M Vijay is trendy enough - the tattoos, the haircut, the tude - to totally get India's phrase du jour. "I've got your back, bro." This pledge of brotherly guard-duty has begun to mystifyingly float around conversations these days. Vijay though lived it during the 2013 Border-Gavaskar Trophy. For most of the series, he did have India's back.
Vijay's performance caused astonishment, not because he scored big runs, but of his batting persona. Built like a middle-weight boxer, he has the ability to charge and launch ego-boosting and morale-busting shots down the ground. But against Australia, Vijay kept his inner butterfly and bee under wraps. He was studious, methodical anchorman, content to leave the razzle-dazzle to his partners. In doing so, Vijay (don't call me Murali) scored more runs than anyone else in the series, 430 runs at 61.42 from seven innings and was the only batsman to clock up two centuries.
His involvement in two major partnerships - one with Cheteshwar Pujara in Hyderabad and with Shikhar Dhawan in Mohali - is proof that Vijay's batting has found a new and, India will hope, more enduring, sustainable tempo.
Vijay's 16-Test career has been interrupted by five years and nine series. The four Tests against Australia are the longest stretch he's had and has come through, not as the attacking but flaky opener everyone knew, but as a more complete and all-round batsman. His maturity in the middle was reflected by his shift to a lower gear when the situation demanded.
In Hyderabad, it was the more measured Cheteshwar Pujara who went on the attack, with Vijay playing wing-man (in aeronautic, not social metaphor). In Mohali, Shikhar Dhawan made a debut that will remain in the history books for a while. Vijay said at the time that he made the decision to play support cast fairly quickly.
"When somebody is batting so well and the run rate is so high, I just wanted to hang in and play my game as per whatever I am comfortable with... there was no need for me to go for any shots, so I just wanted to play a little bit tighter and let him (Dhawan) play his natural game."
It is, says his first Ranji Trophy coach and former India batsman W V Raman, a simple conclusion to arrive at but hard to do. "Vijay's always had talent, but the one ability that people don't take into account is his mental strength. That is why he can shift his approach, like he did in Hyderabad, solidly and calmly. He's a tough guy."
Sober, sedate and watchful. This, from the only Indian with two centuries to his name in the IPL. The Test version of Vijay should evaporate when he turns out in the canary yellow of the Chennai Super Kings next week. The last six weeks, though, have marked the biggest stride he has taken in his India career, five years after making his Test debut in Nagpur. Abhinav Mukund, Vijay's opening partner in Tamil Nadu says, the performances against Australia have given Vijay "a proper spot" in the Indian team for the first time.
Vijay is now India's first-choice opener for India going to South Africa. Not a bad place to be in during a first-class season in which he averaged 17.25 in his eight Ranji innings (and, it must be said, 45.6 in his season total of 13 first-class innings before the Australia series). At the start of this season, though, Vijay had decided to target, Raman says, the Tests against Australia into his comeback series.
Until now, Vijay's cricketing career has progressed in fits, starts and flares. His pure talent and timing helped him play catch-up at the start, taking to cricket with seriousness when he was 17. Vijay came through from Vivekananda College and was quickly absorbed into the highly-competitive Chennai corporate leagues. Ten years ago, he signed on for Chemplast, a chemicals, shipping engineering and metals conglomerate and currently BCCI Corporate Trophy champs.
Former India wicketkeeper Bharath Reddy, who has been in charge of the Chemplast team, was very impressed by Vijay's batting against Australia. "He has always been a talented and very hard-working cricketer - but this series has shown us how he has matured."
All season, Reddy says, Vijay would call him two days in advance to get his practice organised at Chemplast's home ground at the IIT Chennai. Once a week was two-three hours of centre-wicket practice and the rest of the days of the week, three to fours with the bowling machine or at nets with Chemplast coach G. Jayakumar.
During the series against Australia, Vijay has spoken at length how his two failures in Chennai - 10 and 6 - had "hit him hard" and he had come into the second Test in Hyderabad knowing that he would have to stay at the crease. "I was preparing to fight it out there as long as possible and maybe if a good ball comes, then it is fine. I just wanted to stay and not give my wicket away." He had spoken to Raman after Chennai and assured him, "Mentally, I'm alright, don't worry about it."
Success in the 2010 season of the IPL had led to, Raman believes, "active aggression" becoming "part of his system without him realising it." It became "exasperating" to watch Vijay's wicket fall due to early attempt to "dominate bowling." As 2012-13 began, the two men talked of the importance of "passive aggression," being able to mentally get on top the opposition by staying at the wicket, scoring at a controlled pace and batting time.
Long innings are not new to Vijay, who, along with Abhinav put up a humungous 462-run opening stand for Tamil Nadu versus Maharashtra in 2008-09. Abhinav calls them "polar opposites" but says at one stage the 400-plus partnership became "like a blur, a dream." The two opened briefly for India as well in 2011 and Abhinav says he admires, "the way Vijay can adapt to all the three formats - and his square drive!" In the last few years he has noticed that Vijay, "has definitely worked on his game and a lot of it has to do with preparation."
They have, he says, their own ways of preparing: "I stick to working on specifics and Vijay loves to bat for a really long time in the nets, he says it gives him a good feeling. He can bat and bat and bat." It is what Vijay did against Australia: just under eight hours for his 167 in Hyderabad, almost seven hours for 153 in Mohali and over three hours for his first innings 57 in Delhi.
Reddy says Vijay had come into the Chemplast set-up as a backfoot player, who had grown up on the matting wickets of college cricket, but had strengthened his front-foot game and made the most of the IPL and the T20 format to produce a range of woah-generating shots. The IPL, Reddy said, "had given Vijay the confidence of dealing with overseas bowlers, even if in short bursts and taking on big-name players. That always helps."
Raman says Vijay Mark 2013 is much the same batsman who broke through into first-class cricket but he would like him to take a bigger stride forward rather than a small IPL-driven step, to get straight down the line and close to the ball rather than hit it on the bounce to clear infield.
At the back of Vijay's corkscrewing career, there has remained a constant subtext. He signed with Chemplast at a time N Srinivasan, owner of Chemplast's bitter rivals India Cements, was rising through the BCCI hierarchy. As Srinivasan's power grew, several of Vijay's teammates were made offers to switch to India Cements and did so. Not Vijay. Reddy believes Vijay had fierce drive and ambition. "He always wanted to be better than them. I'm sure he was pressurised too, but my feeling is that he believed he would be more important here, with us. Other boys over there couldn't get what Vijay knew he would get here, whether it was centre-wicket practice, or any other assistance."
India's new-and-improved Test opener is obviously a man with a mind and a game all his own.