Do not mention March 18, 2018 to Indian allrounder Vijay Shankar. On that humid, muggy evening in heaving Khettarama, in Colombo, India needed 35 runs from the last 18 balls when Bangladesh left-arm quick Mustafizur Rahman came on to deliver his final over. It turned out to be possibly the worst over of Vijay's career: he played out four consecutive dots, scampered to the other end somehow off a bye, and then saw his partner get out as the pressure mounted on India. Dinesh Karthik saved Vijay the embarrassment by sealing the match with a six off the final delivery.
Vijay had not slept the night before, and he would remain sleepless for a few more as he faced the backlash from Indian fans. Now, nearly a year later, he is on the cusp of making the Indian World Cup squad, and kids chase his car on the streets of Chennai for autographs. He talks about how it all changed.
Can you tell us about returning to your school after ten years?
It was a very special occasion for me. Everything started for me, including my cricket career, at Modern Senior Secondary School [in Chennai]. That was where I joined a cricket academy for the first time. It was my dream to go back to the school and thank my teachers who helped me to clear my Grade 10 board exams.
They had invited me for the Sports Day function and also to felicitate me. I had so much I wanted to talk about, but the moment I entered the hall, I forgot everything because the noise the kids made was unbelievable. I did not expect that. When I parked the car, it was all empty and quiet, but as I entered I could hear the students shouting and screaming about my recent games for India. When I was giving away the prizes, kids told me how good it was to see me play for the country, and that I have to win the World Cup.
When I was getting home, my friend who was with me pointed out that a couple of the kids were following me on their bicycles. They wanted to get autographs and were willing to pedal to the other side of the city. I did give them autographs.
It's a good example of how expectations are always high from an international player in India. At the start of this year, did you imagine you would be in contention for the World Cup?
To be honest, at the beginning of 2019, I never thought about making my ODI debut. I had a good tour with India A in New Zealand [in November] and returned to join Tamil Nadu in the Ranji Trophy. After a Ranji game, I got a call asking me to be prepared to travel [to Australia]. To get into the Indian team is a dream for any cricketer. The intensity with which I have played the game has been the same and that has helped me a lot.
What do you think made the team management and selectors think about you?
The indication I got when they sent me up the order during the series in New Zealand is that they were seeing me more as a batsman. Probably the [Wellington] ODI where I got the opportunity to bat more overs after we were 18 for 4, and I played reasonably well, gave them the confidence that I can handle any situation.
Then, before the Hamilton T20I, I thought I would not be playing, but the day before the game, Rohit Sharma told me to be prepared to bat at No. 3. I was stunned because it has been quite some time since I played at No. 3. I was actually a top-order batsman when I played league cricket in Tamil Nadu. When I made my Ranji debut, I had to bat down the order.
"A week after the Nidahas Trophy, I told myself that if I sit by myself in my room, mostly I'll get negative thoughts"
Was it a sleepless night?
No, I was clear that all I need to do is enjoy myself. Because I have made the mistake in the past, in the Nidahas Trophy. I had been a little harsh on myself back then. Before the game we generally visualise, but before the Nidahas final, I was too much into that: I am going to play like this, I am going to do this. My mind was crowded. I learned from that. I should look to enjoy myself a lot more.
If I spend time visualising smashing someone, it's good to a certain extent. But when I overdid it, it put me under pressure. I had sleepless nights before and after the Nidahas final. I learned to be calmer after that match.
You have played four ODIs, but went in to bat only once, and made 45 in Wellington. You and Ambati Rayudu rescued India from 18 for 4 on a moist surface. How did you deal with that situation?
I was supposed to bat at No. 7 or 8, but when we were 15 or 16 for 3, I was asked to pad up. I went in, padded up and Mahi bhai [Dhoni] got out. I had very little time to think of anything. I was blank. They say when you are blank you are at your best.
