Opening up!

Murali Vijay, with opening partner Virender Sehwag, in his debut Test. This was against Australia in Nagpur on November 6, 2008.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

“I would say Jimmy Anderson in England was the most challenging fast bowler I have faced so far…” Opener Murali Vijay in conversation with G. Viswanath.

Murali Vijay has gradually risen to the sixth position among India’s openers all-time; the five before him are Sunil Gavaskar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Pankaj Roy. A conventional opener, Vijay has compelled attention on the last two overseas tours — England and Australia — and proceeded to become a most valuable player.

In an interview before the Ranji Trophy match between Tamil Nadu and Baroda at Baroda’s Moti Bagh Ground, the 30-year-old gives an insight into his batting and his strong belief in his own ability to succeed. “Consistency is important. There are good players, but one has to be consistent right through one’s career in order to be acclaimed as great,” said Vijay.

Excerpts:

Question: How would you describe your journey so far: from Nashik 2008 when you left for Nagpur in-between the Ranji Trophy match between Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra for your debut Test against Australia as a replacement for Gautam Gambhir?

Answer: This has been the most exciting part of my life so far. I never expected to play for India so early, but I got the opportunity (in 2008). I have been part of the Indian team now for six/seven years and I have learnt a lot playing with some of the great Indian cricketers. That has made it an exciting and great journey. It has been a thrilling experience altogether.

What was it like initially being in the dressing room with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S. Laxman and Virender Sehwag? Neil Harvey said that he picked up the whispers of NSW greats in the dressing room and that was enough for him? What were you looking forward to from these cricketers?

Exactly the same, similar kind of things. I like to watch and learn than talking to people. I would like to see, observe and learn. It suited my character.

After six years do you get the feeling that you have become permanent in the Indian team?

It can never be done in international cricket. Whatever phase you are in, you have to learn and enjoy playing the game and bring value to the team. You can be out of the team because of injuries and other unknown factors. You can never say, “I am going to play for five... six years.” Sachin (Tendulkar) played for 24 years; for me it’s an unbelievable achievement, doing it all, day in and day out, and trying to know your body. I keep working on my fitness, motivate myself and move forward in a positive way.

Initially you were “in and out” of the team because of certain circumstances. West Indies in 2011 was not really great, but from the home series (2012-13) against Australia onwards, you have been consistent and have done well in South Africa, England and Australia. Do the runs you scored against some of the greatest fast bowlers prove that you are made for the highest level of cricket?

In the West Indies (2011), I felt I was batting well. I finished the IPL, and in five days went to the West Indies. That’s perhaps hard on me, but it was also a learning curve for me. I had waited for so long after my first Test in Nagpur. Then I got dropped. I thought this was the reality and that I have got to keep working hard and perform the moment I am given a chance again. So that was the motivation for me. I did not feel bad about it. So when I got a chance against Australia after a long gap, I had nothing to lose; I knew I was a good player. I did not want to look back. I did not have a great start in Chennai, and everything added to the (dismal run). I liked the challenge; thereafter (after the 167 in Hyderabad) I have been consistent. Actually I struggled with my wrist then. I had a tennis elbow (starting stage). So it all came at the same time, but I received support from my club, association; whenever I asked for wickets they gave it to me, my coach Jayakumar worked day in and day out with me to help me get back to where I was.

During the phase when you were not considered, you may also have worked on shortcomings in skill…

I have always believed in my ability, I never doubted that. I thought I could do better. That’s the motivation for me. It was always a matter of raising the bar mentally, rather than gamewise, because you are not going to change... Whether it was club, state or Tests, you are always going to react to a ball. You are not going to do anything different when you are playing for India. It’s just the mental aspect you tune and be ready for it. I believe that if I am charged up here (mentally), I can face any challenge and achieve anything.

Obviously, your growth as a cricketer and opening batsman has been fast in the last two years, especially from the tour of South Africa…

I and my coach Jayakumar looked at India’s schedule. This was a year and a half ago. We found that all Test matches were to be played overseas and that it was a good opportunity for me to do well. I kept working hard and had a decent tour of South Africa (6 & 39 at Wanderers, 97 & 6 in Kingsmead, Durban). I could have done better there, but did not do too well in New Zealand (26 & 13 in Auckland, 2 & 7 in Wellington). I had a great start in England, but did not finish it off well (146 & 52 at Trent Bridge, 24 & 95 at Lord’s, 35 & 12 at Rosebowl, 0 & 18 at Old Trafford and 18 & 2 at the Oval). I went to Australia determined to contribute and improve in every single game because I was going to get eight innings in four Test matches.

I prepared for that. I knew it was going to be tough, but I told myself that I could contribute in a much more consistent way so that the team gets into a good position. That’s always in my mind. Australia was a great learning experience.

