“With all focus on the selection woes in the Indian team, Vijay’s repeated failures had gone unnoticed but with crucial away tours to England and Australia this year, the Indian team would hope that their crucial member can sort out the chinks in his armour and get back being his dominant best”.
It used to be his strength. The ability to restrain himself from driving deliveries that should not be tampered with and the ability to defensively nudge them around only when they threatened his off-stump. This skill transformed into a major strength, especially in away matches and soon he was unanimously being termed as the best opener around in world cricket. His technique was admirable and his adaptability in varied conditions made him a force to reckon with. Even when the likes of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara were falling in a similar fashion, Murali Vijay corrected his flaws to emerge India’s most reliable batsman in overseas conditions.
He averaged 60.25 in Australia and 40.2 in England. When all other batsmen were struggling against the strict line and length of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, Vijay was slowly emerging into his own- a Test player with immaculate footwork and with a great understanding of the deliveries that should be attacked and those that should be left alone. In six away Test matches in 2014, he had been dismissed fending off a ball outside off just once and Allan Border was forced to admit that the Tamil Nadu opener was a fine talent indeed.
“His defensive shots and his ability to not poke the off-stump unnecessarily makes him such an assured opener”, he had remarked.
And why not? In England, the maverick opener had left almost 37% of the deliveries that he had faced in ten innings. In the first 15 overs from the pacers, he left almost 40% of the balls and his false shot percentage was 13.7%. In the 2010/11 tour to South Africa, Vijay’s strike rate was almost 45.5 which fell to a 40.44 in his knock of 146 at Trent Bridge. He had reached his 50 in 68 deliveries but once he realised that the bowlers were forcing him to push and drive outside the off-stump, he lowered his gear to play a patient game. His next fifty was in 146 balls and the conscious effort to stay away from the loose drives stood in stark contrast to Kohli’s repeated failures against them.
Yes, his strike rate fell and the number of dot balls being faced rapidly increased, but when the other teammates were struggling to get going, Vijay’s presence at the crease instilled a sense of calm.
A struggler outside the off-stump
Fast forward to the Test series against South Africa and the same Vijay, who once flourished by vivaciously defending his off-stump has found it to be his biggest nemesis. He is shuffling across awkwardly to Vernon Philander. He is hardly leaving 30% of the balls he is facing from the pacers in the first 15 innings. His false shot percentage has risen to 21.6% and the percentage of attacking shots that have been played has gone up to 15.5. From being a traditionalist, who preferred playing the waiting game and sweating it out in gruelling conditions, Vijay’s one-dimensional dismissals in the ongoing series have hardly gone unnoticed.
In the first innings at Cape Town, the batsman was out dismissed to a drive off a wide Philander delivery, which should ideally have been left. It was only the first time since the last tour to South Africa in 2013 that the right-hander had been dismissed driving. It was put down to the lack of practice sessions that the Indian team had ahead of the first match. A week had hardly been enough to get rid of the flair of playing on relatively easier conditions in India, where the drives could be attempted more freely.
But as the series progressed and as the trend of dismissals continued, it set alarm bells ringing. In the second innings, he again fell to an edge off the bowling of Philander but not without showing glimpses of awkward movements across the stumps throughout. He barely survived an LBW call in the third over of the second innings, in which the shuffle across the stumps could have put him in deep danger and then again, in the seventh over, he survived through a caught behind the call. Stepping out, he tried to defend an outswinging Philander delivery, but luckily for him, it went behind hitting his pads only.
In his third innings of the series, Vijay was deceived by the extra bounce that Keshav Maharaj produced, cutting a delivery after a fighting knock of 46 in 126 deliveries. Just when one was drawn into thinking that he was back to his groove, Kagiso Rabada bowled him with a low outside-off delivery that caught his inside edge before travelling back to the stumps in the second innings in Centurion.
But the worst of them undoubtedly has to be the dismissal in the first innings of the Johannesburg Test match. An attempted cover drive off a full outside edge by Rabada, that should have been left was instead met with a poor shot and no footwork, resulting in an edge to the wicket-keeper behind.
With all focus on the selection woes in the Indian team, Vijay’s repeated failures had gone unnoticed but with crucial away tours to England and Australia this year, the Indian team would hope that their crucial member can sort out the chinks in his armour and get back being his dominant best.