World Cup: The making of Vijay Shankar

Happy to return to the slow-paced life of south Chennai, Vijay Shankar is catching up with family and friends before packing his bags for England.

Vijay Shankar wasn’t always a batsman who could dominate the bowlers, as he has shown in glimpses during his short international career.   -  R. V. Moorthy

Away from the chaos that’s part of every Indian metropolis resides Vijay Shankar, India’s World Cup-bound all-rounder, in a two-storey independent house in the suburban Madipakkam, Chennai. He is back home after a busy three months touring the country with the national team and the thrill-a-minute ride that is the Indian Premier League. Vijay is happy to return to the slow-paced life of south Chennai, catching up with family and friends before packing his bags for England.

“I am not someone who likes going out much. When I am home, my friends come over to my place,” said Vijay. In fact, one childhood friend refers to Vijay’s house as their “hangout.”

Right across the road from his home is MONO Juice Corner that Vijay and his friends frequent. Krishnan, who owns the place, is busy readying orders when I ask him about the cricketer. The name is met with a welcoming smile. “Theriyum (I know him).”

N. S. Chaturved has known Vijay Shankar since they were teens, and has seen his progress from up close.

 

“Even after the T20 match (in the IPL) he came here and met me. He really likes it here and he drinks nearly every fruit juice available,” Krishnan said after serving a customer, adding, “Thangamana payyan avaru (He has a heart of gold). I am not telling this to boast.”

Krishnan needn’t have to justify his remark. His family, friends, coaches and school principal all share the same opinion.

“He is not flashy barring the hairstyle he is sporting right now. He doesn’t have any vices. It’s only cricket, cricket, cricket,” said S. Balaji, his personal coach since 2009.

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Heart of gold

Vijay’s vice-principal at his first school, Modern Senior Secondary, K. Mohana said, “Everyone in his batch liked him because he has a good rapport with all his friends and he is very friendly. He always has a smiling face.” She says Vijay’s progress is a proud moment for the school, which is situated in narrow residential street in Chennai’s Nanganallur area.

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She recollects the Monday morning prayer assemblies in the middle of the school where Vijay would invariably be present with his awards and trophies after his exploits over the weekend. “But he was never a proud boy. He never had a chip on his shoulder,” said Mohana, who is now Modern’s principal.

At the school, Vijay was afforded the luxury of pursuing cricket without facing much pressure on the academic side. “I was an average student who was not very bad. I needed to pass and get decent marks. Avalo dhan (that’s it),” he chuckles.

Vijay Shankar's first school, Modern Senior Secondary.   -  Santadeep Dey

 

It was around Class X that Vijay’s father, Shankar, asked him if he wanted to take cricket seriously. He then switched from the Central Board of Secondary Education syllabus to a state board school, King’s Matriculation School, for the next academic year “because I thought it would be easy for me.”

But regular cricket engagements meant maintaining the required attendance became a problem. Vijay decided to drop out and gave his Class XII examinations via correspondence. “Somehow I needed to write my exams and clear them. It was only me who was afraid of exams, not them (family),” he quipped.

Shankar, a cricket-driven man, felt that their home in Nanganallur at that time wouldn’t support the needs of Vijay and elder brother Ajay’s cricketing aspirations. “When I looked at the place (in Madipakkam), I thought it would be perfect for my sons’ cricket purposes,” he said.

At first, the boys used the passage in the car parking area of their home to knock the ball around, but Shankar sensed this wouldn’t be sufficient.

“We had a front house and we had two houses in the rear. So we decided to join them together to build a huge terrace where we put up the nets with the lights. We also provided a small hall where he could set up a space to work out,” said Shankar.

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The hard yards

Vijay, his brother, his friend N. S. Chaturved and a couple of his friends would hit the nets every day. “Right from school to college, we used to practise together on his terrace,” said Chaturved, who plays Twenty20 cricket for Tamil Nadu. “We used to start at 6.30 a.m. and finish around 10.30 a.m. before we stepped out for breakfast.”

Then they would return to Vijay’s home and sit around talking or watching TV. “We weren’t big fans of movies as such. We never really watched cricket together, but we had many in-depth conversations about the game. We used to watch comedy channels like Adithya TV and pass our time before training in the evening,” said Chaturved.

“My friends are like my family,” said Vijay, who feels he is very fortunate to have a small, tight-knit circle of friends who he could turn to during both good and bad times. “When they are there, it’s a very good feeling. They are very close to my family. Even when I am not home, they go over to my place and meet my parents and my brother.” Today Vijay is living his father’s dream. Shankar always wanted one of his sons to go on and play the sport at a higher level, although his mother wasn’t on board with the idea initially before Vijay showed promise and dedication.

Modern Senior Secondary principal K. Mohana, who was vice-principal when Vijay studied there, recollects the Monday morning prayer assemblies in the middle of the school where he would invariably be present with his awards and trophies after his exploits over the weekend.   -  Santadeep Dey

 

“My dad is someone who wakes up before me and makes sure I get ready for practice in the early days. My mom also makes sure I get everything I need to drink before I go for practice,” said Vijay.

