September 21, 2015

'You should feel comfortable inside the dressing room to do well outside'

M Vijay opens up about what makes him happy, the life lessons he taught himself as a teenager, and his approach to batting

M Vijay has been one of India's most dependable batsmen in the last two years. The opener returned to the Test side in February 2013 after being ignored for nearly two years, and hasn't looked back since. In the 15 Tests India have played overseas since December 2013, across South Africa, New Zealand, England, Australia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Vijay has scored 1312 runs at an average of 45.24. He spoke about his batting and life in general in this interview at IIT-Chemplast, his home ground in the Chennai league

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How's the hamstring?
I have been working on my rehabilitation. I think three weeks. I am in a good state now.

Is it particularly frustrating to be injured at this point of your career when your batting is on the upswing?
Definitely. When you miss something at a crucial juncture of your career it's tough at times, but you cannot do too many things about it because injuries do happen in any sport. You've got to take it in your stride and move forward.

In the last couple of years, is there one particular innings or a session which you look back on and think, "This is where I turned things around"?
The Chennai Test match in 2013, the second innings, I really gave it a thought as a person and as a cricketer. I had been getting starts and giving it away, and there were different reasons, lots of variables behind it. At the end of the day, I was disappointed with not applying myself. You get opportunities at the international level what many people are craving for and you are missing out on it. All these factors came into my head and I got my answers in Hyderabad.

How difficult was it to process all those thoughts and respond?
At that point I was really disappointed and had four-five days gap before the next Test match. I was hoping to get an opportunity there. The moment I got the feeling that I was going to play, I said, "This is it. This is for me. I just don't want to do something really out of the box." I just wanted to stick to my plans and if a good ball comes, so be it.

I just wanted to go in and be as tight as possible, and I felt happy after that knock because I really gave it a thought and I did not play the way I wanted to play, but still got my runs.

"I never think about what others say, or what you say about me" © AFP

Just before the England tour you spent a lot of time with your coach, Jayakumar. Could you elaborate on what you were working on?
I was just thinking about my fitness and the conditions we would be playing in, the venues and stuff like that. That was going to be my first experience and I always wanted to play in England, at Lord's especially, and it was just about to happen and I didn't want to miss out by not being fit. I was concentrating on my fitness, and batting-wise I was checking on my basics, and he really helped me out during that particular phase.

What were the specific things you did to cope with the moving ball?
I couldn't get the same kind of feel in Chennai because the conditions are entirely different, but all I could do was to practise early in the morning when there is a little bit of moisture on the wicket.

You used the plastic ball?
I don't really use the plastic ball, but bowling machines helped me get an idea of how it's going to go and how you maintain your shape.

You are comfortable leaving the ball, but a lot of batsmen love to feel bat on ball all the time. Is leaving the ball as natural for you as it looks or did you have to work on it?
Every time I walk in to bat, I want to play as many balls as possible, but if it is not in my range, I will leave it. My intention is to play, but maybe I'm a little more cautious about my off stump. Maybe I could play a little more freely. If I can get 100 off 100 balls, I'm going to take it any day. I am just waiting for that moment to come.

"I wasn't a great student. People around me were brilliant. I wouldn't call myself a dumb guy, but I was not interested in it [academics]"

You always talk about playing a particular delivery and then switching off. How easy is it to focus on the moment alone?
It's very difficult, but that's what you are practising for. You practise batting for two or three hours in a day, and if you don't believe in that then you are never going to perform, so you obviously have to let your mind and body take over in the middle rather than thinking too much ahead of it.

Off the field do you do something to achieve that? Do you meditate?
Just the belief inside you - like everybody says, you've got to be in the now. It's very difficult to even think about it. But all I can do is be in a happy space, do the things you really like to do and talk to yourself, motivate yourself. Because there's no one else to help you there [in the middle].

Do you talk to yourself before every ball, psych yourself up?
Not in the middle. Just the day before or something like that. In the middle, you enjoy, go out there and express yourself. That's what I try to do, watch the ball and focus. So long it has been good.

How does your visualisation process work?
I like to see things before they happen and I get a feel inside. I enjoy that if I am in that space. For me to get into that space, I need to practise. If I have done every bit of it in my practice, I think I attain it more often than not. I never keep a target and I go with a blank mind. I could get a triple-hundred, why restrict it to a hundred?

As an opener, who are your reference points? Who have you tried to imbibe from?
I always liked Mark Waugh. Because he made everything look easy. He played in a fashion where everything was in rhythm. I really liked him as a youngster.

