Tamil Nadu batting all-rounder Vijay Shankar received an unexpected call-up from the Indian selectors after Bhuvneshwar Kumar requested to be released from the Test squad for the final two Tests against Sri Lanka for his imminent wedding.
Vijay Shankar was part of the Tamil Nadu Ranji Trophy side that played Madhya Pradesh in Indore when he received the call-up and expressed “surprise” despite being on the radar of the selection committee for quite some time now. He is a regular feature in the India 'A side for the past two years and has put impressive performances in recent times.
Vijay was in the reckoning for quite some time now but a myriad of injuries in the past 18 months meant that he was sidelined every now and then. That, though, is a thing of the past as he has returned stronger and fitter, acing the yo-yo test, a mandate to be in Indian teams now, with a score of 18.5 (benchmark is 16.1).
The call up at this stage means that Vijay is definitely a prospect for the long overseas season coming up. His technique and temperament combined with an ability to go on the offensive when the chips are down make him an ideal player in India's Test line-up.
India have gone into most Test matches in the home season with five bowlers which meant that Ravichandran Ashwin had to bat at No 6 when Hardik Pandya wasn't available, with Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja slotted at No 7 and 8 respectively. However, that may be too long a tail in South Africa where two spinners are surplus to requirements.
When Pandya is in the side, Vijay will most likely become a back-up option. But the importance of strong players on the bench cannot be stressed enough on big tours where injuries are quite commonplace.
Besides, while Pandya is an established player in limited-overs cricket, all his three Tests have come in the sub-continent and it remains to be seen how well his counter-attacking approach works on greener pastures.
All this make Vijay a perfect back-up player for the dynamic all-rounder. The fact that he averages 49.14 in first-class cricket means that he can also be cover for a few batsmen in the Test squad on that South Africa tour. Since 2012-13, Vijay is one of the only six cricketers in Ranji Trophy to score 1500+ runs and taken more than 25 wickets.
His ability to bowl — 27 wickets in 32 first-class games — will be an added bonus in such scenario. He has worked with Lakshmipathy Balaji in the Tamil Nadu setup and is turning into a much better bowler than before, justified by a four-wicket haul this season against Mumbai in Ranji Trophy.
"I started off with a gentle medium-pacer, but over the last two years, I've worked hard on my bowling," Vijay had said. "I've been fortunate to have the guidance of Bala (Lakshmipathy Balaji). I'm now comfortable bowling long spells. Strength training has brought the pace up. Basically, I've tried to be accurate and keep up the pressure created by the new ball bowlers."
If a Test cap does come his way in the next two Tests of the Lankan series where quicker tracks akin to the Eden Gardens one is expected, it is likely that he would be tested for his skills with the ball too.
His breakthrough season in Ranji cricket came in 2014-15 when he made 577 runs at 57.70 with scores of 111, 82, 91 and 103. An India 'A' call-up followed, and he didn't disappoint, cracking an unbeaten half-century on debut against an Australian 'A' team boasting of some extremely good bowlers.
Vijay is very strong off his pads and has a rather sound game overall which adds to the reliability factor. He is also known for his ability to knuckle down and fight it out.
The selectors could have tilted towards a batsman if they had just the Sri Lankan series in mind but MSK Prasad and his team had an eye for the future when they penned down Vijay in the Test team. His all-round capabilities and ability to bat in the top 5 make him an irresistible option to have.
He debuted for the Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2016 after a terrific season in domestic cricket and showed glimpses of his talent in this season's Indian Premier League (IPL) when he and Warner stitched together a 133-run stand in a successful run chase against Gujarat Lions in Kanpur. Vijay has also toured South Africa with India 'A' side earlier this year and played an important role in helping his side clinch the tri-series with a 72 in the final.
The support of his father and brother have been vital in launching Vijay Shankar — the batsman. Being a former club cricketer himself, his dad was aware of the difficulties involved in travelling for practice. He fixed a net-practice facility in the terrace of his two-storied house in Chennai, complete with AstroTurf and a bowling machine.
Injuries have been his sole enemies so far. But he has shown the fight and determination to overcome setbacks in his short career. This perhaps prompted Tamil Nadu in naming him their captain for limited-overs tournaments. He led the state to triumphs in the Vijay Hazare and Deodhar Trophies last season.
After making a return following a shoulder injury in South Africa, he performed with aplomb in the series against New Zealand 'A' last month. A spate of match-winning knocks for India 'A' ensued. An unbeaten 42-ball 47 when his team was struggling at 23/3 and a breezy 61 off just 33 balls including five sixes in the last match of the series showed that Vijay was well and truly back.
The India call-up is reward for his consistent, eye-catching performances and if given a debut, he could put forward a compelling case before Virat Kohli's men embark on tougher assignments.
His attitude of never backing down fits in with the Kohli-Shastri vision and makes him an ideal candidate to board the flight to South Africa.