By Karthik Parimal
In the November of 2008, India met Australia for the fourth and final Test at Nagpur for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The series was 1-0 in favour of the hosts, but there were a few factors that presented a fair chance for Australia to draw level. Gautam Gambhir, India’s most dependable opener back then, was suspended for a Test, owing to an altercation with Shane Watson, paving the way for 24-year-old Murali Vijay. The Test was Sourav Ganguly’s last appearance in international cricket.
Amidst the distractions, Mahendra Singh Dhoni won the toss and opted to bat. Out walked Virender Sehwag alongside newbie Vijay. The former was renowned whereas the latter was still an unknown entity.
Vijay handled pressure with commendable nonchalance, as he cut and drove when scoring opportunities came his way, and left alone good deliveries with the poise of a seasoned campaigner. In his innings of 33, he scored just two fours — a lovely cover-drive off Brett Lee and a lofted shot over mid-on off Jason Krezja. However, he displayed a demeanour that revealed quite a lot. His monk-like concentration, watertight technique and a pleasant personality made him an instant hit with the team.
Two years later, he compiled an arresting century against the same opponents, but between his debut and this knock, there were hardly any scores off his blade that were worth a mention. Against Bangladesh, at Dhaka, he replaced VVS Laxman at No 5 and appeared to be oozing with self-confidence, until, at the score of 30, he let his instincts get the better of him. In a needless attempt to clear the boundary, the ball was safely deposited into the hands of a fielder waiting at mid-on. There were no gaping holes in his technique, nor did the hunger subside, but the frequent lapses in his concentration became evident.
This problem persisted when India toured West Indies in the summer of 2011 as well. Some of the big names in Indian cricket had not made the tour, which presented young the blood to make an impact. In trying to switch gears, Vijay became overtly defensive. He remained unsuccessful in his attempt to find the right balance while shuffling between the three formats and, as a reason, was duly discarded. One felt for Vijay, considering his calibre, but, if statistics were anything to go by, an average of 30.45 from 12 Tests hardly presented a formidable case, especially with the kind of competition breathing down his neck.
After almost an 18-month hiatus, he received a knock on his door to replace an out-of-form Gambhir, owing to a few blitzkriegs at the domestic level. A long rope was certainty, provided Vijay displayed grit to score big. At Chennai, he showed anything but that, throwing away his wicket in a rather regrettable manner. The mistakes that led to his ouster two years ago were repeated. And, by his own admission, the least he could have done is remain unbeaten while chasing a small fourth innings total of 50. The mental side of him went back to the drawing board after that Test, and he decided to “stay at the wicket for as long as possible” from the next Test onwards.
At Hyderabad, he bludgeoned the Australian attack, scoring 167 in an innings that spanned over seven hours. He refrained from going into a shell despite affirming to just “stay” and not throw his wicket away. The good deliveries were given due respect, bad ones treated with disdain, and he gleefully played second fiddle to Cheteshwar Pujara. There were no alterations to Vijay’s approach even when a coveted landmark approached. If there was an opportunity to loft the ball at 96, he duly took it. Xavier Doherty will testify to that.
Then Mohali presented another marvellous dimension of Vijay’s newfound approach. Debutant Shikhar Dhawan took the Australian bowlers to the cleaners, smashing 33 fours and two sixes in his innings of 187, while constantly maintaining a strike-rate of over a hundred. Vijay’s love for big hits is well known, and there is little doubt that the temptation to follow suit would have occurred on more than one occasion.
Yet, he remained unflustered. Had he been wearing a Chennai Super Kings (CSK) jersey, there was every possibility that Vijay would have participated in a race to the finish with his batting partner, but the fact that he realised the importance of having equilibrium in the longer format of the game speaks volumes of his growing maturity. “It’s a Test match, so you’ve got to take time and play,” said a smiling Vijay after the game.
He went about his knock in a no-nonsense manner and finished with a score of 153, off 317 deliveries.
The remarkable turnaround in his methods, and his ability to curb his natural instincts, has been heartwarming and his attitude exemplary. “Whatever target they set will be chased. No two ways about it,” said Vijay after the end of second day’s play at Delhi, with the elegance of his trademark cover-drive. It was difficult to imagine an Indian opener make such a valorous statement, leave alone backing it up, a few seasons ago. Let us hope this one’s for the long haul.
(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/
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