By Sudeep Sonawane
Surat, November 25, 2017
Murali Vijay would have probably entered the group of Indian opening batsmen with ten or more Test centuries long ago had he not got out thrice in the 90s and a few occasions in the 80s.
On Saturday he finally broke the Indian opener’s jinx when he became the fourth batsman after Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag, and Gautam Gambhir to join the elite club of Indian openers with ten or more Test centuries.
Experts often say statistics are like a bikini, they reveal a lot, but hide the vital parts! This is true in Vijay’s case. He made his Test debut in 2008, so on an average he scores one Test century every year. However, this does not reveal much about how well he bats.
Experts would opine Vijay could do better. Point accepted, but he plays in an era where most countries have bowlers who regularly bowl above 145 kmph. The competition is intense and the quality of rivals, particular bowlers, is so much better. This makes his job difficult. Besides, he and his teammates play a lot more cricket than players of the bygone era. Small wonder he was out of Test action for long due to an injured wrist.
Does Vijay rank among the best Indian openers? Can we bracket him along legendary openers?
Cricket fans following India in Test cricket from the 1940 onwards would perhaps vote for opening batsmen like Vijay Merchant, Musthaq Ali, Vinoo Mankad or Sunil Gavaskar. However, that era was different. Cricket was then called ‘The Gentlemen’s Game’.
Cricket wasn’t competitive in the 1950s and 1960s as it is now. It still had the royal princely charm infused by His Highness the Jam Saheb Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji of Nawanagar who excelled as a batsman for England in the early 1900s. His nephew Duleepsinh carried on the royal mantle and later Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) who captained India comprising Vijay Merchant, Musthaq Ali, and C K Nayudu. Then Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar followed.
The game has changed radically since that idyllic princely states era. Vijay plays in an ultra competitive era where he often finds himself out of the playing XI. This is surprising for a batsman with his classical approach against fast bowling and conventional feet movement while playing spinners.
Vijay is a far more talented batsman than his stats show. Just ten centuries in almost a decade-long career does not convey that he is a conventional opener. Luck has not favoured him in the 90s. Bowlers have dismissed him thrice in the 90s, [99 vs Australia, Adelaide, Dec 9, 2014; 95 vs England, Lord July 17, 2014; 97 vs South Africa, Durban, December 26, 2013]
His batting technique should win him a slot among classical Test openers such as Gautam Gambhir, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Sunil Gavaskar. The legendary Gavaskar stands tall above all. Discussing him with the younger lot does not do justice to his vast achievements. Another notable opener, Virender Sehwag, sits in a special category far away from the classical mould, yet he ended his career with 22 blazing centuries. So including him in this comparison would be unfair to him as well as the others.
Analysing Vijay’s Test record thus far with Gambhir and Sidhu seems fair. Left-handed Gambhir has scored 4,154 runs from 104 innings in 58 Tests, nine centuries with a high of 206 and 22 fifties to average 41.49 per Test.
Sidhu scored his 3,202 runs from 51 Tests and 88 innings. He too has nine centuries with a high of 201, and 15 half centuries for an average of 42.13.
Vijay’s career has still many years left. He will definitely score more centuries before he retires. Currently he has scored over 3,500 runs from 88 innings from 52 Test (including the Test going on in Nagpur),15 half centuries, at a good average of 40.6.
His successes over the last three years make Test cricket pleasing to watch for the purists. His batting style has old world elegance, yet he is not afraid to step out of the crease and hit spinners into the galleries. He is refreshing to watch because he has revived the art of good quality batting upfront.
India missed quality and quantity after Gavaskar retired in 1987. The selectors tried many batsmen like K Srikkanth, occasionally Manoj Prabhakr, W V Raman, and S Ramesh. None lasted long.
The search for a reliable classical opener, arguably, ended with the debut of Mumbai’s Wasim Jaffer in 2000. He lasted eight years and faded with a fairly good report of five centuries from 31 Tests with close to 2,000 runs.
Gambhir then arrived and finally India found a left-handed opener who batted aggressively. He remains one of the rare openers who bats exceedingly well against spinners. However, he is currently out of favour and it appears his record will remain static at nine Test centuries unless there’s a dramatic loss of form of the current openers K Raul and Shikhar Dhawan besides Vijay.