As Soumya Sarkar strode in to bowl the last ball of the final with India requiring nothing but a six to seal the match, Vijay Shankar, sitting in the dressing room with his helmet still strapped, shut his eyes and wished Dinesh Karthik would bury the ball somewhere in the stands. When he opened his eyes, the stadium had erupted. Shankar took a deep breath, prayed again and rushed to embrace Karthik, one of his mentors and idols. “I’m not exaggerating, that was the most unforgettable moment in my life,” he says recalling the final moments of Sunday’s T20 tri-series final in Colombo.
This emotional upheaval had followed the worst few minutes of his life. From despair to joy, and tension to self-loathing, he went through a whole melange of emotions in the space of just 15-20 minutes.
“15 minutes, really? I felt it like an hour or two?” he recalls. Two days on, back at his home, those 15-20 minutes keeps haunting Shankar, the scenes playing over again and again as if on a loop. Rarely, when he’s pragmatic, he reassures himself saying it happens to every cricketer. “I keep thinking what would have happened to me if DK hadn’t struck that six and we’d lost. I also think what would have happened if I hadn’t soaked up those many dot balls, maybe we would have won easily, and I would have been an anonymous figure. I’m thankful to him for winning the match, but at the same time I’m rueful that I missed a great opportunity to win the match myself,” he says. It’s not the momentary afterglow of hitting the winning shot in a final that transfixes him, but the impact it could have had on his budding international career. Here was an opportunity he squandered for ensuring more such international breaks, to fortify his stake as the second-choice medium-pace all-rounder.
Promoted up the order, much to his own surprise as well as Karthik’s, Shankar began on a positive note. The all-rounder had absolute faith in his batting, his primary skill. “When I went to bat, I was fairly confident of what I was supposed to do, give as much strike as possible to Manish (Pandey), and to hit boundaries if the ball was in my slot. I have gone through several such situations in domestic cricket,” he recollects.
The third ball he faced, off Nazmul Islam, he scorched through square leg, one of his pet shots in the shorter versions. It also was India’s first boundary in 30 balls. So it no doubt buoyed his confidence and got an appreciatory tap from Pandey. A tickle here, a nudge there, he was motoring along.
He couldn’t decode the feigned mastery of Mustafizur Rahman, but compensated it with another slog off Sarkar through mid-wicket. “We knew it was a matter of taking singles and twos of Fizz and attacking the other bowlers,” he reflects.
That was the plan when Rahman, an erstwhile teammate at Sunrisers Hyderabad, steamed in for the 18th over, his last, with India requiring an imminently gettable (by modern-day T20 standards) 35 off 18 balls. But Shankar managed only a leg bye off the first five balls, before Pandey perished in pursuit of the big shot. What continues to harass Shankar’s mind is not how he couldn’t rotate strike, and let the more accomplished Pandey plunder the runs, but why he couldn’t connect with his percentage shots. “I love hitting over and through cover. It’s the shot I’m famous for. But here I couldn’t connect even a single ball,” he says. He felt gutted.
The Bangladeshi seamer, he of the flappy wrists that can snap through 90 degrees at the point of release, was just doing what he’s famed for doing. Bowling cutters, varying pace, changing release points and toying with the batsman’s mind.
But Shankar, in his own words, “was getting carried away by the moment and trying to hit the ball too hard.”
He might have dissected Mustafizur’s subtle crafts, the wrong-footed release and the flapping wrists several times in the dressing room with the video analyst or at their franchise’s nets. But being out there and facing him in a crunch situation in the final was an entirely different experience. Even the much-experienced Rohit Sharma would vouch for that.
The run rate was shooting and here was a young man, batting for the first time for his country, in the dying moments of a tense match. With every ball he missed, he felt like his head was whirling and heart trembling. “I have only heard in commentary of pressure-cooked moments. My mind that evening was like a pressure cooker,” he says.
Still, he had an opportunity to absolve himself, with the penultimate ball of the match, with India five runs adrift of victory. It was so strategically clear-cut a juncture that Karthik didn’t even bother to advice him. A four, or a six, nothing less would have sufficed. And the ball, he says, was in his zone.
“A little outside the off-stump, the length was perfect and I had enough width to place the ball wherever I wanted to,” he says. But he didn’t. “Again, I tried to hit it hard, vent out all my anger at it.” He agonisingly watched two fielders colliding, one slipping but the other latching onto the rebound. On a good day, the rebound could have gone anywhere. “On another day, that would have been a six,” he laments. And he would have been a hero.
The moment he reached the hotel, he shut himself in the room. But a few minutes later, he heard a thud on his door. It was the familiar, beaming face of Karthik, a guiding light of his career. “He has taught me a lot of valuable lessons in life. I always look forward to getting advice from him. He’s that friendly to the youngsters in his team, and has helped me overcome my nerves during the early days with Tamil Nadu,” he states.
A few hours later, some of the senior teammates tried to cheer him up and advised him to move with the it-can-happen-to-all platitudes. But Shankar needed a warm arm around his shoulder. Karthik was tired and hence didn’t spend too much time with him. But he understood the pangs of the youngster and comforted him.
“He told me not to be too harsh on myself and relax. ‘I’ve been through several such instances, and if you keep brooding over it, you will have the tendency to repeat the same old mistakes. It’s the time to show your strength and take lessons from it.’ Those words lifted my morale and I could sleep peacefully.” The familiarity of the faces in the dressing room comforted him. “I’ve played with most of them, guys like Washi (Washington Sundar) and DK, shared the dressing room with Rohit (Sharma) and Shikhar (Dhawan). I’ve known Bharat Arun sir too for a while. They all made me feel at ease,” Shankar remembers. The fall-guy feeling is purely self-anointed in his case. In isolation, his 17 was valuable. His first boundary broke a lean spell for India. But for that one over, he was playing second fiddle to perfection. But try consoling him. “Illa anna (no brother), I wasted too many dot balls. If we had lost, I would have considered myself guilty,” he says. To distract himself, he has decided to play a few matches in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association League. In a few days, it would be time for the IPL where he will represent Delhi Daredevils this season; the camp begins on March 27.
But when he returns home after practice, the manic, chaotic Colombo night begins to play out in his mind on a loop. “I’m usually a very practical person, but I can’t get over this. Maybe, I need to bat exactly in the same situation and win a match for the country,” he says.
Then shall the ghosts of Colombo be exorcised. Next time, though, he knows exactly what he needs to do. “Get a single and get off strike!” he says in jest. Shankar says he, or for that matter anyone batting the first time for the country, shouldn’t go through such a harrowing experience. “Hope they connect the ball better,” he says, chuckling.
But once the immediacy of the 15-20 minutes sink in, he would realise that the Colombo crucible only made him tougher in spirit and hungrier in his quest for winning matches for the country. And several years down the line, he might consider this as the turning point of his career.