The fascinating and frustrating Vijay experience
Three days before the Bengaluru Test, M Vijay appeared at a press conference in which two major talking points went un-talked-about. The first was the fact that Vijay was carrying a shoulder injury that could - and eventually did - keep him out of the Test match. Neither did Anil Kumble the next day nor Virat Kohli on the eve of the game mention it, even when asked if the team had any injury concerns. It seemed, in the end, that India had kept this bit of news well hidden to keep Abhinav Mukund - who replaced his Tamil Nadu opening partner at the Chinnaswamy Stadium - out of the spotlight, and out of Australia's pre-match planning.
The other fact that went unnoticed at Vijay's press conference was that he had played 49 Tests. No one asked him about his thoughts on playing his 50th Test, or about the long, winding and sometimes precarious path that had taken him there.
It felt somehow appropriate, befitting a batsman who, while playing the innings of his life, a first-day 144 in the scorching heat of the Gabba, caressed Shane Watson through the covers, ambled back to his crease, looked up, bemused that the crowd hadn't stopped applauding, and only realised he had moved from 96 to 100 when told so by his batting partner Ajinkya Rahane. There has always been a streak of absentmindedness in Vijay's cricket.
Fifty Test matches. Twenty-eight Indian cricketers have reached this milestone, of whom only four - Sunil Gavaskar (125 Tests), Virender Sehwag (103), Gautam Gambhir (58) and Navjot Singh Sidhu (51) - have been full-time opening batsmen. Shoulder permitting, Vijay will join them in Ranchi.
It will have taken Vijay an awfully long time, by the standards of his day, to get there. He made his debut back in 2008, in Sourav Ganguly's farewell Test, and has missed 37 of India's 86 Tests since then. He spent three years making sporadic appearances whenever Virender Sehwag or, more often, Gautam Gambhir was out injured. He went through an identity crisis as to what kind of batsman he wanted to be, and spent two years out of the side before coming back to establish himself, belatedly, as India's first-choice opening batsman.
All of this has contributed to a Test record that is, at first glance, a little underwhelming: 3307 runs at an average of 39.84, this while he has been part of a batting line-up whose three other long-standing members - Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Rahane - average over 45.
The average is a product of all the contradictory forces that make Vijay one of the most fascinating and frustrating batsmen of our time.
There are few obvious weaknesses in his game: he leaves as well as anyone of his generation; he defends with soft hands, close to his body, and against spin is seldom caught on the wrong foot; he doesn't have a huge array of attacking shots against the short ball, but is seldom hurried by it; he is beautifully balanced against balls aimed at the stumps, and is almost never forced into playing around his front pad.
If there has been any pattern to his recent dismissals, it's a tendency to fend at rising balls in the fourth-stump channel, but if it's a hard ball to negotiate, it's just as hard to deliver accurately. It isn't, in short, a massive weakness.
Vijay's technical gifts have allowed him to play innings of substance all over the world: at Kingsmead, Trent Bridge, Lord's, the Gabba, the P Sara Oval, and at various Indian venues against seam and spin. Hardly a series goes by without at least one significant contribution from him.
But he seldom dominates a series. Through his entire career, he has only averaged more than 50 twice while playing more than one match in a series. Compare that to Kohli (8), Pujara (7), or Rahane (6). When they are in form, they really make it count. Vijay, for some reason, doesn't.
And so, the average. 39.84. It isn't what it could be, but it is what it is. Much like Vijay himself. His fans will hope his 50th Test will bring with it a series-defining hundred, but they will not be too disappointed if he only makes 31. It's all part of the Vijay experience.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo