The Sehwag wheat store at the grain market in Najafgarh. The batsman’s early cricket career was funded by income generated from here. Later, his name was enough for his family to attract traders.
Two kids, not more than 10, hurl a fire cracker in your direction from the terrace as you wait for the main gate of the ‘Sehwags’ to open. “Chachu’s birthday!” says one of them. They run inside after hearing the clanking of metal gates from the adjacent bungalow. An elderly woman emerges, introducing her as Sehwag’s tai ji — the batsman’s father’s elder brother’s wife. “Viru doesn’t stay here anymore. He has moved to South Delhi long back. You need to go there,” she says. The news of Virender Sehwag’s retirement hasn’t reached her yet. She tells us to meet his taaya ji, who will be at the anaj mandi, or the grain market, where the Sehwags own a couple of shops.
At the corner of the dusty road that leads you to Sehwag’s house in Najafgarh, three men are squabbling over tiles to be used at the construction site. You ask them for the direction to Sehwag’s school and the grain market. “Viru ne toh sanyas le lia hai par (But Viru has retired),” informs Vijay Bhardwaj, Sehwag’s neighbour. An old man in his 70s laughs, “budha hogaya. Hamare Bholi ki umar hogayi. (Our Bholi has become old).”
Not quite the Nawaab. But Bholi. That’s how they know him in these crowded, scungy lanes of the south-west Delhi suburb. “He has an innocent face and by nature he is decent. Bhola hai hamara Viru. The nickname has stuck with him since childhood,” says Bhardwaj, five years elder to Sehwag.
They remember him here as a quiet kid who was hardly interested in studies. His school, Arora Vidya Mandir which is a stones throw away from his house, has shut down. The 200-yard plot lies unoccupied. But the playground next to the government school on the opposite side of the road has now become a breeding ground for aspiring cricketers. It’s here that Sehwag first picked up the bat. Before that, however, the elders in his colony made him chase balls for hours. “He was the youngest amongst us so he never got batting easily. But all he wanted to do as a child was to play cricket. So he did not mind fielding either, and we had someone who could retrieve the balls hit far away,” his cousin Lalit Kumar Sehwag reminisces.
The introvert kid soon became Najafgarh’s most famous son. He distributed sweets in the entire colony from his first earnings from a Ranji match. He also bought himself a black LML Vespa. As years rolled by, Vespa turned into Indica; Indica to Honda City and Honda City to BMW. But the man behind the wheel remained unchanged.
“All his cars were black — he considers the colour lucky — with 7 as the number. Despite the fame, he continued to be the same man, which is his greatest quality,” Bhardwaj says.
Finding the grain market — and the Sehwag Wheat in a maze of little square blocks — is rather easy. Which isn’t surprising because everyone here knows everything about the Sehwags. Especially about their family business, which picked pace after he became an international. Lalit says the early part of Sehwag’s cricket career was funded from the income generated by selling grains at the market. “Viru never had a business-oriented mind. He came over to the shop some times but was not interested in it. But once he became an international cricketer, the name does the job. Earlier, very few dealers used to trade with us. Now, everyone wants to do business with Sehwag. In that sense, his contribution to the family business has been immense,” Lalit says.
They used to erect a giant screen near his house every time India — and Sehwag — played. For his debut Test, the joy didn’t last long. Sehwag was trapped leg before by Shoaib Akhtar for 1 run in an ODI at Mohali in 1999. “Later, he told us Akhtar was so quick that he couldn’t see the ball,” Bhardwaj says. But the moment the entire neighbourhood waited for was Sehwag to give an interview in English. He would freeze at the thought of talking in English in school and later when he became a Ranji player.
“When he did talk in English, the entire room would fall silent because no one wanted to embarrass him by laughing at his face. But when he gave an interview in English for the first time, the entire colony cheered,” Bhardwaj says.
The elderly gentleman with him adds: “Kuch toh faayda hua uska cricket khelneka. Angrezi seekh gaya (There has been some benefit of him playing cricket. At least he learnt to talk in English).”
Tau might feign ignorance but benefits have been many. Few have defied convention with nonchalance and charisma like Sehwag has. But his penchant for doing things differently began even before he picked up a bat for the first time. The jats from this part of Delhi and neighbouring Haryana are drawn towards sports like wrestling at an early age.
Not Sehwag, though. Every day, while travelling for training, he would pass by the akharas where he watched the wrestlers train in awe. “The kind of training wrestlers did was quite different. We did rope climbs and other such exercises,” says wrestler Sushil Kumar, the other Nawaab of Najafgarh. “But that’s his great thing. Viru bhai picked up little things from everything he observed.”
Sehwag’s rise as an icon also changed the trend. More youngsters have started playing cricket in the area where few played the sport till a decade back. “In Viru bhai, the children here have a role model. So you see more and more jat boys play cricket now, which wasn’t the case earlier,” Sushil adds.
A case in point is Pradeep Sangwan. “Earlier, there used to be just one small ground here, now we have a couple in Najafgarh and two more in nearby Dwarka. It’s only because of Viru bhai’s success,” the 24-year-old Sangwan says.
Sangwan, who considers Sehwag as his Godfather in cricket, says the advice he gives to youngsters highlights his style. “His advice to all of us youngsters is simple — ‘wicket ka ball rok ke, baaki ball thok ke (defend the balls aimed at stumps, hit everything else)’,” Sangwan, also from Najafgarh, says. Back at the Sehwags, the kids are back in the terrace again, ready to fling another cracker. Instead, there’s a ball in the boy’s hand. You hear a voice from one of the rooms: “Get ready for your cricket practice. Chachu jaisa banna hai ki nahi?“