The last time Murali Vijay arrived in England for a Test series there were still doubts about him as an opening batsman outside of the subcontinent. The silky right-handed batsmen averaged 35, all three of his hundreds had come on the spin-orientated tracks of India and he had only one score in excess of 50 from his 16 outings outside Asia.
By the end of the first day of the five-match Test series in 2014, Vijay has rectified his record and ensured India got off on the right note by scoring an immaculate century. A week later, on a seaming deck at Lord's, he backed it up with a sublime 95 to lead India to a rare overseas win. Vijay would finish the tour as the leading run-scorer with 403 runs at an average of 41. The England tour washed away any uncertainties about him as an opening batsman to an extent that he was amongst the first name to put on a team sheet.
Four years on Vijay returns to England in the twilight on his career, but still desperate to ensure his runs at the top of the order can propel India to a series victory. At 34, his reflexes have wavered, but there will be that inner belief from his previous outing that will ensure he has the confidence to churn out the runs once again.
But unlike 2014, there is stiff competition in the inner ranks. Shikhar Dhawan's expansive game and KL Rahul's rapid development as a formidable opener mean Vijay is not guaranteed a place in the playing XI. A couple of low scores or even a shift in strategy could result in Vijay spending time on the bench. Vijay will be aware of the consequences, but at the same time also conscious that his style of playing the ball late, shouldering arms and binding time will be pivotal in laying the foundation for an aggressive middle order.
One of Vijay's challenges will be to ensure he is not drawn in to play in a style that deviates from his natural strengths. Six months ago in South Africa, there were signs he was trying to be too expansive and his enduring patience was short-lived. Uncharacteristically, he pushed at wide half-volleys and he showed signs of pushing at the ball, rather than letting it come to him, a technique he had mastered in the long stay at the top of the Indian order.
It is worth noting that in the lead up to the 2014 series, Vijay had left alone more deliveries than any opener in world cricket in the past 12 months. He had the temperament and the gameplan to constantly repel the swinging Duke ball from James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Vijay's ability to judge the line and make the bowler bowl at him was the key to his success and he will need the same judgment this time around. However, with his reflexes dawdling along with the team's gameplan of playing aggressive cricket, Vijay will be slightly in uncharted territory.
On the bright side, Vijay has enormous backing from coach Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli. The pair knows if Vijay succeeds in taking the shine off the new ball and not exposing the middle order to the dark, shinny Duke ball, the likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli are more than capable of taking the game away from England in a session of play. Vijay understands his role better than anyone and his form on this tour could either prolong his career or draw it to a close quite quickly.
This tour of England could define Vijay once again. He will need to up the tempo at times to cater to the team's requirements and at the same time will need to ensure that his game remains compact and durable.
On top of that Vijay will need to ensure he stays fit throughout the Test series. He has missed as many as nine Test matches in the past two years and with so much focus around the conditioning of players, Vijay can not afford to miss a Test or two due to niggles.
Vijay will not only have the goal of playing in all five Tests, but on long term, he will be aware of the sheer weight of runs needed to ensure he is on the plane to Australia in four months time. Apart from Dhawan and Rahul, the likes of Mayank Aggarwal and Prithvi Shaw continue to churn out runs in the domestic circuit and on international tours.
While the tour might not be a make-or-break tour, it will certainly give all of us an indication as to how long Vijay has left in his international cricket.
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