There was an interesting moment before start of play on the opening day of the Hyderabad Test. As Murali Vijay walked past KL Rahul to take his place at the non-striker’s end, he was greeted by a chirpy Tamim Iqbal, Bangladesh’s vice-captain and designated mid-on fielder. Besides offering his morning greetings, Tamim offered Vijay a warm handshake, the kind of which recent encounters between India and Bangladesh hasn’t seen.
Perhaps, Tamim had read the pitch astutely and like only an opener can, knew fully well what Vijay was checking himself into. Tamim would humour his fellow opener during various stages of Vijay’s 160-ball stay at the crease to no great effect. He is a very friendly person, say the people who know him. Clearly, he also has taste for solid opening batsmen.
Vijay ambles at the top of India’s imposing batting order like a ghost, while those around him make the noise. He doesn’t seem to relish the spotlight like some of his other colleagues and offers little insight in press conferences. What he does admirably well, as Tamim would testify, is exercise that fine line between caution and aggression at the top of a Test innings.
On Thursday, Vijay played one scoring shot – a push past backward point for two – at the end of five overs. In contrast, the other centurion of the day, Virat Kohli, had two boundaries from his first three deliveries. But his leaves had just as telling an impact as his boundaries.
India’s total of 356 for 3 at stumps will have you believe that they played on a road of a track. They did. But it manifested itself into a road only after Vijay and his favourite accomplice, Cheteshwar Pujara, deemed it so with their early morning grind.
Yes Vijay did grind, even if it doesn’t seem like he is, when he drops those wrists, arches his back and lets the ball go to the keeper – all in one languid motion. The pitch and Bangladesh’s pacers needed getting used to. There was quick, whippy type and side-on slingy type. When he first attempted to take on the short ball, in the eighth over, he went too early with the shot and the ball took his glove on its way it to the fine-leg fence.
“I just saw the new ball for four-fiver overs, read the wicket, then I thought, I can kind of play my shots and it came out my way today,” Vijay said at the end of the day’s play.
And so it was. Four overs later when Kamrul Islam Rabbi attempted a succession of short deliveries, Vijay had spent enough in the middle to connect with both pulls and send the ball scurrying to the deep square-leg fence. And then the runs began to flow. Taskin Ahmed returned for a second burst from the pavilion end and now Vijay, who left two similar deliveries earlier, had all the time to rock back and play a gorgeous little square drive.
A typical Vijay innings goes through multiple momentum shifts. Today, he started sedately, then uncorked a volley of pulls either side of the lunch interval as to get to his half-century. When Bangladesh’s left-arm spinners operated in tandem, he mellowed down again before suddenly exploding with a shimmie and a straight six off Shakib Al Hasan.
It helps to have an understanding partner through these ups and downs. In Pujara, Vijay has the ideal foil. The hard-worker to his easy elegance. Watching the duo together can be a throwback to a bygone generation of Test cricket. They are exemplary in their use of the feet to the spinners but equally lackadaisical while doing so for runs between the wickets. But it is no surprise that the two enjoy each other’s company, have combined to become the most prolific (in terms of average partnership) pair in cricket.
“He has a solid game and he makes things easy for me and we both share a good rapport and that makes it easy inside,” Vijay remarked. “It’s a great honour to move along with him and pick his brains. We are totally different characters in the dressing room because we don’t think the same way but once we go in the middle, we enjoy the company and enjoy each other’s success.”
Vijay had one final momentum blip on Thursday, and this came as he approached his ninth Test century. Tamim’s trips towards Vijay became more frequent and Mushfiqur Rahim began to make the opener wait with last-minute field changes. This time, there was no Pujara around and Vijay needed reassurance. Thankfully he had Virat Kohli, who not only guided Vijay past the 100 but from his end ensured there was to be no blip to the team’s cause due to a personal milestone.
A similar situation had panned out in that great Adelaide chase on Kohli’s captaincy debut. There, after suffering a huge lapse in momentum during his stand with Kohli, Vijay fell for 99 and India succumbed thereafter.
Here, Kohli not just slipped into Pujara’s role but also went a step or two further. He applauded each of Vijay’s leaves outside off-stump and was even caught joking with his partner as the duo stepped for Tea with the opener still stranded on 97.
All along, Kohli had also taken the baton of scoring the runs upon himself as Pujara did before him – racing away to 31 off 35. When Vijay eventually fell for 108, his brief period of struggle had absolutely no bearing on the team.
He had played a big part in laying the foundation, his partners ensured that he had a day to remember.