IT’S NOT known when he got his hundred, jumped, and fist-pumped, whether M Vijay’s mind went back to the episode when he was surprisingly left out from the Test team in West Indies not that long ago. But his mentor Bharath Reddy’s certainly did. Reddy, the former India wicketkeeper and the one closely linked with Vijay’s resurgence, remembers talking to the India opener then.
“I told him, don’t worry and don’t overthink about why they have dropped you. You have scored in England, Australia, everywhere; you know you are good. Just do your job and bat,” Reddy recalled to this newspaper on a day Vijay shared a 209-run partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara to leave India trailing by 216 runs with six wickets intact.
India find themselves in an interesting position. Would they manage to get a lead of 60-70, as Pujara hoped they would, and test England? Or would they yield a lead, and find themselves batting on the final day to save the Test? Much would rest on Virat Kohli, who was unbeaten on 26, and Ajinkya Rahane who would come in to bat in the morning as Amit Mishra, the nightwatchman, had fallen in the last over.
On Friday, though, Vijay did what he does: bat, bat and bat on. England tried everything but they couldn’t break through his defences until the penultimate over of the day when their best bowler of the day, Adil Rashid, surprised him with a googly that broke back in sharply at a fair pace.
When a batsman eats up as many deliveries as he did — 301 balls and scores 126 — it can get tiring to watch. Not with him, though. In a team that has the likes of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, Vijay is probably the most elegant batsman. On a flat track, one has the luxury to take the match situation out of the mind, observe and enjoy these little nuances a lot more. Friday at Rajkot was one such day.
Often in cricket writing, one overdoes the usage of ‘bat as an extension of the arm’. In this Indian team, it’s for Vijay that one can use that phrase without it jarring or looking like an exaggeration. It usually pops out at really full deliveries from the bowlers. He would just lean forward and waft the wand: at times through cover point, sometimes flick through wide midwicket. The flick captures his grace even more. The front leg doesn’t stretch too far forward; he sort of presses it down on the ground. The bent front leg then straightens and for a moment it seems he is just standing there, erect in the middle. The hands get the bat across fluidly, and the wrists twirl to give direction and force. It’s quite a sight.
A huge fan of Mark Waugh — “there is a rhythm in his batting that I love” — Vijay can be really graceful to watch. There is this shot he plays in most knocks – and here at Rajkot it came on the second evening against Stuart Broad. It feels inappropriate to term it a shot. It wasn’t even a punchy-push; he just defended. Even if we have seen it a lot before, it still surprises every time. The ball should roll towards the bowler or at best, get as far as mid-off. But somehow, incredibly, when Vijay does it, it keeps gathering pace and catches the bowler and mid-off by surprise and rolls down to the straight boundary.
The hundred ticked off all his usual traits: the tendency to go for a big one early in the over against spinners, the amble across for singles, the urge to run down the ball behind point—he got his hundred with one such shot—the paddle against the offspinner Moeen Ali, the numerous leaves outside off against the seamers. You prod him about the shouldering of arms even as a compliment, he would react with a denial. “I don’t look to leave deliveries; I am always looking to score and get bat on ball but it just happens.” Thankfully for India, it happens often enough; there are enough flashy batsmen going around in the team and they could do with some solidity at the top.
It might seem a touch silly to say on a day when he batted 301 balls but his dismissal wasn’t a surprise. For throughout the day, if any bowler caused him any problem it was Rashid, and England would be really happy with the leg-spinner’s efforts. Known to be profligate, and for his tendency to stray in line and length, he was pretty much spot on this time and unlike Amit Mishra, he was far quicker through the air. For some reason, Vijay had some trouble in picking up the googly. Even in the short phase in the evening of the second day, Vijay was surprised by a googly. The event repeated now and then on the third day but he started to get better until that final surprise.
It came in quickly, popped up a bit more than Vijay anticipated and he could only jab it to short-leg. Vijay stood there and stared at the track. For a while, before he dragged himself off the track. And he looked forlorn even when he reached the boundary, half-raising his hand to acknowledge the well-earned applause.
England had a decent day on the field. What more could have been expected from them on a flat track? They controlled the run-rate, at times pressing a 7-2 field with Broad bowling well outside off, and their spinners weren’t errant.
The only thing they could have done better was reverse the ball more. The Indian seamers had got the ball to wobble reverse even though it began to swing a touch early in the trajectory. The English didn’t get it to go Irish. Their assistant coach Paul Fabrace put it down to the lush outfield, the lack of abrasive practice pitches adjacent to the centre track. “You haven’t got the other pitches on which you can bounce the ball on occasionally and whatever it is,” he would say.
Fabrace also acknowledged the difference in India’s plans to get reverse.
“They (India) probably went cross-seam a little bit, hit the deck with the seamers and that’s something they tend to do. But one of our things today was ‘if you get reverse, great’ but the temptation was to not get too close to the pads. Because when you did stray, we got the ball in, and when we slid the ball in it was easy to score.” The couple of wickets near the end of the day by the hardworking left-arm spinner, Zafar Ansari, must have made all the tough hours spent under the sun a lot more pleasant.