M Vijay can be a good batsman to watch. At times his skill even makes you gasp. There is this shot he plays, when he just pushes at a length delivery, on the up, and the ball speeds past the bowler to the boundary. You think that mid-off, if not the bowler himself, will cut it off for it was just a mere waft. The ball, however, keeps accelerating. There is a classy elegance about that shot. That class is there in Vijay's flicks as well.
Yet, after 10 Tests and average of 34.06, there is a feeling that Vijay is not doing justice to his talent. Since his style is so easy on the eye, his dismissals look tame; a bit soft, like they were brought about by a lack of focus. He resembles a young Mahela Jayawardene when he gets out. He grips the bat near its top and just hangs it out to deliveries straightening outside off. It's not a stab, it's not a defensive prod inside the line; it's a limp push. Jayawardene used to do it. Sometimes, the ball cuts in past this weak prod to trap him in front. Most times, he has been out caught or lbw. Occasionally, as he did in a Test in Bangladesh, he throws it away, going for a big shot.
Vijay's batting appears loose at the moment. Yet, in his impressive debut innings, he was anything but loose. He, in fact, looked quite secure. There were no lapses in concentration, there was a determination in how he guarded his off stump and there was a sense of an ambitious young man knowing how crucial it was to grab his opportunity. You can still see some of that resolve. When he enters the ground for pre-match training, he cajoles a few more players to join him on laps around the ground. He seems to have gelled well with the team; he seems to be one of the boys.
It is evident that Vijay has worked hard on his batting. He used to be a defensive player in his early days. His captain at club level, Diwakar Vasu, the former Tamil Nadu bowler, recalls him being strong on the back foot, and keen to improve his attacking game. Then came a stage where, for a while, Vijay was either defensive or too attacking. He is now trying to find a middle ground and perhaps in doing so the shot selection is going awry.
MS Dhoni, the India captain, didn't have a straight answer when asked about Vijay's form but there were sufficient hints to make Vijay take notice. "You may be a very good opener, but till you are tested at the international level it's very difficult to say whether you can adapt from playing domestic cricket to Test conditions," Dhoni said. "So it's very important to have a pool of openers and they should be given games. [Abhinav] Mukund looked positive."
This isn't a call for Vijay's head. It's merely a look at a situation that is slowly becoming a worry for him. He is 27, and the third-choice opener after Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. The competition is catching up. In the West Indies, he has his friend Abhinav, and the gutsy Parthiv Patel with him.
Vijay took up cricket at the late age of 17, moved quickly up the ranks, surprised a few when he got his Test cap, silenced a few by doing an admirable job, and then allowed them to wag their tongues about some of his subsequent knocks. Ian Bishop, the former West Indies bowler, put it succinctly. "Vijay is a problem. I saw the Indian journalists getting into a huff every time he gets out. It's because he has the propensity to look good before he fritters it away." Vijay will do well to correct that perception quickly.