The pitch had moisture but the bounce was variable. Initially the ball was moving a bit and they were also bowling good speeds. It was a good challenge - bat out a situation, have nearly a 100-run partnership, and eventually the team wins from that situation. I was reacting to the ball, and yet I was scoring at a decent clip without playing many dot balls.
When I got that 45, I got the team to a position from where they could win. That 45 gave me the feeling that I was very compact and confident, even while defending. Sometimes the intent, even when you defend the ball, gives you confidence. If I can bat against someone who is bowling 145kph on a challenging wicket - that confidence is really important. I started believing in myself more.
In the Hamilton T20I you once again played an innings of impact, in a second-wicket partnership with Rohit. You were chasing a big score and India nearly won.
I walked in in the first over the game. Rohit asked me to bat for a few overs and then go for my strokes if the ball was in my zone. I was very confident of backing myself and taking the bowlers on. I had the opportunity to finish the game in the second T20I, where too I was batting so well, but I missed out on doing that. I was a bit disappointed. This [the Hamilton T20I] was another opportunity where I could have got a few more runs because I had hit two sixes and a four just before I got out. I got 43, but I could have doubled it and got the team much closer to the target.
Do you long to be a match-winner?
Yeah, that has always been my dream. Whenever I play a game, I want to win it with bat, ball, or even with my fielding. I always feel I can create some magic with my fielding and the team can win due to that.
You made your ODI debut in January, at the MCG. Who gave you your cap?
Rohit gave it, saying "good luck". I had never played in such a big ground in my life. I was really exhausted after the game. It was because of the pressure. When I was bowling my second over, I was gasping for air. So I was under a bit of pressure, but I was economical, I think. [Shankar went wicketless for 23 runs in six overs.]
"I like to watch a game like a captain and think what I should do in a situation. I observe what an opener, a No. 3 or middle-order batsman is doing. I should be ready to bat at any position, any situation"
Last March you were criticised for slowing down the chase against Bangladesh in the Nidahas T20 final. How long did it take you to recover from the game and the criticism?
It took at least a week. I had sleepless nights. It was difficult to come out of it initially. This might have happened to many cricketers but not in their first game for sure. When I read some of the comments on social media, it was disturbing. After the final, I was reading everything. It was difficult for me to get over it.
After a week, I told myself that if I was going to sit with that, I wouldn't move ahead with my career. I should just train really hard and get really tired then I'll just come home and sleep. If I sit by myself in my room, mostly I'll get negative thoughts.
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Even when I joined Delhi Daredevils [now Delhi Capitals] last year in the IPL, I was very clear about one thing: I should not sit by myself in my room. I don't go out frequently, but I made it a point to be with friends when I was not training and playing matches. The routine worked and when I did well in the IPL, it gave me some confidence. I had a couple of decent records last IPL: having the smallest dot-ball percentage, an average of 52, and a strike rate of 143. After that I also had a good A tour in New Zealand.
Once in a while, even now, I do think it would have been great if I had finished the game in the Nidahas Trophy. But I have learned to not get influenced by negative thoughts.
Do you watch the video of those last overs of the final?
Yes, I do watch, but I have learned from that experience. Now I rotate the strike and hit the odd boundary. My IPL performance showed that. In that final, I got a bit stiff overall and I was trying to muscle the ball, hit it really hard.
In the IPL, I faced Mustafizur Rahman again. I got an edge and the ball went to the third-man boundary. It's rare to not hit three or four balls in the row. It taught me not to put pressure on myself and to just react to the ball. I want to thank my coach, S Balaji, who has been with me for many years and who helped me relax.
You played match-winning innings batting at No. 5 on the A tour to New Zealand. In the first one-dayer, you walked in in the 26th over, in which India lost two wickets, and needed another 150 runs or so to win. You chased it down against a bowling attack that had Doug Bracewell, Lockie Ferguson and Jimmy Neesham. It must have given you a lot confidence.
