Late last year he looked to have made a Test opening spot his own, but two series on, some old failings seem to have come home to roost
In July 2014, M Vijay made a priceless third-innings 95 at Lord's. It was a triumph of self-denial and the highest point of his best phase as a cricketer. From December 2013 to January 2015, India played all their Test cricket away from home - in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia. Of all of India's batsmen in that period, Vijay faced the most balls, scored the second-most runs, and was one of only three to average more than 40.
Four years and a month after that 95, Vijay returned to Lord's. By this point, he had scored 3933 Test runs at 40.13. Under overcast skies, on a wickedly seaming pitch, he was out without scoring in both innings, both times to James Anderson, and his average fell to 39.33.
Now that he's 34 and out of India's Test squad, it's possible Vijay will finish with that average, marginally on the wrong side of 40, in a zone where characters as diverse as Victor Trumper, Vijay Manjrekar, Larry Gomes, Chris Broad and Marvan Atapattu hang out.
Vijay was dropped on August 22. Almost exactly a year before that - on August 23, 2017 - I interviewed him for a profile that, for various reasons, I never got around to writing. Chiefly perhaps because of my own deficiencies as an interviewer, I didn't get him to talk in any real detail about the bits of his life that would be essential to paint the full picture.
He made it clear he wasn't too keen on talking about these bits: the months he spent living on his own, away from his parents, trying to find himself, after flunking his class 12 exams; and the months of tabloid notoriety leading up to his marriage to the ex-wife of Dinesh Karthik, his Tamil Nadu and India team-mate.
Before this England series, Vijay's average in England, South Africa and Australia was 38.73 from 15 Tests with seven fifties and two hundreds
© Marco Longari/AFP/Getty
Before this England series, Vijay's average in England, South Africa and Australia was 38.73 from 15 Tests with seven fifties and two hundreds © Marco Longari/AFP/Getty
He had covered that ground already, he said, in previous interviews with other journalists. If I pressed him, nonetheless, I did so hesitantly, and while he didn't refuse to reply, it was clear he would rather talk about other things.
While speaking of other things, however, Vijay often let his guard down, straying into surprising territory. He spoke, for instance, about a conversation with an uncle who told him cricket was the most difficult sport to play. Why? Because a cricketer, this uncle told him, has to control all five elements - earth, water, air, fire and space.
"You don't know how the next-day wicket is going to be," Vijay recalled his uncle telling him. "Rain comes, everything may change, so you've got to have so many things under control. If it is hot, whatever fitness you do is not going to be matching with nature. So you've got to control all these things.
"It is fascinating for me. People see the game in a different manner - they worship it literally. So I'm like, man, I'm just playing it, so maybe once I leave cricket and sit back, then maybe I'll understand [what] you guys feel."
One of the subjects Vijay kept going back to was parenting. He said he was grateful for the freedom his parents gave him to find his own path, and the support he received in bad times. He spoke about the kind of father he wanted to be.
"[I was] lucky I was not being suppressed," Vijay said. "Not many people can get that opportunity which I've got. The fact of the matter is, [children] should be guided rather than told. They should be given a shoulder when they are falling down, because that's what they want.
"They know everything. My son - pretty much what I spoke at the age of 18, he's speaking at six. So I cannot compare myself and him, because my growth is different and his growth is different.
Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Ishita Mazumder / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"So yeah, these are things which I want to tell schools, you know? What is the best motivational thing for kids? I say they themselves are the motivation. They don't need anything else apart from what their dream is all about."
Most batsmen who go on to play for India are prodigies, barely in their teens when their names begin to pulse through influential networks of coaches and junior selectors. Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane played for their state teams - and scored heavily - at pretty much every junior level.
This wasn't the case with Vijay. He never had a proper coach in his school days, and had to keep switching schools as a result of truancy and poor academic performances. "I've done seven-eight schools, bro. I don't even remember [which ones]."
A consequence of this was that he didn't play for his school team after the age of 13, and was restricted to just tennis-ball cricket until he got into college.
