Murali Vijay: Opening up!

"It gives me a kick to play the highest and the toughest format that Test cricket is. It challenges you and teaches you a lot of things as a person. It opens up your thought process. I always wanted to be a good Test cricketer. I knew if I could do that it will take care of my game in the other two formats. I still believe in that," says Vijay.

Muralii Vijay has moulded himself into a top-class opener.   -  K. PICHUMANI

For Vijay, Sachin Tendulkar is God!   -  S. SUBRAMANIUM

Whether handling seam movement and swing in England or coping with pace and bounce in Australia, Murali Vijay has been India’s best Test batsman over the last two years.

Not just scoring runs but doing so in demanding conditions sets Vijay apart from the rest. The 32-year-old opener has been solid at the top of the order for India with his technical attributes and temperament.

Though he lives and breathes Test cricket — he has 2630 runs in 37 matches at 41.09 — Vijay wants to represent the country in all formats as he tells Sportstar in this exclusive interview.

Question: You have been among the runs for India. How do you look at the year gone by?

Answer: It has been good. There have been some positive developments. Going forward, I can say that I have learnt from the past year. Hopefully, I can continue my successes in the future. I want to work on my fitness, be more consistent across formats. The opportunity to represent the country, not everybody gets it. I strive to give 100 per cent every time I step in.

Whether in England or Australia, you have made a habit of making runs in tough conditions in Tests. Your first day hundred at the ’Gabba last season on a lively pitch against Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc was one such innings.

Those are the moments I work for. That is one aspect I really love to be part of. That gives me immense pleasure, it’s a great experience. Facing the top bowlers in difficult conditions. I like to challenge myself at the highest level. To do well when the conditions favour the bowlers gives me ultimate satisfaction. I crave for such situations.

You have a very classical style of batsmanship. Have you been influenced by anybody?

I always wanted to have my own style, since my childhood.

There seems to have been a lot of learning along the way.

I had an opportunity to play in the Indian team when the greats such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were playing. You learn a lot of things. It’s like studying in Oxford University. Being part of that team taught me a lot of things. I saw how Virender Sehwag carried himself as an opener. I am really grateful to these players to enable me learn so much from them. It gives me tremendous pleasure and confidence now that as a cricketer I have evolved. It has been a journey of discovery.

 

How difficult is it for a modern batsman to make the adjustment while playing the three formats?

It is not easy. I strongly believe each format makes its own demands. As a professional, you got to be equipped enough to get the best out of yourself in every format you play, in every situation. Batting is a lot about what happens above your shoulder, in your head and mind.

I tell myself what I can do rather than what I cannot do, in a particular moment, in a particular situation, in a particular format. You need to get into different mindsets, then make the adjustments. Making the mental switch from IPL to Tests can be hard. Preparation is vital.

Are you keen on representing India in all three formats?

I am waiting for my opportunity. I am sure I will play for India in all the three formats. The rest is up to the selectors. In the last ODI series, in Zimbabwe, I was the Man of the Match in the penultimate game of the series. I have got the ability. In Twenty20 cricket, I have had my successes. I am confident of performing well for Kings XI Punjab this season.

Who has been the most challenging bowler you have faced in Test cricket? Opening the innings, playing the new ball, often on a fresh wicket, can be particularly challenging.

In international cricket every bowler can be tough in his own way. Every bowler, on his day, can pose you questions. To be honest, Jimmy Anderson was the hardest to face. He was swinging the ball both ways in England and as an opener you got to be really, really, sure about your off-stump. His release point can be deceptive. You should also be confident about your game plan, back yourself. He kept probing me and I had to be at the top of my game.

You have scored plenty of runs in England and Australia, two countries with contrasting pitches and conditions. Can you tell us about your methods?

In England the ball seams and swings off the wicket. In Australia, it’s more of the bounce you got to counter. They have their own demands. You definitely have to be sound in your technique to score runs in England. I did my own preparation.

In Australia, it is a different ball game altogether because there is more pace and bounce. You have to be good with your horizontal bat shots, be able to cut and pull, adapt to those conditions. You have to be a good player off the back foot. In England, you get on to your front foot more than in Australia. You got to counter the swing.

