49* - Murali Vijay

India opener set to play Test match number 50, says he is eager to make it a memorable one

The sun is beating hard here at the JSCA international stadium complex as Ranchi gears up for its first ever Test match. For M Vijay, it will be Test match number 50 once he walks out to the field in the third Test against Australia. It is match day minus one and India as usual have an early morning practice session. Vijay has his sunnies on and makes his way to the center wicket first up. He is shadow practicing – a few pulls, some imaginary cover drives and that elegant leave. No bat in hand, still very classy.

“It is something I do before a match. Just gets me into a zone,” he says. “Couple of days before the game, I like to get a feel of things around me and get my game as close to my basics as I can,” he continues playing an imaginary leg glance. From Test match number 1 to number 50 (if he plays in Ranchi) Vijay believes he has come a long way.

“It is a great feeling to be honest. I never thought I would play so many Test matches for India,” Vijay gushes about his upcoming landmark Test. “It has been a great journey and I would like to thank the TNCA and Chemplast – my club team for the immense support throughout my journey so far. It has been great and have enjoyed every bit of it.

“It was a great moment when I got into the team. I never thought once that I didn’t belong here,” he begins to rewind. “Every moment has been priceless. I remember everything about my matches till date – right from the time I walked into the Indian dressing room to now and each moment has been close to me. It has just pushed me to do better each time I get an opportunity to represent my country. The journey has been amazing and I can’t put it across in words. I am living my dream.”

Vijay’s ‘dream’ has come with its own share of struggles, highs and lows. But, Vijay is unfazed about the past. It is the future that he wants to embark upon. Numbers and achievements aside, Vijay insists his immediate focus is on the third Test starting Thursday.

He is coming off a shoulder injury that ruled him out of the second Test in Bengaluru. He insists he has put in the hard yards and feeling completely fine ahead of the Ranchi Test. “I had a problem with my shoulder which needed some attending. Because of that I wasn’t able to play my natural game. My game plan and strokeplay wasn’t up to the mark. I discussed it with the team management and told them I didn’t want to play half fit. I felt, playing with a niggle and not being able to give it all to my team would be unfair to someone on the bench who is a hundred per cent fit and available to play. The management understood this and supported me. I have done my bit over the last ten days and I am hoping for a good show in the last two games.”

Vijay further says missing out on the Bengaluru Test proved to be a catalyst for him to work harder and get back into the side. “I was feeling bad on missing out on the second Test. The match was fantastic to watch and it has driven me more and pushed me harder to get into the team. I am ready for the next Test and I cannot wait to walk on the field and take guard.”

Coming off an injury layoff – be it for a short period is difficult. All the more reason for Vijay to take it slow in the build up to the Test match and gauge his own injury status. For that, Vijay underwent a few training drills. “I start with a few rounds of underarm throws, just to get a sense of my body as to where it is at that moment. With my shoulder not being in a great place, I wanted to warm-up my shoulders with a few underarm throws and then get into a long net session. The shoulder has come off well over the last couple of days. I have been batting well throughout this season and it is just about getting a good start and cash on it from there. Hopefully, I can give the team a good start tomorrow.”

Vijay was in full flow in the nets. He started off with a few throwdowns from Sanjay Bangar, then moved on to the pacers’ nets and then finished off with a round of spin. A few more underarm throws to warm down and a good lap of the ground later, he gave a thumb up to the change room. “Your first Test or your 50th, nothing changes. I am hoping for a good show in this Test match and make it a memorable one,” he says making his way back to the dressing room. “It has been a great learning process for me as a person. I want to continue working hard and make my second half of the career a better one. I want to score a triple hundred, which I haven’t till date. Hopefully, I get one before I hang my boots.”

