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By Suresh Menon
Murali Vijay turns 29 next month; his opening partner, Shikhar Dhawan is 27. One is on the road to re-establishing himself in the national side. The other just made a flashy Test debut. About the only thing that can be said of this pair which put on 289 runs in the first innings of the Mohali Test and laid the foundation for India's win is that they will be playing the Delhi Test this week. Even then, there is an element of doubt because Dhawan injured himself fielding and did not bat in the second innings. But as things stand, he should play on his home ground.
India's latest opening pair is a mirror image of its predecessors, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Now the aggressive player is the left-hander Dhawan while the more solid is the right-hander Vijay. Neither Sehwag nor Gambhir is ruled out of the Indian squad for the next series in South Africa. But that heppens in November, and there is precious little first class cricket before that. Selectors will have to go by instinct and hope in choosing one or both of the earlier pair.
The return of Murali Vijay to form and now displaying a pleasing bias towards the long innings is the best piece of news Indian batting has had since the retirement of the stalwarts Rahul Dravid and V V S Laxman and the emergence of Cheteswar Pujara. There was never any doubt about Vijay's ability though he averages under 20 in half the Tests he has played, all of them abroad. In India that average is 57 – and his next few trips abroad will be focussed on getting the lower figure closer to the higher one.
The question mark was over Vijay's reluctance to play the long innings that his all round game called for. Even when Sehwag was making 293 at the other end or Dhawan 187 more recently, Vijay still played a series of drives and flicks that had the stamp of class and ensured that his contributions – 87 in the first instance and a robust 153 in the second – would not be forgotten.
In fact, had he not made 167 in the previous Test in Chennai, he might have been under pressure in Mohali. But with that monkey off his back, he was able to rein himself in while Dhawan was going berserk at the other end.
In a mature innings, he went his own untroubled way never attempting to match his junior partner or drawing undue attention to himself. It enabled Dhawan to remain focussed. Bowlers hunting in pairs is a cricketing cliche, but batsmen too work in tandem over a partnership – but that is not usually highlighted. The Vijay-Dhawan association is a fine example of the rhythm of such a partnership.
It is not always easy to fight your way back into the national side, and Vijay, a modern opening batsman with the classical touch, has been made aware of that. The chances of both Sehwag and Gambhir losing form simultaneously were remote, but in that mysterious way sport has of introducing the future when you least expect it, Vijay has been given another lease of life. There is about his driving on the offside all the visual delight generated by the best players of that pleasing shot. Style is a much-abused word in cricket these days, having been superseded by efficiency. But Vijay has style, and he has that incredible flick off his legs which has fetched him so many runs in the limited overs game. The latter stamps him as a modern batsman comfortable with T20. The former keeps his links with orthodoxy and the generation of batsmen of the immediate past.
None of India's Big Four – Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly – was comfortable with T20, but the modern all round batsman will have to be at home in all formats.
Hence the significance of India's latest opening pair, both of whom enjoy T20 too. One of the reasons for India's disastrous showing in England and Australia in the last 18 months or so has been the lack of s strong opening pair. It is too early to say that this weakness has been effectively overcome with Vijay and Dhawan. But they have made a start. And there is hope.