It wasn't supposed to end like this for Murali Vijay

Vijay can be proud of having proven his mettle as an all conditions Test opener.

Murali Vijay has been dropped from India's Test squad at the age of 34. (Getty)

It's saddening because it wasn't supposed to end like this for Murali Vijay. 

Hours after Virat Kohli's men completed what is, as per their head coach, "One of India's most clinical performances overseas" at Trent Bridge, the MSK Prasad led All-India Senior Selection Committee announced the squad for the last two Tests in England and it was missing one big name. It was missing the "Monk"

Monk is a very correct nick-name or really, a reward that not many openers in the modern day red-ball game have earned. 

Alastair Cook? Yes but it's not the same as Murali Vijay, for the former is the case of struggle and defiance over long periods of time, the later exemplified control and discipline in his prime. Cook was a survivor of battles, Vijay fought ones with himself and came out triumph. 

Being called Monk is a reward that not many openers these days are earning. (Getty)

Vijay was rare, he was precious, he was a gem. Here's a batsman most well known in the pre-2013 era for scoring a 56-ball 127 for Chennai Super Kings against Rajasthan Royals, possibly going away from the game having proven his mettle as an all conditions Test opener.  

Making his debut in 2008/09, it was only when Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led India decided to move on from Gautam Gambhir in March 2013 and Virender Sehwag played his last Test mid-way through the series against Australia at Hyderabad, that Murali Vijay finally got the consistent chances that he deserved. 

Having cemented his place in the side through two solid tons at Hyderabad and Mohali, Vijay went onto pass the biggest examination for Indian openers, by scoring runs in South Africa, England and Australia during the long overseas season in 2014-15. 

There were tough spells seen through in Johannesburg, a 97 scored in Durban, 146 in Nottingham, 95 matchwinning runs in a famous 28 years awaiting victory at Lord's. Having looked the best batsman from his side in England and finishing the series as the only Indian to have averaged above 40, Vijay looked just as assured but more liberated in Australia. 

Not many batsmen can puff their chest out and say they excelled in their first Test at the bouncy Gabba. (Getty)

Not many batsmen can puff their chest out and say they've excelled batting at the bouncy Gabba, Vijay went onto score a Day 1 hundred there. It was an epic marathon of 144 runs that deserved much bigger accolades and praise, if not an Indian win. This was played either side of another should've-been-matchwinning knock of 99 at Adelaide and a free-flowing 80 at Sydney. 

All these tough and hence, heartwarming runs were scored through sheer grit, gumption and fortitude. Vijay made leaving the ball outside off-stump a natural instinct and became extremely selective about the balls he would unleash his divine strokeplay to. He would leave, leave and leave and then defend the good length ball and only when it was right under his nose, he would play that love contagious cover drive. 

Batting overseas and in Asia are two different arts. A batsman has to counter conventional swing, seam, pace and bounce in one set, whereas in the other he comes across spin, turn, and reverse-swing. 

The technique and preparation required to excel one is completely different from the one you need to succeed at the other. 

Imagine a batsman flashing outside the off-stump against a fast bowler running in early on in an innings on a low bouncy surface in, say Chennai. The batsmen can play the stroke knowing fully well that the ball has very few chances of moving off the surface and then bouncing high enough to take the leading edge and going straight into the hands of slips. If at all two slips are present there. You can't fault the batsman for playing this stroke, for the ball is wide and he can't afford to miss out on four important runs. 

Batting in Asia and Overseas are two completely different arts. (Getty)

Now, think the same stroke on a green seaming pitch with the ball that is conducive to swing bowling, like Lord's, and it becomes a very dangerous reaction, for it most likely would bring a treacherous dismissal and attract harsh criticism, not the four runs.

The batsmen see the kind of conditions he'll be up against and starts to mentally and technically adapt and prepare himself. 

After finishing off that long overseas season in 2014-15, India, from June 2015 to December 2017, played 31 Tests and all of them either at home or in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and West Indies. The problem with having such a long period of playing in one kind of conditions is that it becomes very difficult to change the basic instinct and yes, even the technique, in a short span of time for the other. Only exceptional players in their prime can do that. Think Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin as examples from both skills here. Ashwin got 7/121 at Edgbaston and Virat has scored 440 runs in the series so far. 

Murali Vijay, like most batsmen rightfully would, prepared and changed his technique and the overall game to suit the demands of the challenge he was to face and scored runs against South Africa in 2015 and England in 2016 at home with it. 

This is when the chinks started to creep in. The Australian attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins were not only amazingly able to move the new ball but they reverse swung it at extreme velocity too. Vijay had a poor series and managed only one score of any good note in Ranchi on a really flat pitch. 

There was much more to Vijay's struggles in this series than just one bad series that everyone goes through. He was clearly not the same player that once excelled everywhere. The fitness as well was not the same. It is much easier to be thin till the age of 30, the body responds differently to anything you eat at the age of 34. 

Really, that uncharacteristic shot late on Day 1 at Cape Town this year, in response to South Africa's 286, was in the making for a very long time. Vijay looked at a wide ball from Veron Philander and flashed it hard standing well outside the off-stump and edged it straight to gully. 

In South Africa, people saw the Vijay that wasn't seen before overseas. His stance had clearly changed from the proper leg-stump one to now the middle and off. There was an exaggerated shuffle too. He was playing at balls that he would leave nine out of ten times in 2014. His technique was no longer suited for overseas challenges. 

Vijay arrived in England no longer technically suited to excel overseas and the signs were there in South Africa. (Getty)

It's only natural he struggled in the first two Tests in England. While young Sam Curran exposed Vijay's new stance at Edgbaston with an inswinger, James Anderson swung one away and then seamed in the other, in both innings at Lord's. Vijay got a pair at the ground which once started the first chapter in his rich legacy. He got dropped from the eleven in Nottingham and from the squad after the match. 

Vijay was one more excellent overseas season away from being listed amongst the greats of Indian Cricket. Now, he might never play a game again for India. 

It tells us something about the need for India to have better and much more balanced home and away itenaries. It helps when you are constantly having to adjust rather than show flexibility only once in four years. 

It's saddening because it wasn't supposed to end like this for him but Murali Vijay can be proud of having proven his mettle in all conditions. Irrespective of how it ended, he would be best remembered for what he did and not for what he couldn't. 

The Monk was a gem, India can be proud of. 


By Kashish Chadha - 24 Aug, 2018

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