When the third Test in Mohali ended, M Vijay was on the phone with his long-time coach Jayakumar in Chennai. There was no shirking about the bouncer-woes that was bothering him the series. Sometimes, in batting, you come against a problem where it’s difficult to find out solutions as one isn’t sure what’s exactly going wrong. Vijay’s wasn’t such a case. The crux of the issue was this: He was playing balls which he should be leaving alone. He was parking himself on the front foot and then just hanging his bat out. He knew it, his coach Jayakumar knew it, but they barely had a week to get it sorted out.
The inclement weather in Chennai too wasn’t ideal for long practice sessions. The plan was to have one long session, talk a lot on phone, and work out a load of shadow-practice and then take it from there. Vijay went to Alwarpet ground to his club Chemplast Jolly Rogers, where Jayakumar is the coach.
“It was just a matter of shot selection, the way I saw it,” Jayakumar tells The Indian Express. “Previously he was leaving those balls but now he was putting his bat up there. I worked on that shot selection. He needed to leave them; and so we worked on his body position to get into a place where he can feel that he can leave it without much problem. I didn’t want to tell him too much about head or feet position. We spoke a lot on the phone and he did a lot of shadow practice.”
The two go back a long way – 13 years to be precise and ever since Vijay started playing leather ball cricket at 17, it’s been Jayakumar who has coached him. “Vijay is mentally a very tough guy. Most good cricketers at that level are; else you can’t be playing for India for a while. So there was no great worry; both of us knew it was always round the corner.”
It’s his hands that’s the most definitely the thing to watch out for. As if he is shadow-practising. As if there is no bat in his hand or no ball coming his way. As if he is in his living room, playing an imaginary shot. The fluidity in the way his hands go through the ball in live match situation is occasionally startling, always graceful. Some batsmen can be all arms, some are wristy – there are few for whom it can be said that the bat is an extension of the arm. It can be said of Vijay without seeming like a hyperbole.When the ball is full or on a good length, he hardly looks troubled – the elegant hand movement is all that one sees. It’s there in the fluid square-drive, it’s there in that stylish flick, and above all, in that astonishingly non-violent push he plays off the seamers that has the ball plummeting past the bowler. It’s the bouncers that throws him off his game. Or has the potential to do so. He can’t be all hands, the arms have to kick in for a cut or a pull and though he used to play them as a teenager, he has shelved those shots in the adult world.
On Friday evening, the English pacers peppered him with bouncers. Sometimes he ducked. Often, he swayed away. Occasionally he found himself on the front foot, in the firing line of the ball but managed to dodge and weave away and get his bat out of the way. When they tried to test him with the full-length deliveries, Vijay wasn’t caught at the crease – the feet glided forward and more importantly, his hands went through the ball.
Joe Root was impressed with the way Vijay managed to negotiate the tough periods and how he balanced out attack and defence so adroitly. He upped the ante against the spinners, lofting and driving. On Friday evening, he had a slightly tricky period where it seemed he was intent on hitting Adil Rashid’s legbreaks. Twice he miscued but Alastair Cook provided the jailbreak by (surprisingly) taking the bowler of the attack. There was no such mini-drama on Saturday – The feet, the head, the hands and the intent had all synced up.
Back in Chennai, Jayakumar had only caught the knock after Vijay had reached 70, but enough time to not only see the hundred but also the hook off James Anderson. The ball was gunning straight for the head but he held his balance well to hook it. It was a shot out of his past. His past was already on his mind. A close friend Srinath had lost his father on the opening day of the Test – Vijay has often spent several nights at their home and his friend’s father had always encouraged him to take up cricket. It was Srinath with whom he had gone to see the famous Chennai Test where Sachin Tendulkar hit a great ton but couldn’t get the team home against Pakistan. Vijay had left the ground that day with Srinath, with a firm resolve in his mind that one day he would also play for India. He was pained that he couldn’t be by his friend’s side at this juncture and said he would like to dedicate the hundred to him.
As soon as he got to his hundred, Vijay touched his right shoulder and pointed to the dressing room. He had been dismissed hanging out his bat to short balls in the series, and the shoulder gesture seemed something to do with it. Not really, as it turned out. It was a sign of thanks to the support staff who had helped him recover from a shoulder injury. A dodgy shoulder, questions about his technique, death of a close friend’s dad – no wonder he rated it highly. “It is special because I started off well in this series. And then a couple of matches I couldn’t play the way I wanted to play, I was getting out too early. I just came out in a much clearer mindset in this game. And I just wanted to back my instinct and play,” Vijay said.
Often, on the field while batting, Vijay can be seen stepping away to the side and generally looking here and there. At non-striker’s end, he sort of meanders away a fair distance from the stumps and looks around. In his words, “I just love to enjoy the atmosphere around me and get back (to batting).” On Friday and Saturday, he spent a lot of time soaking up the moment, and in the process setting up the game for India.