March 18, 2018, Nidahas T20 tri-series final. Vijay Shankar walks into the Khettarama to bat for the first time for India, with the side needing 69 off 40 balls. He feels his way into international batting with a wristy flick through square leg. Bangladesh’s gun bowler Mustafizur Rahman then returns and rolls out one cutter after another. Vijay desperately keeps swiping across the line and misses four successive balls. He slogs at the next ball as well, and cobbles a leg-bye. Those who have watched Vijay in domestic cricket know that his strength is timing the ball over the covers or down the ground but here he is looking to hack it over the leg side.
Pressure can scramble your judgement and make you do strange things. The equation eventually boils down to 12 off the last over. Off the penultimate ball, Vijay is dismissed for 17 and India need 5 off the last delivery. Vijay’s Tamil Nadu team-mate and his good friend Dinesh Karthik keeps his cool and imperiously launches Soumya Sarkar over the extra-cover boundary to win it for India.
Karthik soaks in the moment, but Vijay is broken. Look at the team posing with the trophy: Karthik, Suresh Raina, Rishabh Pant, Shardul Thakur and stand-in captain Rohit Sharma all flash smiles while Vijay, who is in the last row, looks lost in his own world. That Mustafizur over is still running in his mind. He is getting trolled on social media.
Fast-forward to January 12, 2019. Vijay, who has moved on from the Nidahas nightmare, gets his maiden ODI call-up. He admits that getting trolled on social media last year was a “difficult experience”, but he believes that it has equipped him to deal with pressure better in cricket and life.
“I am not someone who is very active on social media, but the first two days after that Nidahas Trophy were difficult for me,” Vijay tells ESPNcricinfo. “But, it has helped me grow as a cricketer and a person, and helped me handle media, social networks and pressure. After the match, DK, Rohit and many others told me it can happen to anyone and I had to get over it. Yes, I did look at posts on me after the Nidahas final, but I am not thinking about it anymore. I’ve totally moved on from it, scoring runs for India A and Tamil Nadu.”
In December last year in New Zealand, Vijay was entrusted with the responsibility of finishing the innings for India A, and he stepped up with a chart-topping 188 runs at an average of 94 and strike-rate of 105.02 in the side’s 3-0 sweep of a strong New Zealand A in the List A series.
Vijay says that tackling different conditions – according to him, the pitches for the first two one-dayers were quick while the one for the third game was slow – and an international attack comprising Lockie Ferguson, James Neesham, Seth Rance and Doug Bracewell has tuned him up for his first ODI assignment.
“The A series in New Zealand was an eye-opener for me,” Vijay says. “We were chasing 300 or more in the first two games and I was able to win it for my team against a quality attack. In the third match, the wicket got a bit slow and Rahul [Dravid] sir came up to me and said try to take the total to 250. I got around 45 and we went past the total and won. I was able to do what the team needed.
“The tour showed me I can stand up to one of the quickest bowlers [Lockie Ferguson] in the world. It was not just about hitting well. I believe I was able to control the innings well. And finishing the innings has been a great experience. When you go to different conditions and perform and learn, it definitely gives you a good feel.”
Vijay bowled only 11 overs across three matches for one wicket in New Zealand, but he draws confidence from having bowled with the new ball for Tamil Nadu in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy.
“In the A tours I was not asked to bowl much, but I did decently,” he says. “It’s all about getting used to the conditions. I’ve been bowling with the new ball for Tamil Nadu in Vijay Hazare and been bowling regularly in Ranji too.”
In 2016, Hardik Pandya had replaced an injured Vijay on India A’s tour of Australia, and subsequently established himself as India’s premier allrounder across formats. Three years later, Vijay has replaced a suspended Pandya, but he is swift to brush off any comparisons and simply wants to do his thing.
“I already have so much pressure to deal with,” Vijay says. “I don’t want to take more pressure and I’m not one for comparisons. Everybody has positives and negatives. I just want to learn and keep getting better.”
Vijay is due to fly out on Sunday night and will join India’s squad on the eve of their must-win second ODI at Adelaide Oval. He had already clocked plenty of air miles in December, going from Auckland to Singapore to Mumbai to Delhi and then driving for five hours to Mohali to turn out Tamil Nadu against a Punjab side that had Shubman Gill in its ranks. Gill took on Tamil Nadu and Vijay with a blazing double-hundred. Vijay is now ready to soar alongside Gill in the India side.