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Cricketer Murali Vijay talks to Prince Frederick about donning the national colours and his ways with the willow

An Innova pulls up alongside the curb at the Chennai airport. Cricketer Murali Vijay steps out and locks his right arm with that of his Tamil Nadu teammate Ramaswamy Prasanna in a striking expression of camaraderie. Before beginning to walk towards the departure bay, he repeats the ‘arm-shake'. This time, with father Murali, who has come to see him off.

It's a reflection of the special bond with his dad, and the ability to get along well with peers.

The young cricketer is in a buoyant mood. Well, he should be, after the wonderful 87 he made in the company of a rampaging Virender Sehwag against the hapless Sri Lankans in the final Test at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai early this month.

It was in November 2008 that he was first called to play a Test match against Australia in Nagpur. It was an emergency call as Gautam Gambhir had attracted a one-match penalty for inappropriate behaviour in the previous Test. Vijay had to abruptly leave a Ranji Trophy match where he and southpaw Abhinav Mukund had mauled the bowling attack, to join the Indian team.

With scores of 33 and 41, Vijay had a decent Test debut. More importantly, he caught the eyes of experts for his sound technique. Allan Border commented that his batting style lent itself well to both defensive and offensive play. He was selected for an ODI series against England, which, however, passed without Vijay playing a match.

Following the non-starter to his international one-day career, he seemed to have dropped out of sight. The selectors did not see any need for him until four weeks ago, when he was called once again to fill in the shoes of Gambhir, who opted out of the Mumbai Test against Sri Lanka to attend his sister's wedding.

Though overshadowed by Sehwag's brilliant 293, Vijay's emphatic 87 in the only innings that India played in the Test, invited a lot of praise. One cricket journalist pitied him for being a contemporary of Sehwag and Gambhir.

Time on his side

Vijay, however, is not perturbed by this. “I'm just 25,” he says, implying that time is on his side. Anyone who has known Vijay would say that the statement is quite in character. Despite developing a liking for the willow game quite early, the boy took to competitive cricket only at 17. Another opener from Tamil Nadu, Kris Srikkanth got serious about his cricket only in his last year at college, but that was the 1980s, when such late starts were not uncommon. By today's standards, Vijay has had a decidedly late start. But for someone who was slow to take the plunge, he has done admirably well. He is an integral part of the Tamil Nadu and Jolly Rovers (Chemplast) teams, and has played for India ‘A' and Chennai Super Kings. What or who enabled him to cover so much ground so fast? “As a student, I was laidback. While my sister had clear-cut academic goals, I had none. I was jolted out of my complacency when I failed to get through the Class XII board examination. That was the time I took a close and hard look at myself. I noticed my life did not pivot around anything. It was clearly time to check where I was headed.”

Bouncing back

Vijay bounced back. After finishing Class XII, he went on to complete a bachelor's degree in Economics at Vivekananda College and an MBA at SRM. However, academics did not become the central point of his life; cricket took that place.

Vivekananda College has always fostered an atmosphere conducive to shaping great cricketers, and Vijay took full advantage of it. His exploits with the bat made him very popular, and he was nicknamed Monk — because of his tonsured head and his ability to see through fiery bowling spells with a patient head.

Vijay thinks his rise to batting stardom was not won by effort alone. “Bharat Reddy's decision to take me into Jolly Rovers was a turning point. Team coach Jaikumar has been a great blessing. Working with Tamil Nadu coach W.V. Raman has been a great learning experience. Raman taught me the importance of temperament; talent alone can't build a long innings. Lakshmipathy Balaji is like a big brother; his pep talk energises me.”

Vijay also acknowledges his gratitude to Bharat Arun, former India player and Vijay's school senior. But the list with many more names, is topped by his parents. “My father has retired from business, and now devotes a lot of time watching my career blossom. He is my big hero. His witty one-liners often provide answers to niggling problems. And, whenever I am going through the blues, my mother (Lakshmi) is there for me.”

They are delighted that cricket has made Vijay more responsible and improved many aspects of his life. Fitness is one of them. A combination of running and fitness training (with trainers S. Basu and Ramji) makes Vijay an asset to any fielding side.

In the two Tests he played for India, he impressed as much with his nimble feet and safe hands as with the bat. The direct hit with which he ran out Hayden was a beauty. “You can help the team's cause immensely by saving runs, effecting run-outs and taking catches. You don't need talent to be a good fielder; plain hard work will do.”

In an era of Twenty20 cricket, these words will sound sweet to any captain.

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