March 18, 2018. A day that two Tamil Nadu batsmen would never forget in their life. Dinesh Karthik played the best 8-ball innings of his career in the Nidahas Trophy final against Bangladesh.
But, elsewhere, Vijay Shankar’s labourious 19-ball 17 had almost consigned India to a shock defeat against a bitter rival.
He admitted to have lost confidence in his batting after that match. It would have been a strange place to be — a euphoric dressing room, where he would have been forgiven for thinking that he failed an audition to be a regular part of. He would have been forgiven to think his chance passed him by. But he did not. With help from Rahul Dravid, he went back to the grind of domestic cricket, found form with the bat and forced his way back into the Indian team.
March 5, 2019. A year later, Vijay Shankar must be the toast of the Indian dressing room for a stellar performance that might have just ensured he will be a part of the World Cup 2019 squad.
“That Nidahas Trophy final taught me many things. I learned how to be neutral after that, be it a high or a low — I need to stay calm,” Shankar said on Tuesday night in Nagpur.
A night when he held his nerve in the last over of the innings (after having conceded 13 runs in the only previous over he had bowled) to take India to a thrilling 8-run win in the second One-Day International against Australia.
One year apart, two last-over finishes that mean very different things in the life of a young cricketer.
Also read: Road to 2019 World Cup — Does Vijay Shankar hold the key to India’s remaining spots?
Great batting display
Even without the last over drama with the ball in his hand, Shankar had had a day to remember. On a pitch where only Virat Kohli could construct a long innings (that Aaron Finch said was the difference between two sides), Vijay Shankar — for a brief while that he was in the middle — outshone his more illustrious partner.
While Kohli had put his head down to build a resolute innings, Shankar had — to borrow a line from Harsha Bhogle on commentary — come out to bat like he was fresh out of a long net session on the same pitch, timing everything well from the first ball he faced.
When he was run out on 46 off 41 balls in the most unfortunate circumstances, it felt like that was the only he was going to be dismissed on the day. On a tough, two-paced pitch, Shankar made batting look easy.
Not known for his skills to underplay anything, Indian coach Ravi Shastri had backed Shankar’s batting skills during the tour of New Zealand, and that told everyone that the team management is serious about considering him for the World Cup, for starters.
“Don’t mistake him with the bat,” Shastri had told Cricbuzz, when he stitched a match-saving partnership with Ambati Rayudu in the series-decider in Wellington, when India’s top order had another failure. “You saw his defensive game on Sunday (in Wellington). If he had been there for the last 8-10 overs, he would have spanked the bowling. This aggressive intent adds flair to the Indian side. The best ODI sides in the world have proper batsmen at numbers 5, 6, 7, 8.”
An important over
When the pressure was building on India in the end-stages of the match in Nagpur, the camera kept panning to Shankar and Kedar Jadhav. Kohli had made the decision, with help from MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma, that the one over that the sixth bowler had to bowl will not be used till the 50th.
Jasprit Bumrah, with his extraordinary two-over burst where he picked up two wickets and conceded two runs, made sure whoever bowled the last over had the luxury of a defending a double-digit target. And away from the cameras, he even had the time to let Shankar know that the ball was reversing and he just had to focus on targetting the stumps.
When Shankar’s moment of reckoning came, there was a hush around the stadium, that was unmissable even on the television. This was a gamble, but one backed with a fair amount of logic. And, much to his captain’s delight, Shankar produced two wicket-taking deliveries in the first three balls. His first and second ODI wickets in India colours, coming at a crunch moment.
“I was ready, mentally prepared for the challenge,” Shankar said after the match. “I was telling myself after the 43rd over that I was going to bowl anytime and possibly the last over, and I should be ready to defend 10 or 15 runs.”
And that mental preparation paid dividends. It was just three balls in a not-so-important bilateral ODI, but the importance of those were not lost on Shankar.
“In the last few games that I played, I either did not bowl much or went for runs. So that last over was much-needed for me, this will give the team confidence that I can do it with the ball,” he said.
The relief and joy on his face was evident after the final wicket fell. If there were any lingering questions, for the team about his talent or for himself, those were cleared on more than count in Nagpur.
“Only thing, I don’t want passengers in the World Cup squad,” Shastri had said. “I want players who are part of the team and can play at any time. I don’t want an extra this or that, if someone gets injured, no. I want a guy who can play anytime depending on the conditions.”
While it might still be too early to say Shankar has done enough to break into the first XI either as a proper batsman or as a seam-bowling all-rounder, he has certainly proved that he is no passenger in the squad. He has the talent with the bat, that has now been established. And on Tuesday in Nagpur, he showed he can do a job for Kohli and Shastri with the ball too, if required.
It’s safe to say, the all-rounder has earned himself a ticket to the United Kingdom for the summer.