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By Suresh Menon
Batting alongside Sachin Tendulkar can be a double whammy. From the spectator's point of view, the focus is on the great man and you are a supporting act. But from the opposition's point of view, the focus is on you since bowlers tend to attack the lesser player more. Batting with Virender Sehwag is the same.
Despite these apparent handicaps, Murali Vijay, who has batted mostly with Sehwag or Tendulkar in his short Test career, is beginning to start work on carving a niche for himself. And that is a major achievement already. When opening the batting, Vijay is the country's most popular taker of singles, for it brings Sehwag into strike. The Tamil Nadu man is mature enough not to try to make his mark by outshining either Sehwag or Tendulkar but by being himself. It is a similar maturity he brings to his batting.
When he made an attractive 87 against Sri Lanka, Sehwag blew that, and everything else away by making 293 in a single day's play. But in Bangalore, the eternal batting substitute who played depending on whether Gautam Gambhir was injured or his sister was getting married, staked a claim to being considered on his own.
In seven Tests before this, Vijay could not have been said to fail. He supported Sehwag well, made his fifties and stood aside holding the door for Gambhir to re-enter the team. That might just have changed after his Bangalore century and the 308-run partnership with Tendulkar. Had Vijay faltered with India on 38 for two, India might not have recovered. His contribution to Indiaaâ?s spirited response to Australia's 478 was as crucial as Tendulkar's.
In his six-hour association with Tendulkar, Vijay, who was five when his partner made his Test debut, probably learnt more about batsmanship, about Test cricket itself than in all his previous matches put together, and you cannot put a price on that kind of lesson. If the flip side is a different score sheet as a second fiddle, then so be it. Vijay wouldn't have minded, and neither would Indian fans who have made a cottage industry of searching for the successors to the Tendulkar-Dravid-Laxman middle order.
Vijay does not have Dravid's technique, but seems to have his temperament which might pay more. There is a tendency to commit to the front foot which might see him in trouble on quicker tracks or when the ball is swinging. There is an unfortunate preference to playing across the line even in defence, probably a legacy of limited-overs cricket. But there is too a wonderfully wristy on-drive, and a joy at lofting the ball over the fence that will ensure there are no long periods of scorelessness. Some of these innovations one hears were the result of a chat with a former player who gave him the practical advice that strike rates are important in modern Test cricket.
The partnership with Tendulkar was remarkable for two things. The fact that the younger man matched the Master in one area in getting the ball to go exactly where he wanted it to go. Both batsmen played a remarkable drive each between the two short extra covers Tendulkar off the spinner Hauritz and Vijay off Shane Watson. The other remarkable thing was the spontaneous joy with which Tendulkar hugged him when he got to his maiden Test century. He was not just saying "well done!!", but welcoming him to the club among the big boys from whom he is expected to take over. It was a nice gesture.
When Gambhir returns and reclaims his opening slot, room will have to be found for Murali in the middle order. He will finally settle at number three, as a natural successor to Dravid.