For a lot of the cricketing folks in India (fans and players alike), the summer of 2019 was defined by the ICC Cricket World Cup – a World Cup the Men In Blue seemed destined to lift but one that they eventually fell short at. Since that evening in Manchester, the lasting image has been that of MS Dhoni, teary-eyed, trudging back to the pavilion.
A few weeks before that narrative though, another sub-plot had dominated the Indian cricket landscape. As always, there were inhumane hours of discussion around the team India had selected.
Yet, this time out, there was immense outrage around the inclusion of Vijay Shankar – an all-rounder who had earned his badges in the India A circuit but a cricketer many felt shouldn’t have been on the plane to the United Kingdom.
Vijay Shankar’s inclusion, by the way, also came at Ambati Rayudu’s expense. At that juncture, it didn’t seem a lot, considering the latter wasn’t really setting the world alight. However, when MSK Prasad (the Chairman of selectors then) threw around the three-dimensional tag at Vijay Shankar, people took notice. Rayudu also found it wise to post a cryptic 3D tweet thereafter. And, the rest as they say, is history.
Among all this debris, though, neither the chairman of selectors nor Rayudu bore as much brunt of the criticism. To an extent, they had played their parts and as it often happens in life, the two people who fought (Prasad versus Rayudu/thousands of Indian supporters) let things go.
The person who was selected in Rayudu’s stead, however, was the scourge of innumerable memes and social media posts. Vijay Shankar had, until that point, done everything to earn an India call-up.
Most of India felt that wasn’t the case, meaning that whenever Vijay Shankar played for India, he was not judged on his actual performance. Instead, he was pitted against a hypothetical performance that someone else would’ve put up had they been in the side.
“Before the World Cup, I played almost 4-5 years of India A. I was also pretty consistent. Almost every tour, I had done well. I felt an India call-up was just around the corner. I got nothing on a plate. I earned everything. Sometimes, you miss out, according to people’s perceptions and you can't do much about it,” Vijay Shankar told Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview.
Vijay Shankar probably has a point too. In the nine List A innings Vijay Shankar played before his India debut, he crossed 40 on five occasions, which included a hundred in domestic cricket and three excellent knocks against New Zealand A.
In the 8 ODI innings he has played, he’s not pulled up trees and he is the first to admit it too. But he has also not been as woeful and has not looked as clueless as a chunk of the population have made it out to be.
For those driven by numbers, he averages a tick over 31 in ODI cricket and strikes at around 90. In the shortest format, the average dips to 25.25 with the strike rate zinging up to 138.35.
More importantly, Vijay Shankar has never looked a duck out of water during these knocks. On the contrary, he has seemed someone capable of diving deep into the ocean of international cricket and holding his own.
“I wouldn’t say I have done badly for India also. It is not like when I have walked in I have looked clueless. I have batted reasonably well. Unfortunately, I was also run-out a couple of times I was batting at my very best. I don’t have a single one-digit score in ODIs. My first innings I walked in when we were 18/4. And, a game in Nagpur where I was batting really well. Both ended with a run-out. If I had scored 70-80 or even a hundred in that game, it could have made a difference in my career,” he elaborated.
For some reason, though, those glimpses of brilliance haven’t coincided with a run of games for the national team. At the 2019 World Cup, Vijay Shankar picked up an untimely injury after the game against the West Indies – an injury that also halted what had seemed a promising campaign.
He has not played for India since – something that leaves a lot to be desired, especially considering how adept he seemed and the faith India had shown in fast-tracking him into the side in the first place.
Over the past couple of years, plenty have been quick to label Vijay Shankar an average cricketer and one not capable of playing for India. The flip side to that argument, however, is that he has never really been given enough consistent chances to show what he is made of.
Remember, Vijay Shankar was, at that moment, participating in his first major tournament and was perhaps too eager to perform and make his mark – something he seems to have learnt from recently.
“I was too keen to do well on my India debut. I have learnt to be calmer now. I don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on myself. Things should happen on its own based on the way I play,” Vijay Shankar said.
Those setbacks eventually took their toll. Once the 2021 edition of the IPL culminated, Vijay Shankar found himself at a crossroad in his career. He wasn’t playing regularly for the Sunrisers Hyderabad, he was contemplating switching states and felt that he was marooned in an island where no support was possible.
