India need their old Vijay back

Something strange and rare happened in India's first innings in Cape Town. Kept on 1 from the first 16 balls he faced - even though Shikhar Dhawan was striking at more than a run a ball at the other end - M Vijay played a loose drive to wide ball. The edge was snaffled at gully. This was only the second time since the start of the tour of South Africa in 2013-14 that Vijay had - in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia or England - been dismissed driving. The first time was in Sydney in 2014-15, at the end of a long tour that might have drained him mentally. That's only twice in 14 Tests.

In this period, Vijay had played on various tracks - treacherous green ones, flat ones, bouncy ones - but you could rarely get him to drive a ball that was not there for the shot. There was a time in 2014 when in six away Tests he had only once been dismissed pushing at a ball outside off that he could have left alone. Vijay's great strength, which made him arguably the best opener in the world during that period, was exactly this discipline: to not drive at balls that were not there and to push defensively only when he absolutely needed to.

As an opener you will get balls that are close to off stump but take your edge because you have to play at them. That is an occupational hazard. What was strange was that so early in a series - its first innings, in fact - Vijay played a loose drive, a mistake he probably commits once a year.

It could have been because of lack of time to acclimatise to South African conditions. He had come here after close to three years of Test cricket in India, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, conditions in which opening batsmen can drive more freely, and it takes time to put away that shot. The tendency, however, hasn't stopped in Cape Town. Right through this series, Vijay has been playing at more balls than he used to.

In England in 2014, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data, Vijay left 432 of the 1182 balls he faced in 10 innings, a healthy 37%. In South Africa this time he has faced just 200 balls in four innings, and has left alone 60 - or 30%.

The analyst The Cricket Prof added more qualifications to this stat while Vijay played and missed uncharacteristically in the first innings in Centurion, finding that he was not just playing at more deliveries, but that he was doing so early in the innings and playing more false shots than before.

"On India's last tour of England in 2014, Murali Vijay left alone 40% of the deliveries he faced from pacers in the first 15 overs of innings. His false shot percentage was 13.7%," The Cricket Prof tweeted. "In the first Test, the corresponding figures were 30% and 21.6% respectively."

The importance of Vijay the dour opener has sometimes been lost on observers, and even the team management - he was dropped in the West Indies and also against Sri Lanka on a seaming track in Kolkata - but he has been setting the tone for India's batting on overseas tours. He has been selfless, not scoring as many as he would like but making sure the others after him face an older ball and tired bowlers. Even though he didn't score huge runs, Vijay has faced more balls than any other Indian batsman on tours of South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia since the start of the last cycle of tours in December 2013. He is also the second-highest run-getter, despite these two lean Tests. Something about his game on this tour is not right.

Playing the way Vijay is renowned to doing is an intense job. Ducking and weaving ask a lot of you physically; batting long periods at low strike rates is a mental examination. He went through back issues and a wrist surgery last year. It was always going to be a challenge to replicate the restraint and the technical expertise in the best of circumstances; to do so without proper preparation as a team would have made it improbable. You can only hope this is a personal issue, and not something the team has impressed upon him either directly or through the general atmosphere of looking to bat more aggressively.

In the second Test in Centurion, Vijay got past that early uncertain period, but got out playing an uncharacteristically loose shot to the spin of Keshav Maharaj. This was a period in which he had scored six runs in 25 balls. Of those six, four came through a sweep after which he got up gingerly and stretched his leg, probably his hamstring. For the next few balls, it seemed as if he just switched off. At least on two occasions, Virat Kohli, batting at the other end, took starts looking for singles and found Vijay not even looking up at him. The last of these was a cut in front of point, and could have been the single to take him off strike for the ball that dismissed him. Even in his second-innings dismissal, when the ball stayed low, Vijay was playing away from his body.

Whatever the reasons are for the way he has been batting, India need their old Vijay back. Wanderers won't be too soon.