Speaking to him, you can sense Vijay's pride in the self-made part of his game. He said he learned a lot from the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, MS Dhoni and VVS Laxman, but largely by observing them rather than asking them questions. He said he only asked other people questions if he had asked himself first and failed to come up with an answer.
"I always tell youngsters even now, ask that question first to yourself," Vijay said. "If you really don't find an answer, then go out. Don't simply ask because a Murali Vijay is here or a Virat Kohli is here or a Shikhar Dhawan is here.
"You're giving yourself a chance to answer it. You'll think deeper about the question, and you'll come out with your own answer. That answer might be the ultimate one. Or you may get more belief in yourself, saying, machan, I can also do this. That's how you grow, rather than asking easy questions to people who are your seniors."
Ajit Agarkar: "Difficult to see how Vijay will come back"
Ajit Agarkar: "Difficult to see how Vijay will come back"
As with every other batsman, the pursuit of runs drives Vijay, but you sense there's more to it for him. It's also about the feeling of batting well, of being perfectly balanced, about having time to play his shots.
"That is the pinnacle of batting, right, balance? You've got to be in a balanced position to play the merit of the ball. Every ball you have to be in a position, without pre-planning, without having any inhibitions about what is going to happen. You've got to be in a state of mind where it's purely now. So it's very, very… a feeling which cannot be compared or expressed, just felt."
The word "kick" kept popping up in our conversation too, constantly. Facing bouncers from older kids in tennis-ball games gave him a kick. Failing his exams, and seeing how that changed the way others looked at him, gave him a kick. Surfing gives him a kick. Playing fast bowling still gives him a kick.
For someone so driven by adrenaline, it's odd that Vijay has come to be defined by the least adrenaline-fuelled act in cricket, leaving the ball outside off stump. When he made that 95 at Lord's in 2014, he left 101 of the 226 balls he faced from England's fast bowlers - that's nearly 45%.
"That is shocking for me," Vijay said. "Because all of my close friends know what I've played and how I started and suddenly they look at me in a different manner, like, 'Is that you who's doing that?' I'm like, 'Man, even I don't know. I'm just finding a way to score runs.'"
He said he had realised there were only two possible routes available for a Test-match opener in his era. "You're either Virender Sehwag or Alastair Cook. As simple as that. There's no in-between. If you're in-between you will get out, because the quality of bowling is up there. Every ball they're trying to get your wicket, so you've got to choose which one you want to play.
"Either you want to go with a 45 strike rate and go with that flow, or you want to go with a 70 strike rate. If it's your good day, you go at 70 - if you're struggling, do it for the team, at 45. You play according to your tempo at that particular day. I found that  tempo is right for me, now.
"Maybe I will play 70 next series, and people will say different."
Four years ago: at Lord's in 2014, Vijay made a watchful 95 in the only Test India won on that tour
© Getty Images
Four years ago: at Lord's in 2014, Vijay made a watchful 95 in the only Test India won on that tour © Getty Images
Back when we spoke, Vijay was recuperating from a wrist injury that had kept him out of India's tour of Sri Lanka. Next up was a home series against the same opponents, and then another cycle of away tours: South Africa first, then England, and then Australia.
In the home series against Sri Lanka, Vijay scored back-to-back hundreds. In a three-way contest with Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul, he had reclaimed his stature as India's No. 1 opener. Given his exploits on the previous cycle of tours, he was going to be one of India's most important players on the next one.
What followed, in South Africa and England, was this: 1, 13, 46, 9, 8, 25, 20, 6, 0, 0.
Through that run of scores, Vijay's game seemed to have lost some of its tightness. He seemed to have drifted into that in-between zone: not quite Cook, not quite Sehwag either. He looked less certain outside his off stump, and his leave percentages dropped steeply from where they had been on the corresponding tours in the previous cycle.
What those numbers also revealed, however, was that South Africa and, especially, England bowled differently to Vijay, their lines straighter than before. In England, he was lbw or bowled in three out of four innings, and caught behind off the inside edge in the other. If he had come through one kind of challenge four years ago, he was facing a different one now.
And conditions were consistently difficult to bat in on both tours, requiring batsmen to master the five elements Vijay's uncle spoke of. Apart from Dean Elgar, who averaged 41.40, no other opener averaged 24 or more in the five Tests Vijay featured in.
