In November 2008, while playing a Ranji Trophy game for Tamil Nadu, Murali Vijay was given a day’s notice to head to Australia to replace Gautam Gambhir in a Test match. An unenviable task—to open the innings against the world’s best Test team in place of a batsman in peak form. Vijay, though, slipped into his role with ease, facing up to the Australian pace attack with classical poise and the body language of a veteran.
Last month, it was déjà vu. Vijay was picked for India for the ICC T20 World Cup in the West Indies as a late replacement for the injured Virender Sehwag, after a string of breathtaking performances in this season’s Indian Premier League (IPL), including a 56-ball 127—the highest individual score of the season.
“It’s a great feeling being picked for India,” Vijay said in a phone interview, before the team left for the Caribbean. “But going to a World Cup is like a dream come true. Nothing can be more exciting.”
Perfect balance: Will Murali Vijay’s magic work at the T20 World Cup? Photo: AP
Replacing someone like Sehwag can be a daunting task, but Vijay is trying to stay focused. “I won’t be thinking about who I’m replacing at all, I’ll just do it my way and hopefully it will work for the team.”
His approach worked well in IPL’s Season 3, where his team, Chennai Super Kings, won the title thanks significantly to his form. He outshone Matthew Hayden, his vastly experienced opening partner, and finished the IPL as the second highest scorer for his team, behind Suresh Raina. Along the way, the man hailed as India’s next Test opener for his technically competent batting style also hit 26 sixes, one less than Robin Uthappa, IPL 3’s topper.
“T20 is all about confidence,” says Vijay, “and right now I’m feeling confident. I hope I can carry that into the World Cup and also pass it on to the team.” Vijay has so far scored 48 against Afghanistan and was out the first ball against South Africa. India’s next match is on Friday.
The chairman of selectors Krishnamachari Srikkanth, the man responsible for picking Vijay for the national side, describes his batting as “technically perfect”. “Vijay’s greatest quality is that he plays all the cricketing shots in the book,” says Srikkanth in a phone interview. “He hardly ever hits across the line. He scores most of his runs playing with a straight bat. This way he can minimize risks and still score heavily.”
His opening partner Hayden replied to an email: “When we were batting together, I just tried to keep him focused. It was an honour and a pleasure to open with Murali—he told me that I was his role model, and as I watched him shine in IPL 3, I knew I was looking at a future star of the game.”
Till he exploded into the living rooms of millions of Indians with his savage strokeplay in the IPL, Vijay was known for his assured defence, his turf-hugging drives, and his even temperament—attributes you look for in a Test player. Srikkanth says he was surprised at how easily Vijay turned himself into a menacing T20 stroke-maker. “He does well in Tests, he scores rapidly in T20, he’s the kind of player we are always looking out for.”
Vijay adds: “People think it’s hard to make that transition (from Tests to T20), but that’s not how I feel. If you are a cricketer, you have to play all formats, and you need to have the technique and flexibility to do that.”
It’s not easy to understand what Vijay finds difficult, and what he doesn’t. He failed his school-leaving exam, but went on to do an MBA. He started playing serious cricket only when he turned 17, but five years later, finished as the third highest scorer in his 2006-07 debut Ranji season. “Cricket is my childhood passion, so even though the opportunity to play at a professional level came late, I just tried to learn as quickly as possible,” he says.
Perhaps this penchant for downplaying everything has earned him the nickname “the monk”, though Vijay is reluctant to reveal the real reason behind the sobriquet. “Maybe it’s because I’m a calm person,” he says.
Vijay now stands at the cusp of his international career, waiting for a call to the Indian ODI team as well, hoping to move from being the backup man to a mainstay.