Anand Subramaniam
Anand Subramaniam

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My toughest innings till date: Rahul

India opener on countering a ‘challenging’ Bengaluru pitch and why Mitchell Starc brought back memories of Sydney 2015

It was an innings that had grind written all over it. First, the thunderbolts from Mitchell Starc, then the nagging line and lengths from Josh Hazlewood and then the spitting turn off the pitch from Nathan Lyon. KL Rahul countered it all with a sense of calm and no panic. There was flourish and fervor in his innings of 90 that lasted for 205 balls and more than half a day. Even as wickets kept tumbling at the other end, Rahul went about his business hitting the bad balls for runs and putting his head down to the good ones.

Rahul later agreed it was his most challenging and toughest innings thus far. “This is by far the most difficult innings I have had to play in Test cricket,” he said speaking to BCCI.TV. “The wicket wasn’t the easiest to play on. It was challenging but I was relishing the challenge. The team needed me to stay there for as long as I could and get some runs on board. That was the role and responsibility given to me, so I tried to play that out to the best of my ability. This is my home ground and I have played on wickets like these before and I had a fair idea of how to play on this wicket. I was looking to put the loose balls away and give the good balls the respect it demanded. I am happy with the way I batted.”

Not before countering a magnificent spell of spin bowling from Nathan Lyon, Rahul had to counter a barrage of short deliveries from Mitchell Starc. It got him into awkward positions but he managed to wade off that morning spell of Starc with great effectiveness. For Rahul, the Starc attack wasn’t alien.

“This is not the first time that I have been up against Mitchell Starc and he has bounced me. He did the same in Sydney when I was batting and it was like reliving Sydney in January 2015 again. It was good fun to come up against him and face that challenge. He is the number one fast bowler in the world and I was having a lot of fun playing him.

“The wicket was sticky in the morning compared to how it played in the other two sessions. The ball was holding on to the wicket and was two-paced a little bit. That is why I was finding it difficult to position myself against his bouncers.”

Exit Starc and enter Lyon. The spinner picked eight in the day and Rahul agreed India needed to comeback stronger in the second essay while playing him. “Lyon had the rough in his favour and we all know he bowls fast into the rough and it did cause a few problems for the batsmen. He got eight wickets but we have to look forward and see how we can tackle him in the second innings.”

One of the biggest talking points of the day was captain Virat Kohli’s dismissal. Virat had shouldered arms to a Lyon off break that looked like crashing into the middle and leg stump. Virat decided to review it and was adjudged leg before. Rahul gave an account of the review straight from the 22 yards. “We took a chance because Virat is the best batsman in our line-up. I did tell him that it looked really out and for it to be overturned it had to be spinning a long way. I asked him if he felt it was spinning and he said he did think it spun a little. So, we decided to go upstairs.”

Wickets tumbled at the other end after Kohli’s dismissal and Rahul began to run out of partners. Rahul said he had to try and up the ante for which he had to go for the big shots. The moment he went for a big one, his shoulder began to act up which saw him wincing in pain. Testing it was for him, since he had to curb himself from playing a few shots at the same time keep the team’s interests at the forefront.

“It is not the most comfortable feeling to play with a bad shoulder. Towards the end when I had to take on the bowlers and look for runs, that is when my shoulder started acting up. It is sore right now but I am sure it will go away. During the innings, I had to restrict myself from playing a lot of shots. But I knew going into the game that I will be restricted in a few of my shot making. That is what the physio and myself discussed and put it across to the coach as well. I was really confident going into the game that I could still manage with sacrificing a few shots. I have all the shots in the book so one or two shouldn’t have really mattered.”

Playing his first Test at home, Rahul fell ten short of what could have been a memorable ton. Individual milestones aside, Rahul hoped for a strong comeback on Day 2. “Getting out in the 90s is always painful for a batsman. More than the disappointment of missing out on an individual milestone, I was disappointed that I couldn’t add more runs to the team’s total. I am sure there will be a lot more opportunities coming my way and I am certain I can convert those 60s and 90s into big hundreds. We are hoping to have a good second day and second innings. Hopefully, we can pull things back and win this game.”

Anand Subramaniam
Anand Subramaniam

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