Vijay Shankar played a part in two crucial moments during Tamil Nadu’s 37-run win over Bengal in the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2016-17 final. © Wisden India

Vijay Shankar played a part in two crucial moments during Tamil Nadu’s 37-run win over Bengal in the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2016-17 final. © Wisden India

Vijay Shankar played a part in two crucial moments during Tamil Nadu’s 37-run win over Bengal in the Vijay Hazare Trophy 2016-17 final at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi on Monday (March 20). First, he took a diving catch at midwicket to send Shreevats Goswami back, and then bowled Manoj Tiwary with a short ball that kept slightly slow to reduce Bengal to 68 for 4 in their chase of 218.

Tamil Nadu’s captain for the limited-overs competitions this season, he ended the 50-over tournament with 198 runs and eight wickets. He was also Tamil Nadu’s best batsman in the inter-state Twenty20 competition, and did well in the inter-zonal Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy as well. Moreover, in the Ranji Trophy, he had 612 runs to go with seven wickets in six matches, and also hit a century for India A against Bangladesh in the visiting team’s two-day practice game before their one-off Test against India.

His performance marked significant progress since returning after almost four months out of the game due to a knee surgery. Vijay had sustained a meniscal tear and patellae grade 4 problem on his left knee in July, and had subsequently underwent surgery in Mumbai.

“To lead Tamil Nadu has been my dream. Coming back from injury, I have done reasonably well. Might not be the best so far, but I think I have done well considering I am coming back from injury,” Vijay told Wisden India. “Captaincy has helped me with my batting and cricket overall. I have started taking more responsibility since being captain. It has been a great learning for me.”

Vijay’s confidence was boosted by the words of encouragement he received from MSK Prasad, the chairman of the national selection panel, after his unbeaten 103 off 120 balls against Bangladesh. He came in at 278 for 6 and hit 14 fours and three sixes before India A declared at 461 for 8.

“That knock was very important for me. I batted at No.8 in that game, and to get time to score 100 was crucial. We had very little time when I came in. I was happy as I was able to accelerate at the right time and hit the big shots depending on the need,” he said. “Sarandeep Singh was our coach. He was on call with MSK sir and gave me the phone. MSK sir said you have been doing really well and keep doing this. It always feels good when someone tells you this.”

As a seam-bowling allrounder, albeit one whose bowling speed hovers around the 125 kph mark, Vijay could conceivably always find himself in the selectors’ eyes. With Hardik Pandya suffering a shoulder injury, Vijay could even be in line for a call-up, but he says that his time away from the game has made him mentally stronger and allowed him to stay away from distractions.

Vijay Shankar’s 2016-17
Ranji Trophy: 612 runs and seven wickets in six matches
Inter-state T20s: 131 runs in five matches
Syed Mushtaq Ali inter-zone T20: 78 runs and four wickets in four matches
Bangladesh warm-up: 103 and one wicket
Vijay Hazare Trophy: 198 runs and eight wickets in eight matches

“Definitely, sitting and watching other matches without being able to play is very difficult. We had TNPL, Duleep Trophy, the A tour of Australia (for which he was initially named). It was very difficult at that time,” he opened up. “All I told myself was train really hard so that when I am there I am ready from ball one.

“One thing I developed on my own during the surgery time was I stopped thinking about all these things because if I am playing cricket I should focus just on that and playing important knocks. I now think just about the game on hand instead of selection and other stuff. That’s my motto.”

The process started with the Ranji game against Madhya Pradesh at Tangi on the outskirts of Cuttack in late October. On his first day on the park since January 9, 2016, he bowled ten overs in three spells and conceded 39 runs without taking a wicket. Before that, he had made a run-a-ball 41 to set the game’s tempo.

Vijay says that he has gradually regained confidence even as he spends most of his time when not on field with the Thulasi Ram, the physiotherapist, to strengthen his glutes and the muscles surrounding his knees.

“I was not at my best when I first bowled in that game against Madhya Pradesh. I did not find my rhythm as I was coming back from surgery. The more matches I played, I slowly started getting my reserve strength back and getting back into the groove,” shared Vijay. “I spend most of my time with the physio here. It’s been the case for a while now as it is important to keep strengthening my surrounding muscle. Doing rehab has become a routine for me. I cannot miss it beyond two or three days.”

Vijay credits S Balaji, his personal coach, and Tamil Nadu’s support staff headed by Hrishikesh Kanitkar for allowing him the space to get into the right frame of mind.

“To play a Ranji game against Madhya Pradesh after a few tough months was quite challenging,” he revealed. “What happens then is we start thinking too early about our technical aspects, but our coach here told me to focus on my mental fitness. I focussed on ensuring that I am thinking the right things. S Balaji, my personal coach, knows my batting in and out, so he kept feeding me the right things.

“Hrishikesh, L Balaji, Ramji and the rest have given the players the space. We are all really feeling comfortable,” he added. “He (Kanitkar) has been telling me about the mental aspect. That has impacted all our cricket.”

Expanding on the team philosophy for players making a comeback from injury, Kanitkar said that everyone is given the freedom to decide for themselves.

“I have told everyone, not just Vijay, that if you need time to recover then let me know. Don’t think too much. It’s up to you. You need to fit into the match frame of mind. You need to be in match mode. We leave it to them,” Kanitkar explained. “What I have tried to do is that allowed them to take decision for themselves and allowed them to find out what they need to do to prepare for a game. I don’t want to treat them like Under-16 boys, telling them to do this and do that. I will definitely help them, but I want them to be responsible in practice sessions. Regarding his injury, Vijay is very honest. He is good at analysing his self. We leave it to him to manage his workload in practice because in the match it is totally different based on the situation.”