What do the wickets — as different as they are in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia — demand of an opening batsman? You are the first one to get out of the dressing room to face the new ball…

I strongly believe in the basics. Everybody has his own style. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir had their own ways of batting and got runs. My first job is to play out the new ball and see the shine off. If it’s my day I am going to bat big. That’s my basic idea wherever I played; to bat longer and accumulate as many runs as possible. I kept innovating also. Johannesburg (Wanderers) was quick and offered bounce, Durban (Kingsmead) was more like home conditions where the bounce was not much, then Lord’s, it had much more pace than Australia. It was a different experience for the entire team, to adapt to different situations.

How long did it take you to adjust to the variable conditions from one country to another?

Well, you have got to prepare, but you cannot prepare for an Australian wicket in Chennai. You are already mentally tuned to the situations you are likely to face overseas; so you can prepare accordingly at home, rather than going there and getting used to it.

What was the extent of challenge posed by the likes of Dale Steyn & Co. in South Africa, Jimmy Anderson & Co. in England and Mitchell Johnson & Co. in Australia? All are quite different, and each team had at least three good bowlers?

You must have a plan for each of them. Anyone going to South Africa or any other country, must have had a plan. Having a plan is one and believing in it is another; it may not go your way. You have got to occupy the crease, be clear in your head and keep things simple.

The balls used in England and Australia were also different and Australia has brighter natural light than England?

The Duke balls used in England retained shine for a longer period and hence it was swinging and seaming for many, many overs. Australia was challenging by way of bounce; it’s tough in the first 35 overs, but once you cross that period, it was a little easier as Steve Smith, Virat (Kohli) and myself found out. You need a little bit of luck too in the initial phase in Australia. In England the conditions were different, and one had to be a lot more patient, and not play loose shots. Mental adjustments had to be made. We went a couple of weeks early to England and that gave us an idea of going about things. A majority of us were playing in England together for the first time; that itself was a great experience.

You ought to have been satisfied with what you did in England, more so in Australia… getting runs off the best of the contemporary fast and seam bowlers?

It is satisfying because of the amount of hard work and preparation one puts in and being an opener you have a job in hand every time you go out. It’s never a relaxed job, but I see it as a challenge. I think I have done quite so well so far; hopefully I would be able to continue it.

Experts are saying that you have brought order to the opening slot. You were leaving the ball well in Australia and Gavaskar had good words to say about you. The dot balls became important?

I was playing too many shots when I was recalled (Australia, Chennai). That’s not my style of play, and during the long break I thought that I had to eradicate that approach and play the proper way. It was a question of shot selection than technique. So I just wanted to play in a proper way and wanted to learn my game. Dot balls are important, but my plan was to tire the bowlers. There are two ways of going; either be aggressive and get runs or play for a long time and do the same thing. I preferred the second option, because I knew I could do that job and stay long. It’s suiting me perfectly at the moment. But I want to play aggressively as well.

How much has IPL helped in the context of giving you confidence to play the fast bowlers?

It’s a great tournament for the youngsters, who get a chance to rub shoulders with the legends who are at the end of their careers. One can learn a lot from them.

But I also believe that whoever performs in the longer version of the game can also do well in the other formats. It’s not that if you excel in IPL, you get the extra confidence going into other formats. It’s a challenge to switch from IPL to Test match cricket.

What do you make of K. L. Rahul? He has also come through the system of Indian first class cricket?

He has been consistent for a couple of years. The confidence with which he came into the Indian team was brilliant. I think he was ready for Test cricket. It all depends on how well you are equipping yourself to learn the game in all three formats. The toughest is Test cricket. And if you do well in Test cricket, you can innovate in 50 and 20 overs cricket.

Shikhar Dhawan struggled right through?

He had his own plans. I don’t want to comment too much on that. He is an established player and has done well in Test and ODI cricket for India. Cricketers go through a dip; it’s a question of how you learn and move forward.

What’s the most you have learnt in the last six years, more specifically in the last two years?

I have learned that consistency is important; there are good players, but to become a great player, you got to do it every time you go out to bat and till the end of your career. Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag have done it over a period of time. That’s what I want to attain as well.

Who’s been the best fast/seam bowler you have faced so far?

I would say Jimmy Anderson in England was the most challenging.

Almost everyone thought you would make the team for the World Cup; more so after what you did in Australia in the four-Test series. Are you disappointed that’s not happened?

Yes, it was disappointing. But I also feel that I should be more ready in the near future (to come into the reckoning for ODI selection). I am going to wait for my opportunities and try and do well.

You also believe that you are good for all formats?

Absolutely. That’s the sole reason I am playing the game, to take the challenge and excel in all three formats.