“Great kid, impeccable work ethic, terrific temperament, total commitment.”
This is the common refrain of coaches and teammates alike about Vijay Shankar, the Tamil Nadu all-rounder on whom the wheels of fortune have smiled benevolently since the start of 2019, and who has now been entrusted with the responsibility of occupying the No. 4 position in the Indian cricket team batting order at the ICC World Cup starting in 40 days’ time.
Vijay’s isn’t a story of dramatic, unexpected highs resulting in a fairytale breakthrough. Instead, it is the journey of a talented fighter who had to overcome perceptions, and debilitating injuries that loomed as deal-breakers. By using adversity as stepping stones to higher honours, he has shown that through will and skill, one can work their way up. Through his back-breaking climb up the ladder, he has also reiterated the value of adhering to core principles, and not compromising on the fundamental fabric that shaped him as a human being and a cricketer.
Now 28, Vijay falls back for advice, technical and mental, on the same person who has been his cricketing companion for 14 years now. S Balaji, the former Railways and Tamil Nadu batsman, started working with the Guru Nanak College student when Vijay was but 14. Over time, despite Vijay’s steady ascension up the ranks and his exposure to such erudite minds as Woorkeri Raman, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, Balaji remains his go-to man, the one who knows him inside out, who knows what makes him tick, what buttons to push.
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Balaji’s insistence on a mastery of the basics, Vijay will agree, has played a big part in the culmination of his travels as India’s No. 4 in one-day cricket. He may not attract as many eyeballs as the flamboyant ball-strikers, but it’s his ability to play the conditions and situations that give him the edge over many of his equally skilled contemporaries. A case in point — a classy 45-ball 64 in his first hit in One-Day Internationals, against New Zealand in Wellington, when he walked in at 18 for four with the ball whooping around corners, and helped Ambati Rayudu steady the rocking boat.
Vijay had to bide his time before he got the chance to establish himself in the Tamil Nadu state side. The presence of a host of big names meant he wasn’t always guaranteed his place, a place he earned by making the uncommon switch from off-spin to medium-pace to present his credentials as an all-rounder.
In the early 2010s, Tamil Nadu had two quality off-spinners, and a decent pace attack, but they didn’t have a batsman who could bowl medium-pace. Balaji seized on that opening; a pliant Vijay put in the extra hours in transforming himself from a decent offie to a useful seam-up option, a switch that subsequently had career-defining ramifications.
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Even armed with a third string to his bow — he was always an electric fielder — Vijay’s frustrating wait endured until, in the 2014-15 season, he came of age after being assigned a settled position at No. 5 in the batting order by coach Raman, the former India opener. Now the India Women head coach, Raman instilled in him the desire to aim for the Indian team instead of merely trying to nail down a permanent place in the Tamil Nadu XI.
He showcased his versatility while batting at No. 3 in a couple of games in the Ranji league phase, but it was in the knockouts where he truly stood out. He made 111 and 82 in the quarterfinal against Vidarbha, 91 in the semifinal against Maharashtra and 5 and 103 in the final in a losing cause against Karnataka, catching the attention of the national selectors and setting himself up as one for the future.
Just as things were starting to look up and he was named in the ‘A’ side for the tour of Australia in August 2016, an untimely knee injury opened the door for Hardik Pandya to step in and grab his chances. Vijay needed surgery to repair a meniscus tear, a process that kept him out of the game for three and a half months. He didn’t lose heart, going back to the drawing board once he went through the rehabilitation process, and feeding off the expertise, wisdom and infectious positivity of Dravid, the India ‘A’ coach.
His tryst with misfortune continued, however, and a hamstring tendon injury sustained while playing for India ‘A’ against Windies ‘A’ in England last July tested the patience of the decision-makers. But with stubborn obduracy, Vijay worked his way back into fitness and favour, striking the decisive blow for himself after being elevated to the No. 5 position in the one-day games against New Zealand ‘A’ towards the end of last year.
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At that point, Vijay was hardly on the selectors’ radar when it came to the senior side. But as Dravid pushed him up to No. 5, Vijay responded with scores of 87, 59 and 42 in front of reinstated selector Jatin Paranjape to establish himself as the obvious replacement when Pandya was recalled from the Antipodes following his crass remarks on the talk show Koffee With Karan. It was as if, having dealt him an unfair hand all along, destiny decided to place its benevolent hand on Vijay’s head. What he makes of this unexpected, if merited, lifeline is entirely up to him.
Vijay’s numbers aren’t exactly the sort to trigger disbelieving eye-blinks. He averages 33 in nine ODIs, with a highest of 46, and has just two wickets. He doesn’t bowl as many overs as he perhaps should, either for the country or at Sunrisers Hyderabad, where he has been reunited with mentor Laxman. Vijay’s role for India, it is clear, is as a top-order batsman who Virat Kohli can turn to for a few overs in a crisis; the lesser he bowls at the international level, the greater the chances that the frontline bowlers are doing their job well.
The Russian Roulette that the India No. 4 position became in the 16 months leading up to the World Cup has panned out nicely in Vijay’s favour. No batsman was allowed the opportunity to either totally play himself in or out, thus leading to a salty situation when the incumbent at the 50-over extravaganza has never batted at that position!
The consensus is that Vijay has what it takes to succeed at that number, but these are untested waters, uncharted territory. How he shapes up as an out-and-out batsman, without the comforting safety net of the all-rounder’s tag dangling reassuringly below him, will definitely influence how deep India go in their quest for a third World Cup crown.
(Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond')
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