At home, Ajay remains Vijay’s biggest fan in a family of cricket fanatics. “My brother is a crazy supporter of me. He is my first fan, who posts anything which comes about me. I can say I am very fortunate to have a family like this: my parents, brother, sister-in-law, my grandmother and other family members are all very crazy about the sport,” he said.

According to Chaturved, who has known him since the age of 13, Vijay wasn’t always a batsman who could dominate the bowlers, as he has shown in glimpses during his short international cricketer. “He used to play so many deliveries, but he wouldn’t accumulate many runs.”

But when Vijay was 19, he had a massive sprout in height and grew physically, said Chaturved, who remembers watching an innings from the non-striker’s end in a selection match where his friend smashed more than 100 runs at a brisk rate that left him wondering where that came from.

Prior to that knock, Vijay had worked on his fitness with an athlete during a two-month period on the insistence of his father. “He used to take me to Jain College and rip me apart in training. Suddenly my speed got better. I didn’t know I could run that fast. The transformation from the two-month training was massive,” he said.

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Support cast

Since then, Vijay has considered fitness as a crucial aspect in excelling and has been training with his personal fitness coach Rajamani.

Vijay credits Balaji, his personal coach, for refining his batting technique, together investing many hours in the nets set up on his terrace.

Balaji, who coached Tamil Nadu regulars Baba Indrajith and Aparajith in the early part of their careers, gives a little insight into how they train. “We have been using a middling bat, which is half the width of a normal cricket bat. We use three-four bats which aren’t your conventional bats, to help develop your muscle memory while striking the balls,” he said.

Surprisingly, now a medium pacer, Vijay switched from off-spin after the age of 22. Balaji felt that he could use his height and strength to add pace bowling to his arsenal and that would allow him an opportunity to break into Tamil Nadu’s Ranji Trophy team, instead of trying just as a pure batsman.

There was a point in time during his Ranji days where Vijay feared he would lose his spot in the side. He had made 190 runs in six innings during the 2014-15 season before the quarterfinal match against Andhra Pradesh. Coach W. V. Raman pulled him aside for a quick chat in the lead-up to the game. “I wanted to ask him where is it that he saw himself going. Did he want to just settle at being a regular for us or aiming for much more? Because the boy has the talent,” recalls Raman.

The MONO Juice Corner that Vijay and his friends frequent.   -  Santadeep Dey

 

Vijay values Raman’s backing in getting over his insecurities. “He backed me at the right time and I delivered on it. He asked me to not fear losing my wicket,” he said. Vijay scored 111 and 82 in the win over Andhra Pradesh after walking in, in difficult circumstances during both knocks. He followed that up with 91 in the semifinal and 103 in a losing cause in the final against Karnataka to finish as Tamil Nadu’s third highest run-scorer that season.

The 28-year-old has had many ups and downs in his career so far. His good momentum in domestic cricket and India A series were halted by what Vijay considers “freakish injuries.”

But none were as painful as the time when he had to undergo a knee surgery in 2016, which ruled him out of the India A tour to Australia. “Recuperating at the NCA (National Cricket Academy) was a painful time. Every time I switched channels, there were some matches or the other. Fortunately, I had Rajinikanth as my coach there. He was always there to take care of me and getting rid of my negative feelings,” he said.

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Trial by fire

Vijay’s introduction to international cricket was a trial by fire. Followers of the game would remember how he struggled to put bat on ball in the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh. Luckily for Team India, Dinesh Karthik’s late cameo saved the day.

But Vijay wasn’t too lucky. He was the subject of vitriol and jokes on social media. And it wasn’t just limited to the virtual world. “People who would walk by the house and ask for pictures and would ask about the slow innings he played,” said Chaturved.

“No one would miss those many balls in a row,” Vijay said recollecting his innings. “I was the one who told Manish Pandey that I would hit the bowler over covers.” He endured sleepless nights in the days that followed. “I did see some of the things written. But I quickly realised that I had to deal with these things as a cricketer in India. I would also say that it was a good experience that it happened early on in my career.”

“Even after the T20 match (in the IPL) he came here and met me. He really likes it here and he drinks nearly every fruit juice available,” said Krishnan of MONO Juice Corner that Vijay and his friends frequent.   -  Santadeep Dey

 

Vijay immediately put the disappointment behind him by starting to work with Balaji. He scored 212 runs with the bat for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL that season with a good strike rate before impressing on the A tour to New Zealand in which he finished as the top-scorer. His impressive run lead to the surprise call-up to the Indian side for the shorter formats of the tours to Australia and New Zealand. This time he made sure he grabbed his opportunities, which have since led to his selection for the World Cup.

While Balaji puts his ward through the final paces before the World Cup, he feels there is more to come from Vijay. “You have only seen glimpses of what he is capable of during the New Zealand tour and Australia ODI series,” he said.

For Vijay, who enjoys going on long drives, the journey has only begun.