In the second innings at the Wanderers, Vijay batted for over three hours and faced 127 balls on a pitch where two balls landing on roughly the same spot could go in two entirely different directions - one kicking up and cutting in towards the batsman's groin, the other jagging away like a legbreak while bouncing ankle-high.
Vijay was dismissed for a pair by James Anderson in the 2018 Lord's Test
© Getty Images
Vijay was dismissed for a pair by James Anderson in the 2018 Lord's Test © Getty Images
In a display straight out of the Vijay guidebook of 2014, he left 48% of the balls he faced. Everyone watching agreed it was a magnificent innings, but when Kagiso Rabada bowled him with a yorker, he had only made 25.
In the first innings of the previous Test, in Centurion, Vijay had batted in relatively straightforward conditions for perhaps the only time on the two tours, and had for once enjoyed a bit of luck, surviving a number of plays-and-misses off the fast bowlers.
He added 79 with Kohli, helping India move to 107 for 2 in response to South Africa's 335 all out. It was a promising position, and Kohli thought so too: the stump mic caught him shouting these memorable words out to Vijay - "Shaam tak khelenge, inki ***** **** jaayegi", which can be loosely translated to "If we bat till evening, [South Africa] will lose their shit."
Vijay didn't last as long as Kohli might have hoped, and was out for 46, top-edging a cut off Keshav Maharaj, the left-arm spinner. The ball was neither short enough nor wide enough for that shot.
It's one of the many frustrating and contradictory things about Vijay's batting, his tendency to play injudicious shots against spin. When he's going well, he can toy with spinners, bringing the late cut, an array of sweeps, and the lofted hits out of his kitbag. He has hit 33 sixes in Test cricket - Kohli, by comparison, has only hit 18 - of which 32 have come against the spinners.
But he can get careless against them. In Ranchi in 2017, he fell for 82, in the last over before lunch, stumped while trying to hit left-arm spinner Steve O'Keefe over the top. In Nagpur later that year, he swept Rangana Herath to short fine leg when he was on 128.
Easy wicket: Vijay has been known to carelessly lose his wicket to spinners when he's in good nick. He says: "If a person is in rhythm, he just keeps going. When to cut down is very difficult"
Easy wicket: Vijay has been known to carelessly lose his wicket to spinners when he's in good nick. He says: "If a person is in rhythm, he just keeps going. When to cut down is very difficult" © AFP
It's a weakness that goes back all the way to his early days in league cricket in Chennai. As an opening batsman, he told me, he would be set by the time the spinners came on, and then find it difficult to curb his strokeplay against them.
"You learn from Cheteshwar Pujara, or a guy like - you know, I learned a lot from Vasanth Saravanan. Or D Vasu. These guys come in, five-down, six-down, and belt the spinners, where I play and I get out like one mad guy and come back and sit and clap for them.
"And I'm like, what am I doing, because the same [bowlers] they are playing with ease. That's the thing you've got to cut down, because as an opener, you are in rhythm. If a person is in rhythm, he just keeps going. When to cut down is very difficult."
The loose square cut against Maharaj might have been the difference between 46 and 70. A 70, followed by that 25 in Johannesburg, might have made Vijay's tour of South Africa look entirely different. India might have stuck with him for one or two more Tests in England. Ifs and buts.
There have been plenty of those in Vijay's career. A brief and not particularly distinguished ODI and T20I career, for instance, despite having shown in the IPL that he has the game for the shorter formats. There was a chance, right after the 2014-15 tour of Australia, where he scored close to 500 runs in four Tests, that he would go to the 2015 World Cup as India's third opener. It didn't happen.
I asked him about this, about whether he had accepted that he was going to be a one-format player. He might well give the same answer now, if you were to ask him if he thinks his Test career is over.
"No, [that thought has never come into my head]," Vijay said. "It will never also, I think. See, for me it's not the end of the world, at this time. I feel the whole journey of me starts now. That's how I feel, with the experience, with the understanding I have in my life, and I put it in whatever venture I do, I'm going to go one up on my journey. Only way is up, there's no down."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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