I had the opportunity to share the dressing room with some of the greats. I loved the way Sachin [Tendulkar] paaji carried himself throughout his career. I had a great opportunity to interact with him and see how he does things in different situations, so he inspired me a lot. MS Dhoni for the way he handled himself in pressure situations. [But] I didn't want to emulate Sachin paaji or MS. You have to pick and choose [the best attributes from each of them] and do it in your own style.

Looking ahead to the South Africa series, what are you looking to get out of it?
I'm pretty excited. The only one thing I'm concentrating on at the moment is my fitness. I'm on the right track and happy about it. But I am not thinking too far ahead because there's a month and a half to go for the Test series. All I am trying to do is work on my batting basics, my fitness and my fielding aspect of where I am going to stand.

"Myself and Shikhar Dhawan are very close friends off the field. We share a lot of things apart from cricket" © AFP

How exciting is this batting group you are playing alongside? Do you compete amongst yourselves?
It's been unbelievable because everybody is talented. It's a healthy competition. The season and a half where we played abroad got us together. The thought process was similar, and everybody wanted to go in one direction. A lot of good things happened to us. [Even when we were losing] the atmosphere never changed. That's one good quality and a learning for me as well, because no one even showed any hint that he was down and out. Because everybody is on the same wavelength and the same age group, it's easy to crack a joke in a tight situation.

What do you guys bond over? PlayStation?
Yes, at the moment I'm into PlayStation because that's the only way to get into my friends' rooms. Because everybody goes and plays PlayStation, we just try to do that as a team. It's been good.

As a batting group, is there also friendly banter where you say, "Okay, I'm going to outscore you two guys", or things like that?
I don't know about that because I never think that way. If Shikhar [Dhawan] is getting runs, I would like to give him the credit, like "You are batting brilliantly". And vice-versa. That's what he does to me. There's nothing like, "You get 150, I get 180." It's about going together and going for the same cause.

As a unit we are more tight now. It's a good journey for us. Staying away from home and everything else gave us an opportunity to mingle and go about things in the right way.

How have your interactions with the coaching staff been?
They have really helped us in getting a good atmosphere in the dressing room because I feel you should feel comfortable inside the dressing room to do well outside.

"I believe in love, and it's obviously helped me as a person"

Ravi Shastri is known to be very direct.
Ravi bhai has his own style of putting it across. He lifts the mood 100%, the energy you get onto the table. I think he has come at the right time. It's all fallen in place. Everybody is trying to do his best to give us the best atmosphere.

You have also known Sanjay Bangar from your time at Kings XI Punjab. Has he picked up little things in your batting you might not have noticed?
Yes, we always try to have a conversation about batting because he's one guy who is never tired of talking about a particular aspect. More or less everybody, when we are off [the field], we keep discussing, "Oh, we could have done this, we could have done that." He has always been there for us which is good.

There was a time when you were out of the national team. What was the most difficult aspect during that phase?
That's when I really thought you cannot think too much about anything. What's happened has happened. You've just got to take it in your stride but move forward in a positive way. That's all you can do as a person, because everybody is going to face problems in their lives. Life is much bigger, sport is just a phase of it.

Did you try to seek out the selectors and gather their thoughts on what you needed to do to get back into the team?
Obviously I was disappointed not to be part of the World Cup. I knew I needed to get answers for that in my head first than searching it outside. My simple thing is, if you are good enough, you'll play. I didn't find any desperation to go and ask someone. If you are good enough and if you are practising well, and if you think you are good enough to express yourself in the middle, it's more than enough.

Rolling back the years, as a 17-year-old you took the drastic step of moving out of your parents' house after flunking your Class XII exams. How did your parents react, especially since you are very close to your mother?
Actually I should thank my dad, even now I do. (smiles) That particular phase, if he had stopped me, I would have been a different person altogether. Not protected, but maybe I would have chosen a different field or I would have not got into cricket. I would have done something else in another extreme, but I am never a safe person.

Living in a single room with two other people and having to fend for oneself doesn't quite sound like fun…
That's what happened. I cannot change that, and I enjoyed it. I don't have any regrets. There was no hardship. At that particular moment I thought I should experience life and learn because I wasn't a great student. People around me were brilliant. I wouldn't call myself a dumb guy, but I was not interested in it [academics]. My interests were different. That did not synchronise properly with my parents and everything.

I really gave it a thought and said, "What am I doing?" I didn't get through my 12th, so basically I didn't know anything. My father was comforting me too much because whatever I asked, he gave me, and I didn't like that too. I had one year to complete my 12th, so I thought, let me go and live alone and see how it is. Even my close friends ask me today what I was doing back then. It's a good feeling and you can't tell your experiences like, "This is what happened." It's a nice feeling that it happened and I enjoyed it.

"I want to play as many balls as possible, but if it is not in my range, I will leave it" © Getty Images

Is it more like a riches-to-rags-to-riches story for you then?
I never believe in being rich or being low. It's just about the way you live your life and you should be happy. [This experience gave me] immense happiness, being alone, enjoying the freedom, there is nobody to go and fall back on.

There is this persona of Vijay with the tattoos and the swagger. You said once that you felt you weren't picked for the state side because you had long hair. Is it an accurate assessment that you are a rebel?
I don't believe in judging anybody. That's my personal learning. Everybody has their own perception and nobody has time to prove things to everybody. So then why talk about it? If someone has done something and you can appreciate it, appreciate it, or else just move on. I am no one to go and give my view on what he has done. I built my kind of life accordingly, and it's giving me happiness. I don't know the definition of happiness. I just want to be happy, feel happy. I don't go deep into anything.

Sometimes on the field there are some theatrics. Once in an airport you did a Michael Jackson impression. Are these things you do to make people accept you?
Are you trying to say if you are going to wear a funky dress you are trying to attract anybody or do you wear it for yourself? I never think about what others say or what you say about me. It's just about what I feel at that particular moment, about what I want to do. If I can do it, I am happy. I don't want to go into your space and say, "Come and look at me." I don't really enjoy that.

Doesn't this mindset come with difficulties? Do you think you are misunderstood often?
I don't think that way because I don't really have that much time to think about what someone is thinking about me. If I'm at practice, I like to practice. If I am out with my family, I like to enjoy with them. It is easy if you think it's easy. It [perception] will change. Everything has to change. That's the only thing that is permanent. If you are silent, people think you are arrogant. If you are silent, then people think, "Oh, he is thinking about something." Silence gives you so many answers for one small reaction.

M Vijay scored two big hundreds against Australia in 2013, which was his comeback series © BCCI

How much have love and relationships mattered to you? How have they moulded you as a person?
I believe in love. It's obviously helped me as a person, and I am thankful I am leading a good life at the moment because I went through hardships. I am thankful to the almighty because I believe in that, and I believe in time, so everything happened for a reason.

What kind of character are you in the India dressing room? Are you the joker or the introvert, or are you the serious, brooding variety?
I really don't know. I enjoy everything and everybody's company. I like to be among them and see them laugh. I don't like to sit in one place and be quiet. But I don't know whether I'm a fun person. You should ask my team-mates.

What are the things you have learnt from your team-mates about life in general? For example, myself and Shikhar [Dhawan] are very close friends off the field. We share a lot of things apart from cricket. We have a mutual liking for things and discuss particular topics. I like to discuss things rather than argue. If it's an argument, I just call it a day. (smiles) I don't want to get into trouble. I never confront anybody. If I know I have made a mistake, I will put my hand up and accept the fact.

What are the things outside the game that help you get your focus back on cricket?
I honestly believe there's life after cricket. There's a lot to learn, a lot of things to see. It's just a phase of my life I have chosen, so obviously I love to do something in a field I really love. And if it doesn't happen, it doesn't matter to me really. Because I am honestly giving my effort and trying to learn things, and pushing myself to an extent where I can feel that I have done everything. The result is like a by-product for me.

Do you have heroes outside cricket?
I like [the actor] Kamal Haasan. I am a great fan of him. Obviously Rajini sir [Rajinikanth] as well, but I like Kamal sir a little more. It's just the connect. I don't know much about acting. I hardly even see movies, but you know, the interviews where he has spoken about a similar topic that's running in your head. All these factors overall make him special.

What are the other things that keep you in the happy space you talk about?
I love to play other sports. I love snooker. Unfortunately I can't play [now] because of my hamstring. I am not able to surf now because of that as well. I like to experience other sports and adventure sports that give me an adrenaline rush and make me challenge myself. I don't want to miss out on those as well, playing one sport.

Has your life changed with two young children? Are you a hands-on father?
They are keeping me on my toes. I am just trying to give as much time as possible. Changing diapers and singing rhymes is a learning too for me.

Arun Venugopal is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo