The secret of Vijay's success
Get lighter bats, bat in the nets against bowling machines or with wet tennis balls on concrete, and practise the horizontal-bat shots. These were a few bits of advice that came my way before I embarked on the tour to Australia in 2003.
We had all heard about how tough it was to bat on the harder, bouncier, faster Australian pitches, and of how important it was to mould one's game for the conditions. Cover drives and flicks off the legs were my lifeblood on Indian pitches, but these shots are useless down under, I was told.
While you cannot undervalue the importance of horizontal-bat shots against Australian fast bowlers in Perth or at the Gabba, it's a fallacy to think that players who don't have an attacking game off the back foot are doomed. M Vijay is a good example of how a solid defensive technique off the back foot, knowledge of where your off stump is, and the ability to transfer weight onto the front foot can do the job just as well, if not better. Vijay has scored over 200 runs against pace in the first two Tests of this series without much square-cutting, hooking or pulling.
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Vijay's head when the bowler releases the ball is in line with the top of the off stump. That gives him a fair judgement of which balls are to be left alone and which are to be played. He has left alone about 34% (the highest percentage for any active international batsman today) of the balls he has faced in Test cricket since 2011. Most of these are deliveries bowled in the channel outside off. If you regularly allow the ball to go through to the wicketkeeper, bowlers will have to come closer to the stumps in search of the elusive outside edge, which works in your favour. Vijay is old-fashioned in the way he leaves a lot of balls alone and then punishes the full balls that are close to him.
In addition to leaving a lot of balls alone outside off, he leaves alone almost everything directed at his head. In his last three overseas series he has left 96% of all bouncers bowled to him, and hasn't played a single pull, hook or uppercut. It's possible to not attempt attacking shots against bouncers while being comfortable against them. If you find yourself in a tangle while leaving the ball, a lot of bouncers will come your way. Vijay is exceptional in being able to stay out of harm's way by ducking or swaying away. It doesn't come as a surprise that he isn't peppered with short-pitched stuff as much as some other Indian batsmen are.
Since Vijay scores a lot of runs off the front foot, you might be inclined to think that he commits himself on to the front foot and so has a long stride forward. That's not the case, and it is exactly why he is successful, for if you commit yourself on the front foot too early and too much, you can't get back in time, and you become suspect against deliveries that are short of a good length and bounce steeply. Vijay has a short front-foot stride but he has acquired the expertise to wait for the ball to come to him and to then transfer his weight a fraction before the ball arrives. A lot of players with short front-foot strides tend to reach out to the ball with their hands, but Vijay doesn't.
The success of this method also largely depends on the length and line most bowlers bowl in international cricket - full and outside off, for that's what the slip cordon is designed for. Not many batsmen get out nicking to the slip cordon off the back foot, even in places like Australia and South Africa, because it's relatively easier to deal with extra bounce and sideways movement when the ball is short, with the extra time you get at the crease. It's the fuller balls that draw you forward and lure you into playing false shots that end up finding the outside edge to the cordon behind. Don't they say that a half-volley in Feroz Shah Kotla is a half-volley in Perth?
When touring Australia or South Africa it's important to have a solid back-foot game, defensive or offensive. It's equally important to remember that you will be getting out mostly off the front foot, so you shouldn't be abandoning your front-foot skills.
The subtle adjustment that one must make is to stand a little taller and have high hands on the bat, so that the ball isn't hitting higher on the bat than it does elsewhere. A lot of players from the subcontinent have low hands and tend to stay lower to deal with the low bounce back home, and that results in not timing the ball well overseas. Vijay has ticked that box too. He stands tall, plays the ball on the rise, and most importantly, plays it close to his body and under his eyes.