Will I really make my Test debut? Or am I just back-up? Those would have been two of the million thoughts racing through M Vijay’s head on his 680 km journey from Nasik to Nagpur on Tuesday night. Earlier that day he had completed his highest first-class score – 243 for Tamil Nadu against Maharashta – before being called to fill the gap created by Gautam Gambhir’s failed appeal against his one-Test ban.
Vijay said he was “shocked” by the development and “didn’t expect a call right now”. He has never batted with Virender Sehwag before and what was the Indian Test team a few hours earlier has now become “my team” to him. Any lingering doubts Vijay would have had about his participation in the Test have been put to rest. “We are going with M Vijay,” his captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, said. “He will open the innings.”
The challenge facing the new opener is tremendous. He was rushed out of a Ranji Trophy match at short notice to replace the highest run-scorer in the Test series in a match that will decide the fate of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. And his opponents are renowned for making life hard for fledgling Test cricketers.
“The senior players will go and have a chat with him,” Dhoni said. “At the same time there’s no point pressurising him and making him too aware of the fact that this is what is expected. Rather he can just go in and play normal cricket.
“Whether he makes his debut right now, or after ten matches, it will always be tough. International cricket is tough. The opposition team will always look to put pressure on the debutant. Vijay has played quite a few A-team games and he is doing well in domestic matches so I don’t think there will be too much pressure.”
Dhoni is ruing Gambhir’s absence – “It is crucial because he’s been the man in form” – but appears to have handled it with typical pragmatism. “As Gautam is ruled out, you can’t really think about what would have happened if Gautam was here,” he said. “We have confidence in M Vijay as well and hopefully he will give the start that’s needed.”
Perhaps the most significant factor in Vijay’s favour is that his technique won’t be endlessly scrutinised by the Australians in search of a weakness for which they can tailor a pre-fixed plan of attack.
“We haven’t got any video footage of him, obviously, and none of us have played against him,” Ricky Ponting said. “All I know is that he’s a 24-year old who has made a double-hundred in the last game that he played. So he’s obviously in a bit of touch, in a bit of form. I’m surprised that they didn’t go back to [Wasim] Jaffer actually. He played the practice game in Hyderabad. But we know him pretty well and he hasn’t had much success against us, which is probably why they’ve gone for the younger guy. “
Vijay’s call-up was on such short notice that he reached practice after the rest of the team. A team official took him towards Gary Kirsten and along the way he passed the spinners’ net in the middle of the ground but didn’t stop walking until he saw somebody familiar – and not from television viewing. S Badrinath was the captain when Vijay made his Ranji Trophy debut and he congratulated him by clapping him on the back. After meeting RP Singh, Munaf Patel and Venkatesh Prasad, he went over to Kirsten at the fast bowler’s net, who directed him towards the far end of the ground where Robin Singh was conducting fielding and catching drills.
He met VVS Laxman on the way and then, walking a few paces behind the official, went towards Sachin Tendulkar, who was waiting to bat at the spinners’ net. Vijay had never met Tendulkar before and after an introduction, a hand-shake, and a fleeting chat – there will be time for more wise words later in the day – he began fielding practice.
Every once in a while the ball would get past Vijay and speed towards the boundary. The first couple of times, Vijay turned around and went to collect the ball himself but eventually Robin seemed to tell him that the group of ball boys would do the needful.
Once he was done with the fielding, Vijay briefly disappeared into the changing room and emerged padded up. He headed towards the spinners’ net and Harbhajan, although he had just begun batting, made way.
The first ball was from Dhoni, bowling gentle offbreaks, and Vijay padded it away before preparing to face Amit Mishra and Ishant Sharma, who was also bowling extremely slow.
He played the majority of the deliveries off the back foot but came forward when the ball was extremely full or flighted. The shots that stood out because of their frequency was the back-foot punch on the offside, the cut and the whip off the pads. He even attempted to sweep Mishra a couple of times, a shot not used often by most Indian batsmen. Eventually he charged Mishra and hit him superbly into the second tier of stands behind the straight boundary.
Vijay left the spinners net after 25 minutes – allowing Harbhajan to resume – and headed to face pace from a collection of nets bowlers. He handled them with relative ease but, when he next takes guard, it will be a whole new ball game.