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India vs Sri Lanka: Murali Vijay's Omission Strange in Typically 'English' Conditions

Dileep Premachandran | Updated: November 16, 2017, 5:23 PM IST
India vs Sri Lanka: Murali Vijay's Omission Strange in Typically 'English' Conditions

Image Credit: Getty Images.

Kolkata: You have to go back to the summer of 2014 for the last time India’s batsmen faced such a new-ball examination. India had combated the conditions brilliantly to win on a green-tinged Lord’s pitch, but came a cropper at both Old Trafford and The Oval to lose the series. A look at both scorecards is instructive. In Manchester, India slipped to 8 for 4. And when they got to South London a week later, it was 28 for 4 in the first innings and 30 for 3 in the second. Both matches were lost inside three days.

Few expected an Eden Gardens pitch to pose the same sort of challenge, and that too against a Sri Lanka that had been beaten out of sight on their own turf less than three months earlier. But this is not the Eden of Azharuddin and Laxman. Since the square was re-laid, it’s become a lot like Mohali used to be back in the 1990s – the No.1 destination for quick bowlers journeying to India.

India beat New Zealand by 178 runs in Kolkata last year, but they were 46 for 3 in the first innings, and 43 for 4 in the second. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane – the pair at the crease when the umpires ruled the light too poor to continue on Thursday (November 16) – bailed them out with a 141-run stand in the first innings, and it was Virat Kohli (45) and Rohit Sharma (82) that starred in the second.

These were perfect conditions for a seam bowler, plenty of grass on the pitch and grey sky and dark clouds overhead. Suranga Lakmal made the most of it, while Lahiru Gamage largely wasted the opportunity. Each of the three Indian batsmen to be dismissed was undone by late movement, and Pujara too was fortunate to still be out there.

In such conditions, against a bowler on top of his game, there’s not much you can do as a batsman other than ride out the storm. One of the best examples of that came in one of India’s most famous Test victories – at the Wanderers in December 2006. Wasim Jaffer and Virender Sehwag fell early, and the overwhelming feeling was ‘here we go again’ – India had been routed 4-0 in the ODI series that preceded the Tests.

But Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid defied an attack of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini, Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel and Jacques Kallis for 24.5 overs, adding 69 to the score. Tendulkar’s 44 and Dravid’s 32 don’t find a place in any batting-orgy highlights packages, but they were among the finest innings either played. As is the case on such surfaces, there were a fair few play-and-misses, outside edges and inside edges. But neither man lost his focus, and the runs they added provided the platform for VVS Laxman (28) and Sourav Ganguly (51) to take India to what became a match-winning total (249).

In more recent times, we’ve seen such resolute batting from Murali Vijay, at Lord’s in 2014. India had conceded a 24-run lead, and Vijay held the second innings together with a 95 that spanned more than six hours and 247 balls. This was on the back of 146 at Trent Bridge, and he finished the tour with more runs than Kohli and Pujara managed in tandem. A few months later, he went to Australia and made nearly 500 runs in four Tests. That included a century in Brisbane, a venue where only three other Indians – ML Jaisimha, Sunil Gavaskar and Ganguly – have made hundreds.

Vijay also has a 97 to his name in South Africa, traditionally the toughest tour for opening batsmen. In the context of those numbers, leaving him out of the XI here with a tour of South Africa looming didn’t make much sense. Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul did wonderfully well in Sri Lanka, but the Indian habit in recent times has been to go back to the established stalwart once he returns from injury.

Maybe Dhawan’s two hundreds in Sri Lanka queered the selection pitch. Rahul, at 25, is clearly the prospect for the future. But Vijay is only 18 months older than Dhawan, and his recent Ranji Trophy hundred was proof that his injury woes are behind him. Dhawan has that priceless ability to set the tone for a series in a session or two, as he did in Galle in July, but on a challenging surface, his penchant for the cavalier makes him a batsman bowlers would love to see in their sights.

A problem of plenty is always a good one to have. But with tours of England and Australia to follow the trip to South Africa, India need to identity their first-choice pairing. It would be quite an eye-opener if Vijay didn’t feature in that.

(Dileep Premachandran, former Wisden India editor-in-chief, is a columnist with Cricketnext and is currently at the Eden Gardens covering the India vs Sri Lanka Test match)
First Published: November 16, 2017, 5:01 PM IST

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