The adequate artistry of M Vijay

The Indian opener is a stylish batsman who can look at his Test achievements with quiet satisfaction, if not with loud triumphalism

Srinivas S
M Vijay combines the dogged defence of a classical opening batsman with some easy-on-the-eye strokeplay  •  Marco Longari/AFP/Getty

M Vijay combines the dogged defence of a classical opening batsman with some easy-on-the-eye strokeplay  •  Marco Longari/AFP/Getty

In another world, M Vijay would have averaged 50 with the bat in Tests, would have been a World Cup winner in one-day cricket, and would have continued, from his early exploits at Chennai Super Kings, to be a T20 batsman of considerable standing. This, however, is planet Earth and the year 2018.
At the time of writing, Vijay averages a smidgen over 40 with the bat in Tests, the only format of the game he plays for India. His name may not even be whispered as a prospect for the 2019 World Cup and, on the evidence of the last two IPL seasons, his T20 career seems more like a waning moon than a waxing one.
For all that, Vijay continues to please - that is the word, an easy one, seemingly like his strokeplay - viewers of Test cricket whenever he is at the crease, however short or long his innings, engaging their sights with the kind of willowy artistry that would do many of his batting predecessors, in India and elsewhere, proud.
Upright and elegant when playing through the off side, there is something of a right-handed David Gower about Vijay. (The more numerically minded might attribute it, inter alia, to the two batsmen sharing the same birthday). On the leg side, Vijay's strokeplay bears the stamp of his idol Mark Waugh's in inspiration and elegance, if not also in plain semblance.
When he flicks a ball through midwicket, it seems like he is simultaneously channelling and paying tribute to those wristy subcontinental masters of the past who used their bats like wands. When he plays the back cut, it looks like he has all the time in the world to do whatever he pleases, before guiding the ball between point and short third man.
When he sashays down the pitch to a spinner and politely lofts the ball into the stands, it appears that he does not want the errant bowler to take offence. When he is leaving the ball or blocking it straight down the pitch, it feels like he is trying to capture and defend the stoic essence of old-fashioned opening batsmanship.
Not everything in Vijay's career has been about appearances, however. Every now and then, Vijay, who has the unusual but not ill-fitting nickname "Monk", has wedded discipline of mind with the general grace of his batting, and given his fans something to cheer about. In Adelaide and Brisbane; at Lord's and Trent Bridge; in Bengaluru and Hyderabad; and in Durban, on vastly different surfaces, under skies of different hues, and against potent bowling attacks spearheaded and complemented by athletes of great skill; he has played first-rate innings that have exuded great style and resonated with critical substance.
The returns, 11 centuries and 15 half-centuries in 56 Tests, are there for all to see. These may not be flattering numbers, especially when read alongside those of contemporary batting colossuses like Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and Kane Williamson. They are solid numbers, however, for an opening batsman from India, given that not many regular opening batsmen have averaged more than Vijay while playing for the country, and that only Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag have more than his 11 hundreds.
This statistical snapshot of Vijay's career reveals a batsman who has been good, perhaps even very good at times, but who has fallen some way short of being great. Vijay has, for instance, pushed all except one of his hundreds to scores of 125 (or above); he has, however, not been able to lift even one of them close to a double-hundred. At 33, Vijay might still have a couple of years, four if he is lucky, to set the record straight. For guidance and inspiration, he need look no further than Kohli, who, despite not converting any of his first eight 100-plus scores into a 150, has made it his habit to get "daddy hundreds" in the last two years (with six of his last ten hundreds in Tests being doubles).
It may be argued that for someone who took up cricket seriously late in his teens and left the secure comforts of a south Indian home to become his own man, Vijay has already achieved enough in the game. He probably knows that others, such as KL Rahul, with time and better fitness on their side, will put his body of work in the shadows soon after he calls time on his career.
Vijay, however, does not seem too concerned about one-upmanship or legacies, perhaps as a consequence of confronting "life" earlier than most people do, and that is part of the charm he brings to the game.
Vijay appeals to me personally because I see a classical opening batsman, all dogged defence and straight lines, when I watch him bat. He takes on the opposition's opening bowlers, sees off the new ball more often than not and bats like a dream once he settles down. In terms of aesthetic appeal, Vijay's artistry with the bat is second to none. In terms of utility, it has been adequate in most conditions and that is something Vijay, who started batting against the leather ball only at the age of 17, can look upon with quiet satisfaction, if not with loud triumphalism.
Srinivas S teaches English to undergraduate students at the SSN College of Engineering, Chennai, India. Trained as a theoretical phonologist, he dabbles in poetry and likes to write about cricket.