Fortunately for him, he had the right people around him. Not only did they give Vijay Shankar the kind of support he required, they also helped him realize the importance of accepting things as they are – something he feels has catapulted his game to another level.
“When I came back from UAE, I sat with my family and my personal coach S Balaji. At that time, it was important to open up. It was important for me to open up, talk to my parents, my wife and my coach. My family and coach have always been with me and I know they will be there for me forever. The best thing I have learnt in the past year is to accept things. I should accept a few things because only by accepting will I be able to let go of certain things,” Vijay Shankar opened up.
With that, the decision to stick with Tamil Nadu – a side that he dreamt of representing as a child, became a no-brainer. From that perspective alone, a Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy triumph seems the ideal redemption.
From a personal standpoint, it holds even more significance, considering the kind of responsibility Vijay Shankar took up and the kind of responsibility the Tamil Nadu team management felt he was capable of handling.
“My coach and assistant coach [Venkatramana and R Prasanna] keep telling me that I am batting at my best. They weren’t telling me because I was the captain but because I was actually batting very well. They told me that when I am inside, things look really settled for us. So they wanted me to take responsibility and I am someone who loves to take responsibility,” he quipped.
The game against Punjab, which was a virtual knock-out match for Tamil Nadu, saw the latter reap the rewards for the seeds of faith they had sown in Vijay Shankar. Not only did the skipper produce a knock that he terms as “one of his best in recent times”, he powered the Southern outfit to the knock-out stages.
Tamil Nadu won the entire thing a few days later, with Vijay Shankar, armed with increased belief and vigour, looking as much a part as he did when he made his international debut.
To say that Vijay Shankar has never committed mistakes in his cricketing career wouldn’t be correct because, well, he is human and prone to the odd error. In fact, he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t clinical enough in converting the 40-50s into more substantial knocks.
Vijay Shankar has looked close to his best lately
The Vijay Shankar of 2019 might’ve even brooded over it for a few months and then piled more pressure on himself. The 2021 edition of Vijay Shankar, though, has begun accepting that things back then didn’t transpire because it wasn’t meant to.
At first, it might seem a very philosophical approach. But when viewing his batting performances in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, it becomes very hard to argue otherwise.
“Once I started accepting, my batting completely changed. I told myself to go back to how I began First Class cricket. I felt accepting that I needed to go back to those things helped me forget a few things. For that, I definitely need to give credit to my coach and my family. Things changed a bit after it. And I 100% feel that I’m in the best space I have been in recent times,” Vijay Shankar added.
Thus, it seems that Vijay Shankar has turned a corner, both in terms of the numbers he is producing and the manner in which he is now approaching games of cricket.
Does that mean an Indian call-up will again be at his doorstep? Not quite. But it is something he is totally aware of and something that he has, at the cost of sounding cliched, accepted.
So much so that Vijay Shankar, whose aim has always been to don the Indian whites, is refraining from thinking about it too much. The thoughts of wanting to switch states to get better exposure have also disappeared, meaning that he is living in the moment a lot more. And, of course, utilizing those moments much better.
Back in 2019, there was a bit of franticness attached to how Vijay Shankar was brought on board and how he was bombarded with probably too many roles. He had to be the middle order glue. He also had to be a tidy bowler. And of course, he had to be the “three-dimensional” cricketer India craved.
To an extent, Vijay Shankar is perhaps a touch guilty as well because his style of play endears so many people to him almost instantly. Even in the hustle and bustle of slam-bang T20 cricket, where you feel that Ferraris would be more in vogue, he remains a Rolls Royce capable of deciding contests.
Now, he has put all of that behind him. He is no longer the answer to the question that has worried India. He is not that cricketer who denied India a genuine batter in Rayudu. And, he is most certainly not the all-rounder plenty thought didn’t have a future with the Men In Blue.
Again, there is no guarantee that Vijay Shankar can hit the unparalleled heights he is capable of. He may still have an injury-ridden season that rids him of the momentum he has generated lately. Yet, you can’t help but feel that he is as well-equipped as he has ever been to show what he is truly capable of.
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Vijay Shankar may be down in the Indian pecking order at present. But he most definitely isn’t out. The only difference this time is that people might take notice, irrespective of whether a 3D tag is thrown around or not.