“I don’t know if I got influenced by watching him play, but I always relate myself to Rahul Sir. Since the time I started playing at an amateur level, I have always been calm and composed. At the time of practice, I have been disciplined, something that he has always perched.”
There is a reason Vijay Shankar finds solace in Rahul Dravid’s presence in
Vijay Shankar’s name may not ring a bell instantly in the minds of average Indian cricket followers, but for those who have followed domestic cricket avidly, the Tamil Nadu skipper’s dedication and commitment to improving with each and every game
Born in a cricket-loving family in a small town in southern Tamil Nadu, Vijay was always destined to be a cricketer and his father, who was a former club cricketer himself, decided to make all the logistics available to him. He had the luxury of having a net-practice facility on the terrace of their two-storey house in Chennai and to go with that, he had an astroturf and a bowling machine facility at home.
Vijay started as an off-spinner but had an obvious problem, to begin with. Despite his ability with the bat, he didn’t get the opportunity in the Tamil Nadu setup due to the presence of spinners like Ravichandran Ashwin, Malolan Rangarajan, Baba Aparajith, Aushik Srinivas, and Rahil Shah. Then came H Balaji, his personal coach, who advised him to start bowling medium pace because there weren’t too many medium-pace bowling all-rounders on the Tamil Nadu cricketing circuit. It was indeed a tough decision to make so late in his career, but he didn't hesitate and as things stand at the moment, it has become the most important decision that he has ever made in his life.
“When I was an off-spinner, despite scoring a lot of runs in the Chennai League, I couldn’t break to the Ranji side because the team had a lot of stars. I needed to do something different and that gave me an edge to get into the team,” Vijay told SportsCafe. “My personal coach Mr H Balaji also advised me to bowl medium pace because you know, I have that physique to bowl fast. I just tried and it worked massively in my favour. And it turned out to be the biggest decision that I have ever taken in my life.”
Making his Ranji Trophy debut in 2012-13, Vijay showed glimpses of his ability and got a 63 not out on his debut, but played only two more games that season, which affected his mentality. But like every successful narrative, a crest came soon enough, precisely after two years. He managed to score 577 runs in seven matches in the 2014-15 Ranji Trophy, scoring two hundred and three fifties and also picked up eight wickets. Vijay was living a dream then and was named as the Tamil Nadu Cricketer of the Year 2014-15 and he feels that was a landmark year in his cricketing journey.
“That was actually the most important season for me and not just because of the runs I scored. I suffered a finger fracture after a couple of matches and was out of the team because of that. But when I made a comeback to the side in the match against Uttar Pradesh, I remember I got just 28, but then my coach WV Raman told me to do something different to find a permanent place in the side.
“The game against Mumbai turned my career around. The game could have gone either way. I got 95 in that game on a turner and the good thing was that I did well in the knock-outs. When you are pushed to a corner, you need some good performance to stay in the contention. And after that season I got into the India A side,” Vijay said in almost a single breath.
While that was the initiation of something big for the Chennai boy, Vijay made a statement by scoring runs in each of those developmental series. However, the most important innings came in the fourth innings of the first unofficial Test against South Africa A in Wayanad and his unbeaten 74 in a partnership with Karun Nair, who ended with 114 not out, salvaged the game for India.
And also, being a part of India A set up meant sitting and breathing with Rahul Dravid and it was a dream-come-true moment for a youngster like him, someone who has been idolising the master craftsman since the day the Indian legend smashed and crushed the Australian bowlers in Adelaide. He instantly became the epitome of excellence for Vijay and that innings became a benchmark for him.
“My favourite Dravid moment was the first time I had the opportunity to talk to him about my cricket. He came to Chennai to play the final of the Chennai First Division League. That was a very exciting thing for me. In A tours, when I do well, he would always come up and pat on my back.
“In the tri-series final in South Africa last year, I scored a 70 (72 to be precise) and had a good partnership with Shreyas (Iyer) to lead India to win. I batted in the top order cause Pandey had a niggle. Dravid sir came to me and said well done. See, these small things sometimes matter a lot. He is an inspiration to me.”
“Do you call him when you feel down or after selection,” I asked almost immediately.
“No. Not really. I generally don’t want to disturb him. Whenever I am with him during the India A matches and all, I ask for advice regarding my batting and matches and how that can be better. When I am not with the India A team or with him, I don’t disturb him much actually.”
Ask anyone who has followed Tamil Nadu cricket for while and they will attest to Vijay’s commitment and strive to win. He is a workhorse who has an amazing zeal. Every time he steps onto the field, he never disappoints – both with the bat and the ball.
