Among all the good exponents of cover drive, Murali Vijay has a method of his own. He doesn’t stretch like a Virat Kohli to get to the pitch of the ball, nor does he meet the ball with soft hands to caress it between mid-off and covers like a Cheteshwar Pujara. Vijay instead, plonks his left foot in a way a tennis player would shape up just before the serve and lets his hands do the rest. If there is even the slightest of miscommunication between the plonking of leg and flowing of hands, the consequence is a lob up in the air, teasing the close-in fielders. Just like a couple of times when he drove Suranga Lakmal or Lahiru Gamage uppishly on Day 2 of the second India-Sri Lanka Test at Nagpur. Yet, the cover drive is the most productive shot of Murali Vijay. On Saturday, more than 60% of his runs came through that region including his first four boundaries of the morning.
There is lot more to Vijay’s batting than his unconventional cover drives, like his art of leaving. In 2016, when he did not miss many Test matches, he had the highest percentage of leaves in world cricket. Somehow, evading all this, his plonking drives remain a highlight. Saturday was no different.
On a perfectly paced wicket, Vijay displayed the best of his drives on his return to international cricket after a break of eight months. He kept the best for starters, where he parked his foot towards the fifth stump and used his lovely wrists to drill the ball onto the ground to start the proceedings for India. What followed was a display of what fits the definition of pleasing to the eye. Couple of overs later, Gamage was driven twice, once to the right and then to the left of cover. Vijay had arrived - India’s premiere opener, who was pushed as the third option because of injuries, meant business.
When the spinners came on, he had already made up his mind to up the ante. He greeted off-spinner Dilruwan Perera with another thunderous drive through covers and when the Sri Lankan overcompensated, he punched him past point for a couple.
Vijay drives through the covers. (Photo: BCCI)
His driving is not flawless by any means. The gap between bat and pad often tempts the opposition captain to station catchers at unusual positions. Dinesh Chandimal’s short-mid on ploy would have earned him the moment of the day tag had Dilruwan Perera held on to Vijay’s miscued on-drive when he was batting on 61 – the story of Day 2 could have been a lot different. Vijay’s return would not have been so sweet, for his most favoured drive would have brought his downfall. But the stars were shining bright on the Indian opener.
He doesn’t need the stars every time. Banking on the same uppish drives and wristy flicks, complimented by a good sense of where his off stump is, Vijay had batted an entire day against James Anderson and Stuart Broad in Trent Bridge on his way to his maiden overseas hundred in 2014. Trent Bridge was no fluke, he proved later at Adelaide and then in Brisbane. Even there, a few of his drives were air-bound but he continues to back his natural style.
Vijay’s 128-run knock against a far less challenging Sri Lankan bowling attack than the ones he had faced in Australia and England, was not his best but it was more than enough to perhaps stop the musical chairs for the opener’s slot, especially for the upcoming South Africa tour.
"I am a person who doesn't like to overthink too much till I see that particular ground or venue. I don't want to have pre-conceived ideas and plans. I like to take things as it comes,” Vijay might have said after his hundred but the larger picture cannot be avoided. It is a given that the Lankans are a trial run for the much fiercer Proteas and India needs their openers more than anything else to turn the tables against the likes of Steyn, Rabada and Morkel.
KL Rahul is scoring, so is Shikhar Dhawan but Murali Vijay’s name should be the first one ticked when India travels to South Africa. His style of batting, his approach against the new ball or his effortless handling of the spinners makes him a perfect package as an opener. After all, he hasn’t joined Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag in the list of Indian openers to have scored 10 or more Test hundreds for nothing.