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Vol. XXXII No. 21, February 16-28, 2023

A textbook artist amidst slam bang Cricket

-- by Partab Ramchand

In these days of slam bang cricket it is unusual for a young cricketer to emerge as a specialist Test player and this has to be Murali Vijay’s chief claim to fame. While others indulged in the reverse sweeps, the switch hits and helicopter shots here was a youngster who played by the text book, displayed perfect technique, brought off classical strokes and displayed the kind of intense concentration that saw him get the sobriquet Monk. He certainly provided both style and substance during his Test career which lasted a decade and produced 3,982 runs from 61 matches at an average of 38.28. More impressively the Chennai-born right hander hit 12 hundreds with a highest of 167. He was a bulwark at the top of the order very comfortable in the company of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan with whom he shared big three figure partnerships.

 Vijay made his name as a reliable opening batsman with a penchant for big scores even before he made his Test debut. In November 2008 he was playing for Tamil Nadu against Maharashtra in the Ranji Trophy and shared a 462-run partnership with Abhinav Mukund, his share being 243. Almost immediately there was a phone call informing him that he had been selected to play for India against Australia at Nagpur as a replacement for Gautam Gambhir who had been banned for an on-field altercation. The chairman of the selection committee Kris Srikkanth clearly went by instinct picking a player who he had seen at close quarters. Suddenly thrown at the deep end, Vijay displayed his ideal temperament against bowlers of the calibre of Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee and with scores of 38 and 41 he was a success particularly as with Virender Sehwag he shared partnerships of 98 and 115. A couple of months later he got 87 against Sri Lanka and it was clear that India had unearthed a long term prospect.

And so began Vijay’s decade long career in which there were ups and downs. He got his first hundred against Australia in 2010 when he shared with Sachin Tendulkar a third wicket partnership of 308 runs, the first of many such long associations that were to become his trademark. Just when it was emerging that he had become the first choice opener Vijay had to endure a lean trot, able to get only 116 runs from ten innings. But shrugging this off Vijay, always a fighter in life and at the crease, came good with back to back 150s against Australia in 2013. It was during the first of these knocks that he and Pujara added 370 runs for the second wicket – still the Indian record for this wicket. And in the course of his second hundred he and debutant Shikhar Dhawan put on 289 runs for the first wicket

By this time Vijay was firmly entrenched at the top of the order and it only remained to be seen how good he could be in away Test matches. He did not take long to display his class and skill abroad. On a pacey and bouncy surface at Durban he top scored with 97, negotiating an attack that included Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis with ease. This was followed by his purple patch in England in 2014 and in Australia the following winter. In the first Test at Nottingham he came up with a classy 146 that had the media raving about his technique and temperament. Throughout the series he played the bowling of James Anderson and Stuart Broad with aplomb and fittingly headed the Test figures with 402 runs at 40.20. If anything Vijay was even better in Australia. An attack of Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon held no terrors for him. He was consistency personified with a hundred and four 50’s on his way to a tally of 482 runs at an average of 60.25.

The runs, hundreds, and the big partnerships against his name remained consistent for the next couple of years even as Vijay remained an important member of the squad. Against Bangladesh at Fatullah in 2015 he scored 150 and put on 283 runs for the first wicket with Dhawan. Against England at Rajkot the following year he and Pujara were concerned in a second wicket stand of 209 runs Vijay’s share being 126. In 2017 he got back to back hundreds against Sri Lanka in the process sharing associations worth 209 and 283 runs with Pujara and Kohli. It was all a tribute to his insatiable appetite for runs, his technique and temperament and above all his ability to concentrate for long periods. With all that he could play attacking strokes including his trademark pick-up shot over wide long on. But it was the chiseled drives especially the cover drive that stood out in his vast repertoire.  

Vijay’s last hundred was against Afghanistan in 2018 when Dhawan dominated a first wicket stand of 168. And when he departed for England in the summer he was still the No 1 choice as opener.  But suddenly the runs dried up. He could do little right both in England and Australia in the winter and even had the mortification of bagging a pair at Lord’s. Just 75 runs from eight innings in the two contests for a man who had been consistently among the runs was shocking. He was dropped and never considered thereafter.

Too much however need not be made of the lean phase towards the end of his career. For ten years Vijay gave the connoisseur plenty to savour. Also it is heartening to note that he will continue to be associated with the game exploring new opportunities in the world of cricket and the business side of it. “I will continue to participate in the sport I love and challenge myself in new and different environments,” he said in a statement while announcing his retirement in January. A keen analyst of various aspects of the game Vijay can be counted upon to do more than his bit for the development of cricket.

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