"When I used to play with Vijay's brother during my college days, I first saw Vijay play. We used to play matches for three hours, but he would come and practice on his fielding with his coach for three hours. He never gets tired. Over the decade of knowing him and covering him as a journalist, I can attest that he always wants to improve himself and tries to lead by example. Even if he is not performing with the bat or ball, he will give his 100% on the field to guide his team home," Bagawati Prasad, ToI's senior representative in Chennai, told me.
"While his intent to push himself to the extreme is fine, he needs to develop his bowling a bit. He needs to add pace to his arsenal to be considered as a proper all-rounder. He can make it into any team with the power of his batting display. But he has that ability to bowl and I want him to be a more consistent bowler. However, one thing that attracts attention is his leadership capability. He always sets the bar and everyone follows it. He never wants to sit idle and always wants to do something on the field."
The most difficult part of any professional sportsperson’s lives is to tackle the innumerable injuries that they face in their career. More so, if the injuries happen at a time when you are in the running for a national call-up, it is a double whammy. A successful A tour of Australia in 2016 would have guaranteed him a maiden India call-up, but he was ruled out of the tour with a meniscus tear and a grade-four patella injury to his knee and had to undergo a surgery instantly, which made way for Hardik Pandya’s inclusion in the A-side. While Pandya used the opportunity to get a maiden ODI call-up in the home series against New Zealand, Vijay had no other way than shedding a tear or two for not being able to travel Down Under with the team.
“Not being able to part of that Australia tour was a big letdown for me. I was expecting a lot from that tour. I still remember before we were to leave for Australia, we had a camp in Bangalore. But my injury resurfaced and I was advised to go for a surgery. It was a very tough decision for me to pull out of the tour.
“But when I spoke to my parents, Rahul Sir and my coach, everyone advised me to get the surgery done first and then make a comeback to the side. I was literally watching all the matches and couldn’t play. That few months were the most difficult time for me. But I was able to get mentally stronger during that time. In hindsight, I can say that was the most positive thing for me.”
He has never looked back since then. After getting back to full fitness, Vijay made an instant impact for Tamil Nadu and managed to score 312 runs from seven innings at an average of 52 and selectors took notice. He was picked up for the next India A squad that locked horns with Bangladesh in the warm-up match, and he caught the eye of the selectors with an unbeaten 103 off 81 balls.
“But how has he managed to overcome the challenges of a career-threatening surgery?”
“You need someone to motivate you all the time. I remember I was training with Mr Rajini, who was India A trainer at that time. I was training with him at the NCA for two months and he was helping me out with everything. Obviously, on weekends, I used to go home to meet my parents. But truth be told, you would always get negative thoughts and at some point, you would doubt yourself as well. But thanks to the support system around me that I had, I actually came back stronger and became mentally tougher as well.”
All the hard-work culminated with his Test call-up as a replacement for Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the home Test series against Sri Lanka, which he described as a great learning curve. Although he didn’t get a match as India opted for Pandya over him, Vijay was definitely not worried by that. All he did was savour the experience.
“Being a part of the Sri Lanka Test series was actually a very good experience. Got to know how the players prepare themselves for Test matches and what they actually do. It was a very normal atmosphere actually. I didn’t feel out of place at all. I was just myself in the dressing room,” Vijay said with a tone of satisfaction.
“I remember the match in Delhi against Sri Lanka when Vijay (Murali Vijay) and Virat got a big partnership. The most important thing about that partnership was that they didn’t play a single rash shot and still comfortably scored 4-5 runs in each over, which is actually a very difficult thing in days cricket. You need a high level of skill to be like that. As a batsman, I always have the urge to hit every ball, but watching that partnership was a lesson for me. They are very much consistent and that’s why they are special.”
However, if the present team selection for Nidahas Trophy tri-nation series was anything to go by, Vijay is the only pace-bowling all-rounder in the team and chances of making his international debut this time are high. He would finally don that blue jersey which had evaded him for long and who knows, it would be the first stepping stone to something bigger and grander. But Vijay, being Vijay, doesn’t think much of it now.
“The good thing that I have is I don’t generally think so much about getting chances and all that. I always want to improve my game and learning. That is a constant thing in cricket. Other things like performances will change. I will watch each and every game with intensity so that I would learn. Pressure would always be there. So there is no reason thinking much about that.”
Hard-work and perseverance seldom go unrewarded, but there are far too many cricketers in India that have fallen into oblivion while trying to overcome the obstacles and the fear of failure. But Vijay Shankar has already taken that complexity away from him and has set the stage for much bigger and grander things to come. It is just a matter of time now.
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