Vijay parades his Twenty20 skills
Scores of 34, 12 and 19 aren't what you would normally associate with Matthew Hayden. Chennai Super Kings' trump-card at the top will be disappointed with those returns but somewhere at the back of his mind, you suspect that he is a relieved man.
That's because the over-reliance on him to fire has diminished somewhat thanks to the emergence of M Vijay, who after a sleepy start to the tournament has taken the IPL by storm with successive Man-of-the-Match awards. Vijay's 56-ball 127, laced with 11 sixes and eight fours, was this season's most destructive innings in a winning cause and helped Chennai break their own record of the highest IPL total.
Vijay's sudden upswing began the last time Chennai played Rajasthan, when he made a breezy 42 off 28 balls. He went one step further in the next game against Royal Challengers Bangalore, smashing 78 off 39 balls to set up a successful chase. His appetite for big scores was evident today in Chennai where he cleared the ropes with such regularity that one could have been fooled into thinking this was a computer game in progress with the cheat code on.
A pattern in all three knocks was his penchant for the on side; the area from midwicket to long-on is his favoured arc. On a belter of a wicket, Rajasthan did themselves no favours by continuously feeding him length balls on middle and leg and he cashed in.
After dismissing two deliveries from Sumit Narwal to midwicket early in the innings, captain Shane Warne immediately stationed two fielders at the boundary on the leg side to check Vijay's scoring. It didn't bother him and he continued to challenge the fielders, using his feet against the spinners Yusuf Pathan and Warne. His footwork was the highlight of his knock against Bangalore and today he gave Warne the treatment with a clean hit over the sightscreen to bring up his half-century.
He carried on after that milestone, without sparing a single bowler. Shaun Tait ought to have tested him out with some quick, short stuff aimed at the ribcage, but such deliveries were few and far between. When Tait did dig one in short, Vijay slapped him over third man. Two balls later, another short delivery sat up nicely for him to dismiss it over the roof at deep midwicket. Vijay's favourite whipping boy of the evening, Narwal, was slammed for three more sixes in the region between cow corner and midwicket. The third hit - his ninth six - broke Yusuf's tournament record for the most sixes in an innings.
Perhaps Rajasthan didn't see footage of his previous knocks to work out where not to bowl. The power and bat speed behind those shots ensured the ball covered a significant distance over the ropes. Besides the bullying leg-side hits, there were a few deft late cut boundaries as well.
The delirious crowd got its money's worth when a powerful straight drive beat mid-off and brought up his century, off just 46 balls. Vijay bent down on one knee, punched the air and gestured to the yellow shirts seated at the dug out. If there were any doubters questioning his place in the XI, he had his answer. It helped that he had an attacking ally in Albie Morkel who made a scorching 60 in a stand of 152. Vijay finished just one short of Yusuf's record for the most sixes of IPL 3, a curious stat given Vijay's reputation of being a Test player.
Vijay's knock wasn't just about giving the bowlers the charge. He used the crease effectively to deliveries pitched up too, such as when he got under a yorker length ball off Shane Watson to scoop it just over the deep extra cover rope. Not all deliveries dispatched by Vijay were terrible - he was in the zone for the almost the entire innings.
Vijay walked back to a standing ovation in front of his home fans, reinforcing his worth to the national selectors. With a handful of Tests under his belt, he still remains a fringe player as far as India is concerned. An IPL century is another feather to his cap. Quite a rapid rise for someone who took to cricket only at the age of 17, the same age at which the man he replaced in the line-up, Parthiv Patel, started playing Tests for India.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo