the Wankhede were anticipating the "Glenn Maxwell Show" when Punjab were put in to bat. The 25-year-old Australian, who had had a spectacular first half of the season, scoring 435 runs in his first seven games, had slowed down toward the end, managing just 104 from his last seven. This was supposed to be his comeback.
But then out walked Sehwag, who last played for India in March 2013 and had had an average IPL season, scoring 326 runs in 16 matches at an average of just 21.8.
Sehwag had got a couple of starts, a few 20s and 30s here and there, and that's probably what most expected on Friday evening. Was he on the majority fantasy IPL teams? Far from it. It was all Maxwell, MS Dhoni and Mohit Sharma, who was expected to scalp Sehwag soon enough.
The once-famed hand-eye coordination and lightning reflexes that made Sehwag one of the most dangerous batsmen in the world in his prime, was considered long gone. Aged 35, he now wore glasses and a distinct paunch. See-ball-hit-ball had become see-ball-miss-ball.
Not many could remember his last noteworthy innings on a cricket field. There wasn't much he could do, except perhaps connect a couple of boundaries to set the launchpad for Maxwell, right?
Only Sehwag had other ideas.
Opening Phase: Balls 1 to 8
He began in typical fashion, crunching left-arm seamer and Delhi teammate Ashish Nehra through the offside with a delectable cut off the back foot in the very first over. This was followed by a slash through the covers for four more in the third over, bowled by Sharma. In the next over, Sehwag sliced medium-fast bowler Ishwar Pandey between the slips and gully to the third-man fence for four.
These three shots brought back memories of the Sehwag of yore. At the end of four overs, Punjab were 43 for no loss, and Sehwag had raced to 18 off eight balls. Did we have something on here?
Second Phase: Balls 9 to 19
Pooh, that was nothing! "I'm just warming up," said Sehwag, as he smashed Nehra for three back-to-back boundaries in the fifth over. The first was a slap down the ground wide of mid-off, followed by another vintage cream of a cover drive and then another cheeky boundary dissecting the field to the third-man fence.
The next over, bowled by Sharma, saw Sehwag executing a modified version of his trademark upper cut. Sharma bowled a short-pitched delivery that cramped Sehwag for room to free his arms, but he was in such form that he stepped away to the leg side and just slashed the ball over the keeper's head for his first six.
Even as Punjab finished the powerplay with 70 runs on the board without the loss of a wicket, Dhoni brought on off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin in the following over in a bid to try and contain the run-flow.
Sehwag laughed the tactic away as he came down on his knees and lifted the off-spinner's delivery from around the wicket straight into the sight screen. A single in the same over brought up his half-century, off just 21 deliveries.
The few handful who had picked Sehwag in their fantasy teams had just struck the jackpot, and there was more to come.
Third Phase: Balls 20 to 39
In the eighth over, Sehwag welcomed slow left-arm orthodox bowler Ravindra Jadeja into the attack with a massive swipe of the blade on the front foot as the ball flew into the stands beyond long on for a maximum.
In the 11th over, Sehwag creamed Nehra for two back-to-back sixes, one bigger than the other, straight down the ground and over long on. Ashwin was then launched for another maximum down the ground in the very next over. Three huge sixes, and before you knew it, Sehwag had raced to 89 off just 39 deliveries.
Fourth Phase: Balls 40 to 50
Sehwag decelerated a tad as he entered the 90s after what was a long drought. This phase saw just the one boundary. On 99, everyone present at the Wankhede were on their feet. This was a man who was renowned for reaching milestones the unconventional way—by smashing boundaries, like he had done in Multan 10 years ago when he became the first Indian to score a triple century.
However, Sehwag trolled everyone as he brought up his century with a single. It had taken him exactly 50 balls and was his second ton in all seasons of the IPL.
Back in the stands, KXIP co-owner and Bollywood star Preity Zinta could not hold back her tears. Her team had kept the faith in this veteran of the game and great servant of Indian cricket, when everyone had said he was long past his prime. This must have been sweet justice.
Final Phase: Balls 51 to 58
With the milestone behind him, Sehwag got back into top gear as he took Punjab past the 200-mark for the third time in the tournament against CSK. He swiped, he crunched and he launched the ball into the stands, before Nehra was given some reward for the pasting he had received.
On the last ball of the 18th over, trying to go for another maximum, Sehwag slightly misconnected. It still took a spectacular diving catch from Francois du Plessis to send Sehwag on his way, but it was not before he had long done the damage with 122 off just 58 deliveries.
Punjab went on to post 226 for six in their 20 overs. Chennai gave them a scare until the end of the powerplay, with Suresh Raina scoring a blitzkrieg 87 off 25 balls to take his team to 100 in six overs. But some superb fielding by Punjab skipper George Bailey brought Raina's innings to an end and CSK eventually fell short by 24 runs.
This IPL season has been flooded with performances by emerging young players such as Maxwell, David Miller, Akshar Patel, Sanju Samson, Karun Nair and Sandeep Sharma. But after his remarkable comeback, Sehwag could himself be categorised as an emerging player 2.0.
Despite all the pyrotechnics on the field, perhaps the best moment of the match came in a chat with commentator Ramiz Raja at the end of Punjab's innings, when Sehwag revealed that his son had complained to him that he wasn't scoring runs, and his schoolmates were teasing him because of his poor form. "You just wait, buddy," he had replied.
It would be safe to say now that his little boy is going to be paraded around the school on his mates' shoulders.
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