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With a team reliant on a strong batting line-up, time seems to be running out for Murali Vijay as the big scores are nowhere to be seen from the opener. Karthik Parimal explains why Vijay needs to be wary of his form.
Seldom have the Indians been assertive travellers. Nonetheless, before the wretched tours of England and Australia, whatever success they could revel in away from home was primarily due to a batting line-up that put forth a formidable front. The middle-order, as is widely known, was revered, but it was the openers who often set the tone for the match. As was stated by more than one skipper during his time at the helm, India indeed depended on its openers, for if they promptly did their job of laying the foundation, the rest who followed were adept enough to drive nails into the coffin of the opposition.
In England and Australia, India’s trusted pair of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir looked frail at the crease. They were the weakest links and what ensued once they succumbed to pace, bounce and lateral movement, time and again, during both these tours, is well documented. It didn’t baffle many when the duo were at the receiving end of the selectors’ axe, and their ouster was justified when their replacements in the form of Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay trounced a hapless Australian attack, albeit on turfs that would surely not flummox most Indian batsmen.
Dhawan’s brief time as a Test cricketer has certainly been appealing, and there is no denying the fact that he’s worthy of a good run at the top. Vijay, too, has indicated a revival ever since bagging big scores at Hyderabad and Mohali against Australia. For most batsmen, losing their wicket just after reaching a hundred is a far greater crime than flinging away a good start, and Vijay was sensible enough to keep accumulating runs after crossing the three-figure flag on those two counts. His inability to replicate such innings consistently, though, is a cause for concern. Moreover, the umpteen numbers of starts he’s frittered away, fail to paint a hopeful picture.
There is no doubting Vijay’s ability as a Test batsman. Some of his shots — an exquisite punch down the ground for a four in his short stay at the crease in the first innings at Johannesburg, or his cover-drive, his first ever shot that sped to the boundary in Test cricket, can be cited as apt examples — provide ample evidence of his sublime skills, but the fact that he doesn’t keep at it for a considerable amount of time is disappointing. Unfortunately for Vijay, but rightly in general, just flair and elegance can never supersede consistently notching big scores at the top of the order.
Very few Indian openers have thrived within South Africa’s confines, and following severe scrutiny of the former pair during recent times, Vijay’s every move will therefore be monitored incessantly. Gambhir was expelled from the Indian unit because he wasn’t etching big scores, a task that is expected of an opening batsman more than it is expected from one in the middle-order. He, too, was scratchy at the start of an innings, but nevertheless got his eye in and trudged to a start before flipping it away. The powers that be, understandably, wanted more, and it’s for this reason he was shown the door.
South Africa has not been a destination of pleasant memories for Vijay. The last time he travelled here with the Indian team, he was mauled by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel at Durban, and his outings with the India ‘A’ team have been far from memorable too. However, it’s in this intimidating ambience that Vijay will have to prove his salt if he hopes to cling on and solidify his position as an opening batsman. Considering the quality of attack he’ll be up against, the task is, no doubt, going to be arduous, but he may not have the benefit of a long rope, for failure at that slot could have an adverse effect on the team’s batting department. It’s often the case overseas during recent times that India’s middle-order has found itself in damage-control mode.
What Vijay, and also Dhawan — although his Test career has only just commenced and is not on probation like the former’s — will have to be aware of is that the number of youngsters on the fringes are good enough to don India’s white flannels. Moreover, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s confession that Gambhir could still get a look in should also worry Vijay, for his predecessor isn’t short of runs in the domestic arena currently, and the experience under his belt could outweigh him should that juncture ever arrive.
In all likelihood, Dhawan could get away with failure in such a short series. Nonetheless, he will be livid with his first innings dismissal. The fine-leg was placed precisely for the pull shot, and Steyn, not surprisingly, continually pitched it short and into his ribs, as Dhawan fell for the oldest trick in the book, holing out to just that fielder in a matter of few minutes. His shot-making ability is his strength, but succumbing to a trap that obvious is something he’ll loathe himself for. The think tank will give him his deserved run, but Vijay’s chances must certainly be numbered. He has three innings to turn a corner.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)
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