Talk about an unsung hero and a name that readily comes to the mind is Murali Vijay. The opener's monk-like countenance has had a calming effect at the top of the Indian order in Tests. His contributions have been priceless and certainly one of the reasons why India, today, are on a 19-Test unbeaten run, though in the lustre of a certain Virat Kohli, his achievements tend to escape the eye. However, in no way can it be denied that he is a vital cog in Kohli's team that is looking pretty unstoppable at the moment.
The numbers bear that out. He may not have had a particularly great time in the New Zealand series last year that started off India's home season, but bounced back with two hundreds in the following series against England. He added another hundred to his name in the last match – the one-off Test against Bangladesh – and will head into the Australia series brimming with confidence.
He will be buoyed also by the fact that like VVS Laxman, Australia have always been his favoured opposition, and he has always done well against the team from Down Under. Indeed assignments against Australia have, without fail, given Vijay the opportunity to prop up his career whenever it looked to be in the doldrums.
It was the Australians against whom he was handed a debut in 2008, but in an era when Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir ruled the roost, Vijay could only be accommodated as a reserve opener. Expectedly, he didn't get much of an opportunity and in roughly two years since his debut to the end of the Sri Lanka series in August 2010, he played only seven matches, scoring a measly 333 runs, with only two half-centuries.
Then came the Australia series in 2010. Vijay was not picked for the first Test of the series, but in the second, he made full use of the chance he got slamming his maiden Test century. He got a full Test series against West Indies in 2011, but fared miserably, with just 72 runs in six innings, reaching double figures only twice. He fell out of favour with the selectors as a result of that terrible tour of the Caribbean, and for a player who had made his first class debut in 2006, Vijay's career looked stuck in a rut, with no hope of progress.
After about two years in the wilderness, he got a chance to play another Test in the home series against Australia in 2013. India were smarting from a humiliating home loss to England and were looking to make amends, and a solid start was key to their prospects against Michael Clarke's men.
The first Test came and went and Vijay failed to make an impression with scores of ten and six. It looked like his career would be headed in the way it had been doing till then: making scanty progress, if any. But then it took off and how! Two 150-plus knocks in the next two innings meant that he had made the team management to sit up and take notice. Again, an Australia series provided an opening for Vijay to wriggle out of a tight spot. The Tamil Nadu opener amassed 430 runs in seven innings with a robust average of a touch over 60, and was one of the main factors that India swept aside the tourists 4-0, exorcising the ghosts of both the whitewash at the hands of the same opposition in 2011-12 and the home series loss to England.
He had a good harvest in the next series against Australia in 2014-15 as well, and along with Virat Kohli was a leading performer in what was otherwise a disappointing series for the Indians. Set a 364-run target in the first Test in Adelaide, he struck a 185-run stand with Kohli (141) for the third wicket and almost took his team over the line. He was unlucky to have been dismissed one short of his hundred, but showed that India had a solid opening batsman which had become so very necessary in the days after Sehwag and Gambhir. He hammered a century in his next innings in Brisbane and ended the series with a tally of 482 runs in four matches.
In ten Tests against Australia, he has scored 1,162 runs, which is a bit over 35 percent of his career runs in Tests. It is the most number of runs that he has scored against any team. His aggregate of 759 runs from ten matches against England is a distant second as far as total runs against various oppositions is concerned. He has scored his runs against Australia at a rollicking average of 61.15, which is his second-best average against any team.
The Australia series in 2013 proved to be a turning point in his career and since the start of that year, till now, he has been third in the list of highest run-getters among openers, with 2,657 runs, after David Warner and Alastair Cook.
The four-Test series against Australia, starting on 23 February, would give him an opportunity to enhance his reputation as one of the pillars of the Indian batting. One of the chinks in the armour of Kohli's rampaging team has been the false starts that they have been getting with alarming regularity. Vijay has done as well as he could but somehow the Indian openers have not been stringing together worthwhile partnerships. The last time that the Indian openers pieced together a century stand before the Chennai Test against England in December was in the one-off Test against Bangladesh, back in 2015.
Since that Test in Fatullah, Vijay has had many opening partners, starting Shikhar Dhawan, to KL Rahul, Gautam Gambhir and Parthiv Patel. The absence of a settled opening pair and lack of runs at the start of an innings could be killer blows against a top side like Australia. As things stand today though, Rahul is almost certain to be Vijay's partner at the top of the order. The two of them have had 12 partnerships, scoring 227 runs at an average of a shade under 19 runs an innings. That's not flattering by any stretch of imagination, and Vijay and Rahul will look to improve on that record. Vijay would be fresh from a century against Bangladesh and Rahul, on the other hand, had hit a near-double ton against England in Chennai in the Test before.
A strong start to the innings is a must against the likes of Mitchell Starc, Jackson Bird and Josh Hazlewood, and Vijay, along with Rahul, would have to ensure that India get just that, so that the Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Co get a steady launch pad. Another fruitful series against Australia will not only put the team on the path to success, it would reinforce Vijay's position as an indispensable member of Kohli's side.