18 March, 2018: India need 12 runs in the last over to win the Nidahas Twenty20 tri-nation series final against Bangladesh in Colombo. The crowd is backing India, but Vijay Shankar is struggling to put bat to ball before getting out in the fifth ball. Dinesh Karthik's last-ball six gives India the title, but the Tamil Nadu all-rounder gets trolled on social media for his 19-ball 17 that almost cost India the game. He would later go on to say that reading those messages on the internet hurt him mentally.
5 March, 2019: Australia have 11 runs to make in the final over to win the second One-Day International against India in Nagpur and level the series. Virat Kohli throws the ball to Vijay because he is exhausted of options. On the eve of his one-year anniversary of his international debut, Shankar takes just three balls to pick up the last two Australian wickets and give India an eight-run win. Social media is full of praise for the right-arm medium pacer.
“To be honest the Nidahas Trophy has taught me too many things,” Vijay said at the press conference after his match-winning contribution against Australia. “Actually, I learnt how to stay neutral after that. Be it high or low, it doesn’t matter. I need to stay calm and neutral all the time.”
This newfound perspective towards life has played a massive role in Vijay’s image undergoing a transformation within a year. So much so that he has jumped the queue to be considered as a serious contender for the second allrounder spot for the upcoming World Cup in England.
Fate works in unique ways. He may not have been a part of the current setup had Hardik Pandya not been suspended by the board for his inappropriate comments on a television chat show before the One-Day International series in Australia in January this year. But then again Vijay’s fans could argue that he should have been on that India A tour of Australia in 2016 instead of Pandya had he not got a meniscal tear and a patellae Grade 4 problem on his left knee that led to surgery and kept him out of action for more than three months. Pandya flourished under Rahul Dravid on that tour and made his India debut soon after that.
As things stand, Vijay and Pandya are no more fighting for the same spot. They are no more competitors. There could come a situation where both of them are a part of the playing XI in order to lend appropriate depth to both the batting and bowling departments.
Before his final over heroics with the ball, Vijay had impressed everyone with his composed knock of 46 off 41 balls and a game-changing partnership of 81 with Virat Kohli after India had become 75 for 3 in 17 overs. While his five fours and a six were clean, the most impressive part of his innings was the way he rotated the strike. Promoted to No 5, he played four consecutive dot balls just once. He was so good that Sanjay Manjrekar tweeted that it could be time to forget Vijay the all-rounder and focus purely on his batting.
It’s not the first time that he has made a mark with the bat. India were tottering at 18 for 4 in the fifth game against New Zealand in Wellington few weeks back when he walked out to bat for the first time in an ODI. He soaked in the pressure, played calculated shots and hardly showed any nerves while making 45 off 64 balls and associating with Ambati Rayudu for a 98-run stand.
India’s middle-order has been an issue for a while now, and Vijay suddenly has opened up a fresh option. This leads to the question of who should he be replacing? It won’t be a bad option to make him bat at No 4 instead of Rayudu. That will give the team management an option to bring in an extra allrounder (Pandya or Ravindra Jadeja depending on the conditions), and play around a bit more with the team composition.
The basic difference between the batting styles of Vijay and Pandya bat is in the way they both go about their innings. While the Tamil Nadu all-rounder is more of a constructor who can play the big shots, Pandya is an attacker, and both of them have their virtues.
It may be unfair on Rayudu, who has been identified by the team management as the No 4 batsman, but there are still three more ODIs to see if the line-up can do without him.
Irrespective of whether that happens or not, Vijay has to be on that flight to England. What he did with the ball in the final over was an extension of his newfound confidence. And, more he gets the assurance that he is an important member of the squad, the more will his involvement increase on the field. This is how Sourav Ganguly and Mahendra Singh Dhoni built long-run cricketers when they were the captains.
"To be honest, I was literally waiting for the opportunity," Vijay told Star Sports after the match. "After the 43rd over I was telling myself I'm going to bowl the last over and I am going to defend it. I was just clear about what I had to do and those things helped me when I came on to bowl. I didn't have any pressure to be honest. I knew to defend 10 runs is going to be a big challenge but if I got those two wickets it would be great.”
These are words of a cricketer who has found his groove in the dressing room. "And then (Jasprit) Bumrah came and told me that it is reversing a bit, just trust yourself to bowl the hard lengths. I think when a top bowler like him, when he comes and tells me that the hard lengths are very difficult to hit on this wicket (you go with that plan),” he added. “And the bounce was also not that great on this wicket, it was a little low than the normal wicket. To hit the right length was a challenge for me at that situation under pressure but the good thing is I was clear mentally. I didn't have any pressure, to be honest. I knew to defend 10 runs is going to be a big challenge but if I got those two wickets it would be great.”
The Tamil Nadu all-rounder said that the upcoming games are what he is focussing on rather than a World Cup berth. “I’ve said previously also that I never think about the selection or World Cup thing because it’s a long way off from now. Every game is very important. I just look to give my best and win a game for the team.”
This is all that the team management expects from him.