M Vijay's remarkable turnaround
On a day when summer temperatures hit Delhi with a vengeance, Kotla's parched earth of a pitch did its best impersonation of a prima donna throwing a fit. Eleven wickets fell obligingly and sledging filled the air.
David Warner had a go at MS Dhoni, Aleem Dar ticked off Warner and asked stand-in Australian captain Shane Watson to rein in his men, James Pattinson had a go at M Vijay, and Vijay had a right go at those asking him questions after stumps.
For all of Cheteshwar Pujara's appetite for the big scores, MS Dhoni's Test-changing double century in Chennai and Shikhar Dhawan's jaw-dropping Test debut, it is Vijay who has scored more runs than any batsman on either team.
He began the series with scores of 10 and 6 in Chennai before leaping ahead of the queue with a run that reads: 167, 153, 26 and 57. He is the only batsman to score two centuries in the series (or "tournament", as he calls it) and has opened the innings for India with total composure and patience, every time India have batted second on pre-fab pitches made to aid the Indian spinners.
Top scorer in the Indian first innings in Delhi so far, Vijay was asked what had led to a tangible transformation in his batting. The question ended thus: "What have you done to make yourself go from someone who had a tendency to throw away his wicket to someone who is prepared to grind his way out for the team?" It is a question Vijay has been asked for two Tests in a row and he has talked about being shaken by his second innings dismissal in Chennai and batting for his life in Hyderabad. It is a question he will be asked by every new interviewer over the next few months because the change has been extraordinary.
In Kotla, he responded with a bark and bite that belonged to the pitch rather than the press conference room: "I think I have to approach you after the meeting, you have told me everything." Charming. And unfortunate, because it is this metamorphosis from a flashy shot-maker to a solid determined frontman that has marked Vijay's growth and progress in the series.
Before leaving the room he did rattle off, "It has been a good tournament for me, personally I am really enjoying at the moment. I just want to contribute to my team as much as I can." Vijay's contribution towards the Indian batting in the series has been enormous. It was a fact reflected yet again in the middle on Saturday, when his 108-run partnership with makeshift opener Cheteshwar Pujara was the meat and potatoes of the Indian response to Australia's first innings of 261. Vijay's 57 was an innings created from the sweat and muscle required of openers when faced with a track that makes bowlers burst into song.
The Australian seamers turned up in chorus. They had found existence of life that they recognised this morning at the Kotla and Vijay survived severe interrogation with the new ball.
Mitchell Johnson, who was wayward but produced gems that keep batsmen honest, was his strictest examiner. Of the 19 he scored off 46 balls from Johnson, three edges fell short and flew to the third man. The fourth boundary was clipped to fine leg at the first whiff of the ball tailing down leg.
Vijay's innings was an ideal example of not only trying to play the ball on its merit but wiping away the memory of the previous ball when either found pushing at air or producing an edge that fell short. He got behind the ball and, until his dismissal, kept body and bat away from the short stuff duly ducking and swaying. His short backlift worked for him as he got down on balls that kept low and when a bowler of Pattinson's pace got a few to climb, he was able to play comfortably on the bounce.
Run-making at the Kotla, he said, was hard. "It is very difficult to find the gaps. The wicket is getting slow, it is tough to judge the speed of the delivery. I could have stayed a little longer but got out at the wrong time, I guess."
He did play a shot, though, that belonged to a picture book. It came early in the innings against Pattinson and the new ball. To one swinging in, it was as if Vijay had flipped the ball over, like a cook does an omelette. Who knows what hands and what wrists caused it to fly adeptly in the vacant space available near the midwicket fielder.
The rest of the attractive parts of Vijay's batting, his screamer shots, were left in the dressing room. Only when Nathan Lyon turned up did he look slightly hungry for some post-lunch show-stoppers. Off his fourth ball from Lyon, he stepped out and produced the 'voila!' moment that had the Sunday crowd screaming as he played against the spin, over the in-field to the mid-off fence.
Vijay had crossed his 50 just before tea, having battled the wicket and the bowling. But Kotla was not about to give him any handouts in appreciation. Three overs into the final session, a ball from Peter Siddle hit a crack and shot towards his face. He stuck his gloves in the way to prevent himself from being beaned.
It is only the second day of the Test which he knew "could go either way." India will bat last and Vijay spoke manfully about chasing "whatever target they set." If he does produce an innings made of steel like the 57 on Saturday, he will once again be asked about his transformation. There's no hiding away from it or sledging at it.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo