Vijay finds middle ground
M Vijay gives you the impression of being a moody batsman. When it clicks for him, he can effortlessly play some of the most extraordinary shots. When it doesn't, Vijay can look ugly, scratching around, playing half-hearted shots and then eventually nicking a wide delivery. Despite three sizeable hundreds - 139, 167 and 158 - in 19 Tests before this, his average was only 37. Vijay has had no middle ground. It manifests itself in that he is an IPL star and a Test opener, but he struggles in ODIs.
Vijay averaged 17.25 in Ranji Trophy last year, but was still picked for higher levels, a punt he repaid with back-to-back 150s against Australia. Again, what was missing in his career was something between a million dollar and nothing. Innings where he would struggle, but still fight it out. Each of his three innings on this tour so far has ticked that box.
There is nothing spectacular about what Vijay has done on this tour, but he has gritted it out, more so in Johannesburg than here in Durban, where the conditions have been more like India than South Africa. Even on the first day at the Wanderers when he scored just 6, Vijay spent more than an hour at the wicket, refusing to go looking for runs when they were not available. Eventually he got a beauty from Morne Morkel, which might have got great batsmen out.
In the second innings, Vijay stuck around for longer, saw the new ball off when South Africa's bowlers would have been at their most charged. It tired the bowlers - Morkel got injured - and the base was set for Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara to dominate. What Vijay has managed in Durban - he is nine short of what could be his first century outside India and against a team other than Australia - has its root in the Johannesburg struggle.
Even at Kingsmead, he was cautious and patient at the start. The pitch was to his liking, but he gave the bowlers due respect before opening up. The most threatening balls here were the ones Morkel got to jump from just short of a length. Vijay scored only 9 off 33 deliveries from Morkel. The one time he got adventurous against the tall fast bowler was when he had reached his fifty, but that outside edge - his only boundary off Morkel - would have reinforced the need for caution against South Africa's best bowler of the series.
The other weapon South Africa tried was short-and-fast bowling. Vijay was hit on the arm, he was hit on the guard, but he marched on. Well not quite. Progress was slow, but there was a price on his wicket. The loose deliveries came once again from South Africa's spinner, Robin Peterson, who began with a full toss that was put away for four.
Vijay was 20 off 52 when Peterson came on but those few loose overs gave him confidence and he began to flow freely. That spell of freedom continued until he reached the 70s with successive fours off Vernon Philander, which suggested he was playing in south India and not South Africa. He felt confident, and could play in front of the body now. When Philander overpitched, Vijay placed it gracefully through the covers. The next one was shorter and wide. Vijay was nowhere near it, but punched deliberately over cover.
South Africa tightened up again, except for the re-emergence of Peterson, which helped Vijay to the 90s. Towards the end, though, in fading light, they went back to testing the batsman's patience with quick and short bowling with a leg trap in place. Vijay didn't look the most comfortable, but he survived the period, scoring just one run in 23 balls. He lived to fight another day.
This was neither Vijay's most attractive innings nor his best, but it is worth 91 and is the middle ground his career needed.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo