One August evening at Chepauk, Vijay Shankar’s mind went utterly blank. His body was trembling, as if being drowned in an unreal wave. He was about to bowl for the first time at his idol, one of India’s all-time legends, Rahul Dravid, his Vijay CC teammate, for the latter’s final game for the Tamil Nadu first-division club. He stuttered in his run-up, and can’t recollect what he bowled or where the ball pitched. “All I remember was that text-book forward defensive and the ball lying dead at his feet.”
Throwing the ball back at him, Dravid gestured him to pause and jogged up to him. “Don’t feel nervous. I like your action. The length was good, but try to bowl with a little more pace,” he told him. Those words had a ramification much beyond the obvious of allaying the 20-something youngster’s morale. For, it was just around the time, Vijay had begun bowling medium-pace, and he was not yet convinced that the switch from off-spin to medium-pace bowling would work.
The switch was just to increase his prospects of breaking into the spin-heavy side. “We had a lot of spinners like Malo (Malolan Rangarajan), (Baba) Aparajith, Aushik (Srinivas) and Rahil (Shah), so everybody advised me to start bowling medium-pace, because there weren’t too medium-pace bowling all-rounders around. So it began, and fortunately there were a lot of people around me, like my brother, father and coach H Balaji to help me make the required adjustments,” he recollects.
A competent fallback
Little did he know that it would turn out to be an inspired decision that’d pay off even more staggeringly, as he earned his maiden national call-up on the back of his seam-bowling-and-batting utility. Though India have unearthed Hardik Pandya, it’s imperative that they nurture others like Vijay, especially with the lengthy overseas spell next year, where having more than one of the same kind is precious. Though he may not be as competent a bowler as Pandya — he doesn’t have latter’s bluster either — he’s definitely a more accomplished batsman, especially in the longer versions, where he can grind out attacks with the same finesse as he can dominate them.
His craft-shift, though, meant his neighbours would wake up to the jarring of the leather ball being banged into the concrete floor of the makeshift nets on the terrace of his house in the west Chennai suburb of Madipakkam. The terrace-nets was a bit of improvisation by his father, H Shankar, whose cricketing dreams never actualised. “Initially, my brother and I used to play in the car porch, but as we grew up and began to take cricket more seriously he thought he would give us better facilities and more space. So he levelled the terrace and erected nets there,” says Vijay.
As he clambered up rungs in age-group cricket, the nets set-up became more elaborate. Soon arrived a patch of artificial turf, a bowling machine and high-voltage tube lights to give a floodlight feel. “It meant I needn’t travel all the way to Mylapore for coaching every day. I would speak to the coach (former Tamil Nadu cricketer Chakrathar Rao) over the phone and practise at home,” he remembers. Over the years, several such makeshift nets have sprung up in his neighbourhood.
In the terrace-nets, though, he mostly likes to bat, bat for long hours like his idol Dravid. He bunked classes and watched every ball of Dravid’s marathon 233 in Adelaide and went to his car porch that evening to replicate the feat. His brother Ajay, a lower-tier player himself, got him out much before he scored half those many runs. But that ambition to reach the magic 233 still burns in him. He has never managed that in any level of cricket, “because I have the tendency to play one stroke too many.” Resultantly, 111 remains the highest of his five first-class hundreds.
So when he met Dravid last year, he asked him about breaking the mould. “He just told me to focus harder and not get sucked into playing too many loose shots after I cross the century mark. He said big hundreds will come soon than later, but I shouldn’t change my natural approach and bat according to situations,” he says.
His natural approach is to attack, but within the framework of a conventional technique and with a penchant for driving through covers. He doesn’t cut or pull compulsively, though in a bid to be a more effective with the horizontal-bat strokes, he has reduced his bat-swing. “In this regard, the IPL also had a great influence on him, wherein I learned from the likes of David Warner and Shikhar Dhawan, how to approach a situation and how to shift gears,” he says. He put that into practice during his 44-ball 63 against Gujarat Lions in the last edition.
It might have been the knock that brought him into the national limelight-and the 81-ball 103 against Bangladesh A recently-but he was already Tami Nadu’s skipper in limited-overs cricket and had influenced their Vijay Hazare triumph. “He is a smart captain, who thinks on the feet and is always bouncing with ideas,” opines former coach WV Raman.
It’s the same traits that embody his bowling. While his body of numbers is meagre at best, 27 scalps in 32 matches at an average of 42, he has rapidly improved in the last year. His 4/52 against Mumbai last month testifies this. “He’s a workhorse, can hit one spot over and over again and get swing on helpful surfaces. He is trying to increase his pace, but unfortunately he got injured several times in the last couple of years,” points out Tamil Nadu’s bowling coach L Balaji. Bidding to be faster, he has reduced the length of his strides. ‘If he can keep his body away from injuries, he can increase his pace,” he adds.
When Vijay learnt about his national call-up, he admits his mind went blank, like that Chepauk evening when he was bowling at his idol. And like that evening, he might have felt convinced at the wisdom of switching from off-breaks to medium-pace bowling.