Vijay Shankar vividly remembers that one afternoon in Bengaluru a few months ago.
He was at the National Cricket Academy, undergoing a rehabilitation programme, when VVS Laxman walked up to him for a long heart-to-heart chat.
Being the head of the NCA, it was Laxman’s duty to monitor the fitness levels of each and every cricketer at the academy. Having known Vijay for quite a while, Laxman said: “You are so good, but there’s something missing. You need to sit back and find out what you are missing out on.”
The Tamil Nadu all-rounder was left searching for an answer back then. Over the next few days, Vijay came to realise Laxman had been spot on. Something, indeed, was missing in his approach. “My strength has always been to push it forward even when things are tough. But I realised that I was somehow missing that hunger and was just going with the flow,” Vijay tells Sportstar.
Those were challenging times for him. After undergoing a shoulder injury soon after the Indian Premier League got over, Vijay had to be out of action for about seven months, and he would find it difficult to cope with things happening around him.
“After surgery, it was tough for me to watch people play cricket. It was even difficult to just follow the scores. For a cricketer, that’s the most difficult part because you keep a tab on all the scores - including the first division league,” Vijay recollects.
While most of his teammates and close friends were busy featuring in different tournaments, Vijay’s movement was limited inside the house. He would often feel low, lonely and would have emotional outbursts, but with the support of his family, he could eventually overcome the odds.
“With the support of my family, I could overcome that phase. I have a one-year-old baby now... Everything put together, I could do it,” he says.
“I believe at times, the long breaks bring out the best in you. It makes you stronger… Family has always been around me and they have been my only support system. You need to fight a lot of things here, and even a few months ago, there were lots of questions on whether I would be playing Ranji Trophy and all that. So for me to come back and be where I am now, I feel happy and proud for the way I could utilise the rehab time,” Vijay says, adding: “My trainer and physio at the National Cricket Academy had a major impact. Without their efforts, I would not have been ready so early.”
It has taken seven months for Vijay to return to action and even before the Ranji Trophy started, he wasn’t sure how the season would pan out. Before the game against Mumbai, Vijay scored 26 and 2 against Andhra, and followed it up with a 52 against Delhi. But a big score was still far away.
Vijay, who would turn 32 on January 26 this year, kept believing in himself, focused on the process and stood up when it mattered the most.
At the Brabourne Stadium on Friday, Vijay scored his first century of the season and his 103, along with Pradosh Ranjan Paul’s 169 propelled Tamil Nadu to 548 in the second innings and set a 212-run target for Mumbai.
The match eventually ended in a draw, but for Vijay, it was a special moment to score his sixth first-class hundred. “To get a hundred here in Mumbai and in a situation where we needed to save the game, was really a good thing. I got a hundred after a very long time. I have been getting 50s, but was missing out on a century,” he says.
“First five hundreds I got pretty early in my early days in first-class cricket, but after that, I was just getting just 50s. I don’t know why. Maybe, after this hundred, I will get a lot more.”
Vijay says he is happy with the way he batted on the final day of the game, and even in the first innings where Tamil Nadu folded for 144. “In the first innings, I got out but those 20 odd runs that I scored, I enjoyed that. I was timing it well, so I just felt that I could bat like the old times.”
There was a heart-stopping moment in the second innings. Vijay, when batting on 61, was dropped by Mohit Avasthi at third man off a Siddharth Raut delivery. Vijay admits ‘it was a poor shot’ at that juncture of the game.
“It was poor awareness from my side. When you are playing in such situations, you need to put your team first. The bounce was pretty variable. I knew that, but even then, to play such a shot and give a chance at that situation was not right,” he says.
“Being a senior player, who has played enough, I should not have done that. I realised I had to take up the responsibility and it was a matter of staying there for another five-ten overs and things would not have gone to the mandatory overs. We would have called it off much earlier. It’s basic cricketing thinking.”
So far in the tournament, Tamil Nadu has failed to register an outright win, and the next match against Maharashtra, beginning in Pune on January 10, is crucial. “We have played really well so far and all games have gone till the mandatory overs. So, we played some really good cricket, we did things correctly, but it’s just that, we have not been able to get that final thing. Maybe, in the next three games, we can do it and you never know, we might qualify and do well as a team…” Vijay says.
As Vijay speaks about handling the difficult times, he makes it clear that handling social media is not easy.
Having been trolled, often unfairly, on social media, Vijay understands it is a challenge to take things in one’s stride and move on.
He remembers those days in 2019 when Ambati Rayudu’s ‘3D’ tweet had gone viral post his snub from India’s squad for the World Cup. In his tweet, Rayudu had lashed out at former chief selector MSK Prasad over his comments on all-rounder Vijay Shankar, who was picked ahead of him in the World Cup squad.
Back then, Rayudu was India’s first-choice batter at No. 4, but in a surprising decision, the selectors picked Vijay in the squad because Prasad, the chairman of the committee, felt that the Tamil Nadu all-rounder was a ‘3D’ player.
Vijay started with an unbeaten 15 against Pakistan and also picked up a wicket in his first ball. But it went downhill since, as he contributed 29 and 14 against Afghanistan and West Indies respectively, before a toe injury ruled him out of the tournament.
He hasn’t been able to return to the Indian team since.
But every time he looks back at those times, the ‘3D’ jibe and constant trolling on social media continue to haunt him. “It was very difficult initially. It is very easy to say that you should just ignore those noises, but it is not possible. With social media around, you tend to read everything, it goes into your mind. Those days, I must say, made me stronger,” he says.
“I have seen things happening to MS Dhoni, Virat Kohli and all the top players… people don’t even spare them. People appreciate them when things are going fine, but come hard at them in tough times. People who go through it know how difficult it is. I started thinking about what best I could do and not think about other stuff,” he says.
While Vijay had no control over the memes, he backed himself constantly and believed in his work ethics. He continues to follow the same. “Every time I go to a practice session, I make sure that I am 100 per cent fit. I am not getting to bowl much now, but even then, if you see me at the practice, you can find that I keep working on my bowling as well because you never know when there will be a need,” he says.
“For all you know I might just have to bowl and get a five-for against Maharashtra to guide the team to victory, so I want to be ready to bowl longer spells. My work ethic brought me so far, and I will keep working on that. End results don’t matter.”
Unlike many of his friends, Vijay does not believe in new year resolutions. He just wants to focus and contribute to the team’s success. The century against Mumbai has boosted his confidence and he hopes that this leads to many more milestones.
That’s how Vijay wants 2023 to be - memorable and full of happy moments!