Murali Vijay is a man for all seasons. He is a traditional batsman. His defence is rock solid and concentration level immense. He knows where his off- stump is, a trait every opener must possess. The Tamil Nadu batsman has been the unsung hero in India’s rise to the top of the ICC Test rankings.
Vijay made his debut in Tests against Australia in 2008, when Gautam Gambhir was handed a one-match ban. He scored a 33 and 41 in his first match and had to wait for another year to play his next match. He played a few matches from 2008 to 2010, some out of his natural position. But it was only in 2011 that he got a full Test tour against the West Indies to prove his credentials. And he failed miserably. In the three matches, he managed to score only 72 runs at an average of 12. He was dropped unceremoniously again.
Vijay was 28 in 2012 and even after making his first-class debut in 2006, his international career was going nowhere. With veteran openers Virender Sehwag and Gambhir at the top, it was tough for Vijay to feature in the side regularly despite being in the squad. And the poor outing in his first full series didn’t help his cause either. It was all going downhill, when it should've been the other way around.
The Indian Test team was facing a crisis at that time. After being whitewashed by England and Australia in 2011, the embarrassment increased when Alastair Cook and Co came back from behind to defeat the hosts 2-1 in 2012.
India’s next series was against Australia in 2013 and Delhi batsman Shikhar Dhawan replaced his state senior Gambhir in the squad. This change ensured that Vijay was going to mark his return to the Test side after two years.
He came back in the first Test of the series at his home ground in Chennai. He fared poorly having scored only 16 runs in the match. But he hit back-to-back 150s in the next two Tests against Michael Clarke and Co. India whitewashed the Aussies and Vijay sealed his spot as an opener with his contribution of 430 runs at an average of 61.42 in the four-match Test series. And he has gone from strength to strength since.
The Tamil Nadu batsman has the second highest average among openers since 2013, and he’s also the third highest run-getter only behind Australia’s David Warner and England captain Alastair Cook. He has amassed 2,214 runs in 30 matches with an average of 43.41. He’s also been a vital cog of the Indian team under Virat Kohli.
However, in the recent past, Vijay has been unlucky. In 2016, during the tour of West Indies, Vijay, after having played the first match, injured himself and was ruled out of the next. His replacement, KL Rahul, ended up scoring 150 in the second Test, which resulted in Vijay warming the bench for the third Test despite being fit.
He returned to the side in the first Test against New Zealand at Kanpur. He managed to score half-centuries in both the innings. But he couldn’t even pass the 20-run mark in the second and the third Tests which puts him in a spot of bother going into the Test series against England.
Gambhir and Vijay are the only openers in the squad for the first two Tests. However, Dhawan and Rahul are expected to return to the team for the next three matches. There is a slim chance that Dhawan be replace Vijay if the latter fails to perform. However, it is Rahul who poses a real threat to the Tamil Nadu batsman.
Rahul has done no wrong in his last few matches with scores of 158, 50, 28, 32, 38. If there’s anyone who deserves a comeback to the side, it’s Rahul. And Vijay will have to match the standards he had set if he wants to maintain his spot in the side. Having said that, there are chances of Gambhir failing to make the most of his chances. If that happens, Vijay would get a respite at Gambhir's expense. But it’s a risk the Tamil Nadu batsman wouldn’t want to take and will look to regain his lost touch.
Vijay’s record against England has been impressive. He has played five matches (in the 2014 England tour) against the visitors. He was India’s highest run-getter in the series with 402 runs which included two half centuries and a ton. He also scored a valiant 95 in the famous victory at Lord’s. Vijay would aspire to replicate the performance against Cook and Co, given the fierce competition he faces. If he succeeds in doing so, there would be no stopping him.
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