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Murali Vijay: How 'The Monk' Fell

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Murali_Vijay_India_overseas_Test_CricketThe sword was hanging over his neck. It was waiting to fall. And now it has. Murali Vijay, The Monk, has been axed from the remaining two Tests in the ongoing 5-Test series between India and England. And the news hasn’t disappointed many.

Once renowned for his tendency to play ultra-slow cricket, leaving balls regularly and having a demeanor of calmness about him, Vijay was long considered the best Indian Test opener in overseas conditions.

His form, however, has been falling recently quite drastically. In the first two Tests Vijay played against England in the current series, he collected a mere 26 runs in 4 innings with an average of 6.50.

In fact, barring the 105 against Afghanistan earlier this summer, Vijay’s Test scores in 2018 are as follows: 1, 13, 46, 9, 8, 25, 20, 6, 0 and 0. That’s 128 runs in 10 Test innings at a horrible average of 12.8. The opener was good in 2017, when he played only in India. But Vijay has clearly struggled overseas, despite getting numerous chances. In fact, Vijay has played all five overseas Tests for India this year. This is because he was supposed to be the team’s most reliable opener. Unfortunately, he has been unable to repay the team’s faith in him.

The poor performance in England and South Africa this year was not an aberration. Barring the three knocks he played in England in 2014 and his terrific performance in the Tests against Australia later that year, Murali Vijay has been pretty ordinary in overseas Tests for India. A look at his away numbers from 2015 January till the end of the second Test against England at Lord’s will give better clarity: 447 runs in 16 innings at an average of 27.93 with 1 hundred and 2 fifties. Take away the 150 against Bangladesh in January 2015 and the numbers will look worse.

Moreover, Vijay’s last fifty-plus score away from home came in August 2015 - 82 against Sri Lanka. Overall, Vijay’s away numbers are pretty mediocre: 1,676 runs in 29 Tests at an average of 32.23.

So while some fans might have been disappointed with Murali Vijay’s removal from the Test squad, it is a step in the right direction. Because Vijay was especially struggling on away tours recently, and India needed someone else in that role. Searching for some alternatives is a good move.

The struggles of Murali Vijay

While the stats above have established that Murali Vijay has struggled in overseas Tests, let us try and understand exactly why Vijay floundered in recent times as an opener.

Vijay’s dismissals this year have been the result of a combination of a casual approach and an inability to force the pace. In the Test series against South Africa earlier this year, Vijay was uncomfortable against the ball near his off-stump and against short pitched deliveries. Once famed for being a terrific leaver of the ball, Vijay was seen crawling into his shell as bowlers maintained a tight channel outside off before eventually getting drawn into playing a false stroke. At times, the opener was out caught driving and his footwork lacked confidence.

The batsman’s modus operandi has always been to start watchfully, leaving the balls patiently at the beginning, and then build on from there. But in the past few seasons, especially on overseas tours, Vijay appears to be stuck and is unable to move the pace along even after spending time at the wicket. This has become more evident in the England Test series. He has been poking at balls and shuffling around the crease uncomfortably. His dismissal to James Anderson in the first innings of the Lord’s Test – trying to flick a swinging ball on middle and leg very early on in the innings and getting castled – further establishes his falling graph.

What has been more worrying is Vijay’s inability to break free. Playing slow is different. But being unable to find gaps and score runs, instead merely occupying the crease for hours serves no purpose to the team. Vijay’s strike rate this year has been a very poor 39.69. While strike rates aren’t generally considered to be a parameter for success in Test cricket, one cannot just push and prod and waste time at the crease without the intent of scoring runs, which is exactly what Vijay has been guilty of doing. One doesn’t need to be a Sehwag or a Hayden and become overly aggressive as a Test opener to achieve success, but at least one should be purposeful with the goal of scoring runs.

There has also been a touch of carelessness in Vijay’s approach these days that has proven costly for him. Defending casually against the moving ball and trying to flick a ball pitched on the middle stump in swinging conditions early on says that something is wrong with his mindset. This needs to be sorted out if he wishes to arrest his falling form and make a return to the team.

End of the road for Vijay?    

At 34 years of age, Murali Vijay is not getting any younger. The Tamil Nadu batsman had a very good phase with the Indian team – his 402 runs in 5 Tests in England in 2014 and 482 runs in 4 Tests in Australia in 2014-15 remain the defining moments of his career. He was in prime form then – shielding the middle-order by grinding the bowlers down and heaping on runs by the bucketful later on. It was no wonder that he became the first choice opener for India in Test cricket. But the present Vijay is a pale shadow of his former self. And his poor form at the top was badly hurting the team on overseas tours. Hence the selectors are right in looking at the future.

18-year-old Prithvi Shaw, who has earned his maiden call up to the Indian Test squad, is a very good alternative. The U-19 World Cup winning captain has been in excellent form in first-class cricket and has the ability to do well as an opener. Then there is KL Rahul already trying to establish himself in the role.

Hence, it looks likely that the doors have been shut on Vijay for a while.

It would now be interesting to see how Murali Vijay goes about things in the coming days. Will he keep falling further or will he make a triumphant return to form and make his way back to the Indian team? It certainly looks pretty difficult at the moment, given the options India has for the opening slots.

One feels a change in approach is needed from Vijay and hopefully the talented Indian batsman would be able to revive some of his old form before it is too late.

 

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