I was striking the ball beautifully. I had got fifties in the past, but to be there till the end and chase a target of 300-plus was a special feeling. It made me believe I can win matches on my own.
Rahul sir [Dravid, the A team coach] told me I could manage both situations: if I need to hold the innings together, or if I need to go out and hit the ball. In the first two matches of that tour, he told me to take my time and get us closer to the target. I made a half-century in the second match, but I got out when we were about 25 runs short. In the third match, I got only 42, at No. 6, but the wicket slowed down. Rahul sir had told me the wicket was slow and asked me to get us within the region of 260. We ended up getting 275 and we won by 75 runs. So he had the belief that I could adapt to the situations and to do that was important for me.
On the A tour to England you made only about 100 runs in the longer games and one-dayers. What corrections did you make between those two tours?
It was a more on the mental front. I was getting 20 or 30, batting well, but neither me or nor the team was getting anything out of it. It was important for me to take the game closer, play according to the situation. I have thrown my wicket away in a lot of games. I set myself the target to put a value on my wicket, to take the game deep.
In the India A set-up you were the finisher in New Zealand. In the national team you batted at No. 3. What did the team management say to you about your role going into the Australia series?
Nothing, really. I like to watch a game like a captain and think what I should do in a situation. I observe what an opener, a No. 3 or middle-order batsman is doing. I should be ready to bat at any position, any situation. I cannot be fixed mentally about batting only here and doing only these things.
"When I was giving away the prizes [at my school Sports Day], kids told me how good it was to see me play for the country, and that I have to win the World Cup"
You have said that you would like to express yourself more with the ball. What do you mean?
Whatever I bowled recently in the ODIs, I was restricted in my mind and did not manage to express myself as well as I can. I can actually bowl a little quicker than I did. When I came on to bowl [in Australia and New Zealand], I just wanted to put the ball in the right space. Usually I use the short ball to good effect. Even in the Nidahas Trophy, I was using a lot of short balls. I did not bowl a single short delivery in the four ODIs I played in Australia and New Zealand. Such things might help me get wickets.
I put myself under pressure. I never had pressure from the team. I might not have bowled in the T20I series in New Zealand, but if I keep working on my bowling, when the time comes, I can deliver.
You have the privilege of playing with some of the best players. Have you had the opportunity talking to someone like MS Dhoni?
I had the opportunity in the Hamilton ODI, where both of us were not playing. He told me: "No one has any doubt about your batting or fielding, but I feel you can bowl much quicker than you are bowling now, with your physique. Then you will have some strength in your bowling, where you will able to move the old ball. If you can work on a few things and get better with your bowling, you will give the best combination for the team."
Usually, I believe in observing and learning from senior players rather than talking to them. I have learnt a lot from watching him.
What have you learnt from watching Dhoni?
In the Australia games, where we chased down targets, the standout thing was how cool he was under pressure. Even if the asking rate was ten runs an over, it is just about one boundary, and not looking for boundaries all the time. If I put myself in that situation, I might have tried to hit a few boundaries. Take the Melbourne ODI, which was a must-win. He took his time and made sure he was there till the end and won the game, which is the most important thing.
He made it look very easy, but he knew what he was doing. In the 44th over, against Adam Zampa, he and Kedar Jadhav just took one run. They were confident that they could definitely get ten runs an over, [but] they did not want to lose a wicket. Anyone else might have tried to take on Zampa and might have got runs but also might have got out. But the belief Dhoni had that even if I get one run this over, we can win it without any trouble is something else. For me, the learning is being calm and not hurrying things, enjoying the situation, enjoying the pressure.
Do you pinch yourself about the way your career has evolved where you are now part of India's World Cup plans?
(Laughs). I feel whatever I have been doing all this while, I have done with 100% intensity. I have been rewarded because of that. I have gone through a lot of injuries. I have been on five to six India A tours, and after every tour I have had an injury. This is the first time after an A tour [in New Zealand] where I came back without any injury and played in the Ranji Trophy the day after returning.