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Monk of old who turned new

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His flair made him stand out in the crowd, yet it was 'inconsistency' that was working against Murali Vijay. Finally, the Chennai lad has managed to seize the moment and cement his place as India's opener No 1.

Chepauk in the heat of September isn't the best place to be in for watching cricket. The Chennai sun is cruel, the humidity takes its toll and if it's the second innings of a Buchi Babu final between Tamil Nadu and Saurashtra, where the result is a foregone conclusion, you are bound to curse yourself for being a cricket reporter.

We are talking of 2008 when the Indian team for the home series against Australia was about to be selected and a new selection committee under Krishnamachari Srikkanth had just taken over. Chika was at Chepauk that day, probably on one of his afternoon catch-up sessions with TNCA officials and players, when a young, stubble-sporting boy decided to cut loose.

Except for the hardcore Tamil Nadu cricket followers, Murali Vijay was an unknown commodity at that stage, but some of the shots that the right-hander played that day took one's breath away. "Who's this boy?" was the general query of the uninitiated and pat came the reply from the TN connoisseurs complete with an 'oh-you-don't-know ?' tone: "That's Vijay, the most talented Tamil Nadu batsman in a long time. "

Even though you couldn't help but admire the easy-onthe-eye strokeplay of this Tamil Nadu player, there was no way you could read too much into the Chennai cricket aficionados' instant "superb player" tag. After all, this is the state which claims to have the best cricket infrastructure in the country, yet the highest number of Test centuries scored till then by a player from this region was just two - a record shared by Srikkanth and Sadagopan Ramesh.

It took Vijay close to five years since that sweltering 2008 day to go past that ignominious TN record when he smashed Michael Clarke's visiting Aussies to get his third Test century in Mohali over a week ago, but it's the struggle of these five years that might have helped India finally find an opener who can fill in the big shoes of Virender Sehwag.

A close look at the two career-defining centuries of the 29-year-old in the ongoing Australia series would suggest a marked change in the way he approached his cricket when he was in his early 20s. The Vijay of old could even overshadow a Mike Hussey on his day, but during the course of these two innings, he was constantly playing second fiddle. While Cheteshwar Pujara ran away with the accolades in Hyderabad, it was Shikhar 'Bradman' Dhawan who was the hero at Mohali.

Vijay, on both occasions, curbed his natural instincts and allowed the aggressor to take charge. That showed he had matured. "After going through the phase and realizing that being aggressive does not always convert into runs Vijay has gone back to the good, old method. I liked the way he built his innings, he showed character. He has reined in his shotmaking instincts to serve the team's cause and his own, " WV Raman, the former Tamil Nadu coach under whom Vijay made his Ranji Trophy debut back in 2007, says.

This was something Vijay probably had to do. When Gautam Gambhir was dropped ahead of the series, Vijay got his chance to seal the place as an opener, but the inclusion of Dhawan suggested that there was no way he could take his place for granted. And when he got out cheaply in both the innings of the Chennai Test, the obvious question put to skipper MS Dhoni at the post-match press conference was: "Are you happy with the opening combination?"

The skipper didn't throw his weight behind Vijay;all he said was: "Let's give him a few more chances before taking a final call. " Dhoni, without being blatant, said what he had to say to Vijay. The message was clear: "Perform or perish".

Vijay himself admitted that his Chennai show was disappointing and put his mind into changing it all. He knows how to score big and went back to the drawing board, trying to get it right before it was too late.

G Jayakumar, chief coach of Chemplast, who has worked with Vijay for the last eight years, points to Vijay's singleminded focus to get things back on track. "Let me tell you, " says the coach, almost conspiratorially, "Vijay was really determined to come good in this series. That was clearly visible during his preparation ahead of the first Test. He felt that the shot that led to his dismissal in the second innings in Chennai was bad and was determined to make it count in Hyderabad. He has always been known for his shots but has been working on staying composed and patiently building an innings for a while now. It's good to see that things are finally falling into place for him. "

The grinding mentality is an absolute necessity to survive at the big stage, but it's also that Vijay's flair at the crease still helps him stand out in the crowd. It was this flair that made Chika select Vijay in 2008 during the fourth Test against Australia in Nagpur when Gautam Gambhir got banned for a game.

Vijay was playing a Ranji match in Nasik and he left midway to join the Indian team, even as the national media cried, "Vijay, who?"

The right-hander, 24 then, made an impressive debut and the mandate was that India might have got their No. 3 opener. But it was this tag that started telling on the cricketer. He was travelling with the team to every corner of the cricket world but his chance came only when either Gambhir or Sehwag was injured. Vijay seemed to believe that each of these opportunities was his last chance and invariably failed to cope with the pressure.

In the IPL on the other hand, the four-foreigner rule almost made it impossible for Chennai Super Kings to think beyond Vijay as their regular opener and it helped the righthander immensely. There were periods of six to eight games when he was not getting runs, yet Dhoni kept persisting with him. And he came good just when it mattered, the IPL final of 2011 - where he fired a 52-ball 95 - being a prime example.

Dhoni believes in performers who come good at the crunch but the Chennai cricket fraternity, at times, was getting a little fed up with this 'inconsistent' cricketer, who is called Monk by his teammates. Even though there's a belief that it's his coolness that has helped him earn the tag, some say that Vijay's love for Old Monk is the story behind the nickname.

Whatever the story, at the beginning of the 2012 season, Vijay knew that he was running out of time. He started positively with a record-breaking double hundred in Irani Cup but then began faltering in the Ranji Trophy. No one would have blamed the selectors if he wasn't picked for the season-ending Irani. But here again, just when it mattered, the Monk had his day.

He survived, and now in just a month's time, he is one of the new stars of the Indian cricket team. But even Vijay knows that his journey has just begun.

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