During the past two tours, Murali Vijay has been the man whom fans have considered expendable. His is the first name that comes to the mind when a slot needs to be opened up, or a point is made for the return of a stalwart former opener or two. However, while not exactly blazing the foreign tracks, Vijay’s efforts have often been commendable in the recent past. He may not have scored a lot of runs, but he has been a difficult man to dislodge — especially on the demanding surfaces of South Africa.
While those efforts may have been carelessly ignored, the first innings knock at Trent Bridge will remain a glittering milestone of his career. Perhaps even a watershed moment. On this day, as India registered their best start in an innings in England for a long, long time, Vijay was a revelation. Admittedly there was absence of movement in the air and pace off the pitch. But he played straight, refusing to be drawn into the big strokes outside the off stump. A lot of his runs came through third man, but most of a deliberately turned middle and very few off the edge: it was just a vacant space in the field that he fully utilised.
The drives, on the other hand, were touched with enough class for the BBC Test Match Special commentators draw flattering comparisons with VVS Laxman. Many seared through the off-side, and the occasional on-drive was stamped with plenty of authority and class.
The sublime heights were reached probably in the very first over, when he creamed Anderson through the mid-wicket for four. The mastery was demonstrated further along the innings as well, when he drove Ben Stokes through the covers, somehow threading through a crowd of five men. The other highlight was the straight drive off Stuart Broad that took him from 95 to 99. And even then he refused to be lured by the wide delivery that followed, and several short ones that Liam Plunkett peppered him with.
During the morning session, he was a picture of authority as India seized the early initiative. And after lunch, when posed queries around the reversing ball and departing big names, he stood firm and confident, scoring at every available opportunity, through all parts of the ground, unhurried and unruffled.
The supposed lifelessness of the wicket notwithstanding, none of the other Indian batsmen managed to make it count. And through all the action, and the departure of his more established partners, Vijay looked both assured and elegant. It was he who blunted the threat of Anderson on his favourite Trent Bridge wicket. Broad was handled with caution that did not tamper with the confidence. Even when Plunkett hurled them down from round the wicket, he was not bothered by either the angle or the length. In fact a feature of his innings was the focus, patience and excellent leaves. With Stokes put on, he showed a slight sign of impatience, but a quiet word from his captain sedated the butterflies in his stomach. He played out five dot balls that spoke as much about his character as all the gorgeous strokes around the wicket.
Thirteen quiet balls passed on 99 before he turned Anderson to the on side for a sharp single. His eyes looked up in alarm as he turned to check whether his captain had reached safely at the other end. And then the bat was raised with relief. The time taken for is second fifty — 146 in contrast to 68 for the first — tells us of his resilience and adaptability. It has been a classic knock so far, an innings that will go a long way in establishing his credentials as a top notch performer.
Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on twitter @senantix