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In praise of ‘The Monk’: Murali Vijay and the art of leaving

Murali Vijay
by Rohit Sankar 4 minute read

A dreamy Test opener, Murali Vijay mastered an art alien to his innate human qualities and should be celebrated more, writes Rohit Sankar.

So, there’s this story on Murali Vijay. As a 16 or 17 year-old, he went to Delhi to play a match in freezing weather and caught a friend drinking Old Monk rum to keep the cold away. A second friend caught Vijay taking a sip and called him a ‘Monk’. The nickname stuck after the typical ‘but my friend also did’ excuse fell flat.

There was a reason the moniker attached itself so firmly; Vijay’s calmness at the crease and selfless self-denial evoked a man of the cloth. The tranquillity of his gaze at the greener tops on overseas soil gave many an Indian fans much-needed assurance; substituting the flashing blade for unglamorous left opposition bowlers frustrated.

Vijay wrote a script that often downplayed his own role, on several occasions just missing out on a landmark in a landmark game. His 95 at Lord’s in 2014 helped India to a famous win, but was overshadowed by Ajinkya Rahane’s first innings century and Ravindra Jadeja’s swashbuckling fifty. His 99 at Adelaide that same year, accompanying Virat Kohli in a valiant, doomed chase is another that would have gone done in the annals, if only it had reached three figures.

On that famed England tour in 2014, amidst Virat Kohli getting sucked into playing outside his off-stump, Vijay faced more than 1,000 balls, the only batsman to do so. But that’s not the most telling stat. Of the 996 balls he played off the quicks, Vijay left 403 alone, or more than 40 per cent.

For an opener in Test cricket, leaving the ball is a quintessential skill. No other sport puts more emphasis on an action that involves moving away from the primary object. Yet, cricket, as weird a game as it is, demands one set of batters to excel at doing essentially nothing. And Vijay mastered this art.

It’s natural for a good opener to be good at leaving. But Vijay was a rebel. He failed his 12th standard board exams after going through a bunch of schools, left his home after school to discover himself and never went to college. Benches in abandoned parks became his abode, and by his own admission, he felt an anger inside him.

For someone who thrived on fighting norms and clichés, Vijay’s remarkably composed avatar on a cricket field is surprising. His IPL exploits – one that deserves a book by itself for the sheer arrogance of his batting in knockout games – aside, Vijay’s persona on a cricket field was often an antithesis of the actual person he was.

It worked too. In the overseas cycle in 2014-15, where India toured all of Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa, Vijay returned with the most deliveries faced and the second-most runs scored (after Kohli) by an Indian player.

The icing on the cake was the 1,000 balls faced in a series in England, no walk in the park for an opener, never mind the era or bowlers. Only seven other openers – ranging from the elegant Sunil Gavaskar to the unorthodox Graeme Smith and the genius Bill Ponsford – have done it in Test cricket history, each legends in their own right.

Vijay’s name in there almost feels like an aberration. His Test average of 38.28 is outside the top-10 for India’s openers with the best batting averages in Test cricket (min. 10 innings). 13 others have scored more hundreds for India in Test cricket. In his twilight years, Vijay looked all at sea. Yet for a time, his presence felt like a safety net to India’s famed middle order. When he left, dropped after the Australia tour in 2018 for which he had earned a comeback, there was no fanfare, no fuss and certainly no sensationalism on social media.

Raw stats do not do justice to Vijay and his skill. The essence of his batting opulence – the art of leaving a cricket ball – would not feature in match highlights or make for viral reels. But, as India prepare for a tough summer of cricket in England, unfolding with the World Test Championship final, a video series on Vijay leaving the ball could make for good white noise as the Indian batters look to kick back after a tiring day in the nets.

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