After a breakout domestic season in 2014-15 that saw him making it to the India A squad to face Australia A, South Africa A and Bangladesh at home, Tamil Nadu’s Vijay Shankar was included in the India A squad that toured Australia to play in a quadrangular List A series and two four-day matches.
A successful tour of Australia would have given him his maiden call-up to the Indian team but the joy was short-lived for the all-rounder as he was ruled out of the tour with a meniscus tear and a grade-four patella injury to his knee. He went under the knife and missed more than three months of action.
In the meantime, Hardik Pandya, who made his T20I debut earlier that year before he was dropped from the Indian team that toured Zimbabwe and the India A team that toured Australia, was called in to replace Vijay and made full use of the opportunity to kick-start his career.
His performances in Australia earned him a place in the Indian ODI team for the series against New Zealand (won the MoM award on his debut) and is likely to be a part of India’s 15-member squad for the Champions Trophy.
On the other hand, Vijay spent three and a half months on the sidelines and could just watch Hardik succeeding at the International level. Vijay’s loss was Hardik’s gain. But, the 26-year-old all-rounder believes that undergoing surgery was the right thing as the injury would have been at the back of his head.
However, he admitted that he felt bad for missing out from touring Australia at the same time.
“Personally, it was a great opportunity for me to play in Australia and I felt bad for not touring with the team. I am someone who doesn't like to compare myself with others (Pandya). I was in a dilemma whether to go for the surgery or not.
“Obviously, if I am playing with pain, it will be at the back of my mind and affect my game. I spoke to my parents, discussed with Rahul Dravid sir (India A coach), physios, trainers and everyone advised me that undergoing surgery is the right thing,” Vijay said.
Dravid is someone who has played alongside Vijay Shankar for Vijay CC in the Tamil Nadu first division league and also coached him when he was part of the India A team. It is even more special for the all-rounder to be associated with the former Indian skipper as he is someone who Vijay has looked up to since his childhood.
Dravid’s knocks in the famous 2003 Adelaide Test have a lot of significance in his career as a cricketer.
“Rahul Dravid is my idol. His match-winning knocks of 233 and 72* in Adelaide has a big influence in my career and I often see those knock to motivate myself. When he came here for to play for Vijay CC, I had a word him about converting my fifties into hundreds.
At that time, I didn’t make my debut for Tamil Nadu. After that, I made few centuries and made it to the Tamil Nadu side. As a coach, he complimented me well and gave me huge a lot of confidence by praising my batting and asked me to bat in the same way I was batting then. He also pointed out that I can represent India only if I improve my bowling,” he said of Dravid.
When he returned from the knee injury, there was no turning back for the Tirunelveli-born all-rounder as he played a crucial role in Tamil Nadu’s campaign in all the domestic tournaments. After joining the team mid-way through the Ranji season, Vijay scored 312 runs from seven innings at an average of 52, including a century and a fifty.
With the ball, he bowled only 66 overs in 8 innings in which he picked 7 wickets at an average of 28.
He was rewarded for his consistency with a place in the India A squad that took on Bangladesh in the one-off warm-up match and caught the eye of the selectors with an unbeaten 103 off 81 balls against a quality Bangladesh attack.
He was regarded as one of the best fast bowling all-rounders in the country by the chief selector MSK Prasad. When asked about praise coming from the chief selector, Vijay was happy that his performances are getting noted but he is in no hurry to make it to the next level.
“I would like to get better as a cricketer every single day. That is the only thing I am looking at right now. Getting into the Indian team is something that will happen automatically if I do things in the right way. That is more important for me now and I am glad that the selectors are taking a note of my performances.
“I don’t have any set targets about getting into the Indian cricket team. At the moment, I am looking forward to do well for Tamil Nadu. We have a young squad, we did well in the 2016-17 season. All these things will matter a lot in getting to the next level. If I do well in big/pressure matches, it will have a big value in defining me as a cricketer,” he admitted.
Being a part of the IPL-winning Sunrisers Hyderabad squad, Vijay is not bothered about chances and wants to prove himself whenever he gets one. IPL 2017 will be crucial for him if he wants to catch selectors' eyes before India starts touring overseas.
In the InterZonal T20 and Syed Mushtaq Ali T20, Vijay was brilliant with both and ball. In the recently concluded Vijay Hazare trophy, he scored 198 runs in 7 innings at an average of 66 and excelled as a finisher. His gritty half-century against Baroda in the semi-finals helped his team cross the line in spite of a mini batting collapse.
He was also equally good with the ball as he picked up 8 wickets in six matches at an average of 18 with an economy of 4.44.
Being a reliable batsman, Vijay aims to be a finisher, who is capable of taking his team home and in the Vijay Hazare trophy, he showed exactly why he can be a good finisher, in the matches against Gujarat and Baroda.
“Captaining a team is definitely a big challenge. It’s not about myself. As a captain, it is very important to keep ringing the bowling changes. I should take a call when to bowl, when to rotate the bowlers etc. Even as a player, I used to think a lot about the bowling changes and the field placements.
“If I can help my team win, that will be the biggest satisfaction I can get. It’s very important for me to keep my head calm and take a call in pressure situations. I learnt some valuable things in my brief stints as a captain.
”Sometimes, being an experienced player, I feel I should stay till the end and finish the matches for my team in pressure situations. If I stay till the end, I know that I can take my team through,” he explained.
He was often criticised for the pace at which he bowls. But, the all-rounder, who was hampered by injuries, believes that he can bowl faster and is working on it. Talking about bowling, he said, “I can bowl a bit quicker. After the surgery, I had some niggles and it was very difficult to bowl fast. It took some time for me to recover completely. Because of that, I couldn’t work on few things.
“My stride length (in the Ranji trophy season) became long and if I manage to reduce it, I can bowl a quicker. I am already working on it and hopeful of correcting it at the earliest.”
Vijay might have been very successful as a seam bowling all-rounder. But, he started his career as an off-spinner and took up fast bowling to get into the Tamil Nadu team as the team had a lot of good spinners. This move could also be a massive turning point in his career as it might help him get a place in the Indian team.
I was bowling off-spin till I was 20. There were already few offies (Baba Aparajith, Malolan Rangarajan, R Ashwin etc.) in the state team and I would have been among many who can bat and bowl off-spin. It was very difficult to break into the team and I somehow wanted to get into the Ranji team
“ I knew that I wanted to be something different, so I started bowling medium pace. He also thanked his personal coach S Balaji for helping him in becoming a seam bowling all-rounder. I didn’t find any difficulties in my transformation from an off-spinner to medium pacer as my motive was just to get into the state team,” he concluded.
The Indian cricket team doesn’t have a fast bowling all-rounder, who is reliable with both bat and ball and if the 26-year-old continues to perform the way he is doing, he will soon earn a national call-up. He has all the qualities to play for India and flourish at the international level.