Footwork is often the key, isn’t it?

You train yourself mentally and be in a good shape physically to get into the right positions with your footwork, in any format, at any level. If you develop your feet movement, it will remain your strength.

Whatever is your control, you should be sure about it. Your skill set and technique are under your control and you work on them. The conditions, the bowlers and the kind of delivery that you will receive are not in your control. But with a good skill set — footwork is very important here — you will be in a better shape to face them.

Leaving the ball outside off-stump is a crucial aspect of your game in England.

Definitely (smiles) yes. I chose that method and it clicked for me. Earlier I used to get out in the 30s and the 40s, give my wicket away. Then, I worked on my game. It’s an area (leaving deliveries outside off-stump) where an opener should be really strong. It’s a combination of your instinct, your judgment and your technique. It definitely has to do with your stance. I change my guard according to the bowler. If Mitchell Johnson bowls, I go middle and off because he doesn’t bring the ball in. But Mitchell Starc brings the ball in and I take the leg stump guard for him. This way the bat path will be much more straight. You will not tend to play across. And you will be in a good position to leave.

The great Sunil Gavaskar once said that if the delivery is outside your eyeline, you can let it go into the ’keeper’s hands.

That is one way of looking at it. Some others say if the ball is outside your shoulder, you can leave it. You also watch the bowler’s hand very carefully, this helps you pick the path of the ball early.

During times when financial rewards for playing Test cricket are much lesser than what is on offer in the cash-rich Twenty20 leagues, what motivates you to play Test cricket?

It gives me a kick to play the highest and the toughest format that Test cricket is. It challenges you and teaches you a lot of things as a person. It opens up your thought process. I always wanted to be a good Test cricketer. I knew if I could do that it will take care of my game in the other two formats. I still believe in that.

 

Maestro Sachin Tendulkar has been a big influence on you.

Sachin Tendulkar is like God to me. Because of his balance at the crease. Balance is the ultimate attribute for a batsman. You will get into good positions, be ready for any ball thrown at you. Sachin was gifted. Balance is a combination of a lot of things. You need to work on that.

Balance and footwork are connected, is it not?

Footwork is your reaction to the ball. Balance starts from the stance, the set up, to playing the ball. It depends on how still you are when the ball is being released.

How important is the trigger movement?

The trigger movement varies from person to person, there is no set thing. There is no one particular way. I tried a lot of things. Now I have the back and across movement and I am happy with that. When I want to use it I do so. My back-lift has always been natural. It is comfortable for me. It may be on the higher side, but I have to be thankful for my back-lift because that is where I generate my power. Obviously, with my footwork, I am in a good position to counter the ball. A back-lift has its weaknesses and strengths, but I focus on the strengths. The back-lift has to be in line with the ball, whichever line you are pursuing with your eye.

You have also shown that you can sway away from the line of nasty short-pitched deliveries with your eyes on the ball.

That again comes to me naturally. I shape to play the ball and get out of the line at the last moment with my eyes on it. Initially, I used to pull the ball a lot. I had to alter my game because I wanted to improve my shot selection, use the pull selectively.

Using the depth of the crease against spinners is an art too. You do it very well.

A batsman has to read the length and the flight. Back his instincts. You play on the bowler’s mind. You step out and drive the bowler. Then when he pitches short, you go deep into your crease and cut. You shorten the length. You got to open the field as well, manipulate the field settings to your advantage. You use the sweep shot too.

Coming to fielding, you have taken some sharp catches close to the wicket.

Fielding is all about your attitude. The more you give, the more you get. You have to put in the hard yards. It’s about watching the ball carefully, anticipation, reflexes and technique.

Virat Kohli was sensational for India in the ICC World Twenty20. What strikes you about his batting?

Virat’s aggression and calmness on the field. He is composed as well as attacking in his batting. It’s a rare combination.

How do you chill out in your spare time?

I have my set of friends. I hang out with them. I love music, like soft music. I go for instrumentals, classical. I also do surfing these days. It is my new passion. I find it relaxing. It also helps in my fitness. I watch the movies of Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth. I never miss them.