It’s 11 pm on Wednesday night and a pony-tailed man is keeping himself busy with Ringing the Bull, an ancient pub game where one has to put a ring attached to a string on a horn on the wall. He is at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, reputed to be the oldest pub and inn in England, based in the soft sandstone cliffs below the famous Nottingham castle. It’s an old crusaders tavern that dates back to 1189 AD. At first look, it seems an easy game but as one watches the man focusing and gently swinging the ring-thread towards the horn, you realise it’s a pretty complex affair. But he seems to be in a trance, and is syncing the ring on the horn with startling regularity. Dim lights lit up the cave-room, just about enough to see the hook.
“Whoa! Well done mate, you are good. You here for cricket?” says a young man, who one learns is studying to be a lawyer and has just picked a beer from the bar behind. M Vijay turns back with a smile and says yes, here for cricket. The two chat for a while and Vijay goes back to the hook-and-hoop game that has been played here for centuries.
Jaws drop once they realise that this was India’s Test opener. Vijay turns again with a smile and shakes hands, and asks a team-mate with him to have a go at the game.
He then disappears into a conversation with the student. It’s been just a few hours since Vijay has learnt that he has been dropped from the team. You would have expected him to sulk in his room, but then he wouldn’t be Vijay. In the past, he has talked about how he likes “my space,” and how it’s all about “feel” and “vibes” and how he is interested in life beyond cricket. He surfs on the beaches, is interested in virtual-reality games, is into “real heart-to-heart talk” – and as one has realised over the years, he is all that: a free spirit. Often, it has put him in trouble, at least in the way people perceive him. In his teenage years, he would, if the mood seized him, spend nights at cricket grounds. Be it the YMCA or IIT grounds, ringed by trees, in Chennai. “Wherever my mood took me that day,” he once said.
In the here and now, he continues chatting away with people. By now, some start to take selfies. He smiles and says, “go ahead of course, but I would prefer chats!” And the talks continue. He urges people to play the game. “It’s bit like walking meditation.” His team-mate, too, is lining the ring pretty well. The ring swings here and there in dim light and every now and then hooks up on the horn. More laughter erupts. Someone takes Vijay to show scratches on the side wall, made by the curving ring for nearly 1,000 years. Vijay doesn’t look surprised, instead he reveals more about the history of the place and how it has that “feel and vibe” to it. He laughs a lot, and it makes you wonder about his resilience.
His personality hasn’t always been a great fit in a conservative society. Especially, in his growing up years. Once, his penchant for long hair had created a few selection problems in Tamil Nadu cricket. “I was shocked. It’s a weird feeling: I didn’t understand. What’s hair got to do with cricket? What does it really say? How can you judge my attitude on that? If I do not support my teammates, or come late for training, or make mistakes on the field, these things can be addressed. Not your hair or the way you speak, or smoke,” he had said a few years back. Luckily for him, as he progressed through the career, things got better.
Meanwhile, at the Jerusalem pub, someone asks him how it felt facing James Anderson, and he is all gracious and high praise. Another asks him about the best batsman in the world. “No doubt, Kohli of course. Respect,” Vijay says and everyone nod their heads. “You aren’t that bad either mate, great timing. Pity about the series so far, good luck for the future.” Vijay thanks them and heads back to the hotel with his team-mate. The first sighting of him on this tour was at the Edgbaston batting nets. When he was walking towards the nets, he was stopped by two fans who wanted selfies. One of them commented positively about his long hair, and he went, “Rasta brother!” Laughter. The (potentially) last sighting of him on this tour also threw up lots of smiles with people. It’s clear that he isn’t in any mood to give up the game.