Murali Vijay has been something of an enigma in Indian cricket. He made his Test debut in 2008 only because Gautam Gambhir received a one-match ban for elbowing Shane Watson. The following year he came back into the team subsequent to Gambhir’s withdrawal owing to a wedding in the family.
The next year he returned to the playing eleven when VVS Laxman got injured and batted at number five. In the same Test against Bangladesh, Rahul Dravid got hit on the jaw by a bouncer. Hence, Vijay was slotted at number three in the Tests against South Africa.
Likewise Vijay was repeatedly brought back into the team whenever Gambhir was injured. The interesting aspect was that Vijay did his job as replacement batsman with commendable efficiency in most situations.
On debut he made 33 and 41 and helped Virender Sehwag add 98 and 116 runs for the first wicket in a winning cause against Australia.
Even his maiden Test century, 139 against Australia, came about only because he played as replacement for an injured Gambhir.
Why a batsman of his unflappable temperament and ability was repeatedly sidelined is one of the mysteries of Indian cricket. Sure, Vijay might not have exactly set the stands on fire with his batting. But he had so many things going his way as a Test match opener that the selectors, probably blinded by the brilliance of Sehwag at his best, did wrong by not investing enough time and effort on Vijay.
The Tamil Nadu right-hander took to leather ball cricket only at the age of 17 and credits coach Jayakumar and former India wicket-keeper Bharath Reddy, his mentor, as having groomed him for bigger things.
The latter took him under the wings of Alwarpet Cricket Club at a crucial stage of Vijay’s development and that stood him in good stead as he gradually improved his cricket, attitude and approach.
Vijay was around 17 years of age when he left home to live in a small room in a lodge in bustling T Nagar. He shared the floor in that room with a driver and another person.
Vijay had failed his 12th standard exams and hence walked out of his house. His father’s jibe that he could become a peon probably goaded him to cut his own path.
He worked part-time in a snooker parlour, joined a chain marketing firm for the commission it paid for getting customers and also managed to schedule physical workouts and cricket every day. There were nights that he slept at YMCA or even on the IIT cricket ground under trees.
The six months on the streets shaped him and his outlook far better than any school or college could have. It made a man out of him. It taught him to take the good with the bad and also take blows on the chin and move on.
It was probably these six months that fast forwarded his outlook to life and cricket and shaped his temperament and attitude.
His failure to make the cut for the state Under-19 team mattered only because it made him work all the harder. Luckily, by now he was a student of Vivekananda College which took pride in its sports culture. This helped Vijay’s cricket career develop rapidly.
Former India cricketer Bharath Arun liked what he saw of the lad and signed him up for Chemplast in the local league. The team was handled by another former cricketer, Divakar Vasu.
Soon Vijay broke into the state team and went from strength to strength on the back of his straight batted approach. Although he made his Test debut in 2008, it was not until the 2010 edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) that Vijay got noticed.
His aggressive batting surprised many, particularly as he was seen as a dour and technically correct batsman, who was wedded to the principles of Test batting. That and his wonderful fielding helped Chennai Super Kings win the IPL and Champions League T20 that year. Vijay made 458 runs and 294 runs respectively, and in many ways, that year could be traced as the turning point in his career.
The Test series in England was another that really enhanced Vijay’s reputation as a top class opening batsman. In conditions that were tailor-made for the English pacers led by Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, Vijay scored a whopping 402 runs in the five Tests. This included one century at Trent Bridge and an innings of 95 at the Lord’s.
A lot of Vijay’s success had to do with his monumental patience and temperament. The England fast bowlers repeatedly tested batsmen in that corridor of uncertainty outside the line of the off stump. But Vijay was outstanding in his approach. He kept leaving those deliveries alone, forcing the bowlers to finally bowl to him.
Later, in Australia too he excelled in his role as opening batsman. An innings of 99 at Adelaide followed by an excellent knock of 144 at Brisbane gave him the status of India’s number one opening batsman.
The century against Bangladesh on Thursday was his ninth in Test cricket. Importantly, it showed that he still had that edge to wear out bowlers on a fresh and lively pitch. Later, as the pitch eased off, Vijay garnered runs at his own leisurely pace.
Now that he has virtually cemented his place in the Test team, booking a berth in the ODIs and T20 would be high on his list. He has shown that he can be an aggressive run-getter, in IPL and elsewhere. It just needs somebody in the selection committee to acknowledge that.