It was just around the time dusk was slipping into the Kotla and the floodlights glimmered into life. Just five overs remained for the day and the gallery was gradually clearing out. Then the out-stepping audience paused and pondered. On the screen flickered Murali Vijay’s it-can’t-happen-to-me-again gaze. The next frame showed his back foot stranded slenderly outside the crease. He plodded to the pavilion, gazing pensively at the skies – detachedly raising his bat, as if his mind was dwelling elsewhere.
His mind might have been rewinding the whole sequence back and forth. The delicious flight of Lakshan Sandakan, the unexpected wrong one, the instinctive lunge and the forward momentum dragging the back foot out of the crease, crushing his hopes of an elusive Test double hundred. It was the fourth time he was stumped in Tests, but this might have been easily the softest. He was still 45 runs away from the milestone, but this was the second straight chance he’d blown up in the space of a week, after his 128 in Nagpur.
The popular sentiment could be, so what? He had after all scored 155 of the most delectable runs you could see on a contemporary cricket field, or 155 of the most non-violent runs your eyes will behold. He had put his team in a commanding position — 371/4 — with the help of Virat Kohli. Even Vijay himself would have gleefully taken this score if someone had told him that he would score these many runs before the match. But try selling these arguments to a batsman -retrospectively he might feel satisfied, but still there could be a tinge of regret cringing deep in his mind.
The way he batted after completing his hundred made it evident that he had his eyes set on a return bigger than a century or 150. He wasn’t overtly cautious — that too is equally self-detrimental — but was more judicious. But his peculiar problem is not an immediate lapse in focus after reaching three figures, as several other batsmen are prone to, but soon after he goes beyond 120. In fact, as many as six of his 11 hundreds are between 120-150.
Admittedly, he begins to feel a little twitchy, a touch distracted and then a sudden onrushing of madness. It was a trait that irritated former Tamil Nadu coach WV Raman, who used to shout at Vijay, “You scored a hundred, but look where your team is.” But Raman knew that the criticism was only constructive and would stoke his hurt pride. There are also unverified rumours about him instructing the scorers to not move Vijay’s score after he crossed the three-figure mark.
Those words must have been ringing in his mind when he resumed after a lengthy celebration routine — he slipped into a disco move and blew flying kisses at his wife and children, seated in the stand above the dressing room. His face flashed a content, disarming smile. Bland as the Sri Lankan bowling was, he just needed to keep the temptations adrift, and a double hundred was up for grabs.
Starting from scratch
Determined, he began as if he was starting from scratch. Never was there any penchant to impose himself on the bowlers — Kohli any way was doing it at the other end — or the tendency to do something fancy, a cute little reverse-paddle apart. Strangely, it’s a shot he has nuanced post his IPL heyday. Unlike in Nagpur, he didn’t even step out to the spinners. Perera had floated a few invitingly at him, but he was in no mood to fall for those.
A single here and a two there, a couple of measured leaves, a brace of gorgeous cover-driven fours off Perera when the ball was really full (and not even on the rise) and the inscrutable forward defence, he saw through the tricky post-120 phase and shortly reached 150, with a single through cover. His celebration was rather muted. Maybe, because he knew he had perished in the 150s twice. He’d painfully add a third to the list.
Then even in domestic cricket, he hasn’t been a voracious plunderer of double centuries. He has crossed it only three times in 104 non-Test innings. In that sense, he can glance envyingly at the staggering conversion rate of Cheteshwar Pujara and Kohli. Of course, both of them are not exposed as much as Vijay or other openers are to the perils of the new ball, but they have been ruthless in this regard. Pujara has three (and a record 12 in First-Class cricket); Kohli has a remarkable five. And if he bats as comfortably as he had on Saturday, a sixth is round the corner.
But Vijay is a self-confessed optimist. When the disappointment sinks in, he’d see the glass half-full. Or like he had said in Nagpur, “keeping waiting for it.” When, and if it eventually comes, it could be the most glorious of double hundreds.