THE FAMILY’S PERSPECTIVE
From the lows of Nidahas Trophy final to the highs of being a ‘trending nayagan’, it’s been quite a journey for Vijay Shankar. © Cricbuzz
Vijay Shankar earned a new moniker on the night of March 5, 2019. A whatsapp group titled ‘Theppakulam street’ on his father H Shankar’s phone buzzed out of control, and hailed his son as the ‘trending nayagan’ [trending hero], as Vijay was World No.2 and India No.1 on Twitter trends after his final-over feat in the Nagpur ODI against Australia.
As Matthew Hayden popped the inevitable World Cup question to a sheepish Vijay, the members of the Shankar household in the South Chennai suburb of Madipakkam congregated in the hallway for a post-match discussion of their own, which stretched well into the early hours of March 6.
There’s a time-honoured tradition adhered to by the inhabitants of the three-storied house on the Venkatesha Perumal street, whenever Vijay is on television. The mother prefers to watch alone from the confines of her bedroom while her elder son Ajay is in his room on the mezzanine floor. Ajay’s wife takes her place in Vijay’s adjoining room and Shankar watches from the ground floor, where the television set is surrounded by Vijay’s many cricketing memorabilia – each representing a milestone in this father-son cricketing expedition.
Residents of Theppakulam street in the town of Tirunelveli, where Shankar and his wife grew up before moving north to Chennai, routinely wake up to the dulcet notes of the Suprabatham – a collection of hymns – commonly played in a traditional Tamil Brahmin household. Shankar’s mornings in Chennai kicked off with an equally traditional academics-vs-cricket bickering in early 2000s. “Yedhuku dhaan vidinjuthu nu irrukum[Wonder why the sun rose!],” says Shankar, recalling his initial struggles to convince his wife about nudging Vijay into the cricketing world.
Shankar, once an aspiring cricketer himself, always sought to live his dream through his sons to such an extent that he was willing to travel any lengths to lay down a supporting net, if either Ajay or Vijay felt the same way for the game. When the two brothers were at the crossroads, Ajay, a lower division cricketer himself, let a job opportunity dictate his course ahead, while Vijay was sold on the idea of becoming what his father called a ‘Pucca’ cricketer.
The Model Senior Secondary School in Nanganallur cooperated in this endeavour, until they were worried about the school’s overall academic record and how Vijay’s poor performance could sully it.
Vijay’s father abandoned the idea of building a second house and used the vacant plot to build an indoor nets facility. ©Cricbuzz
“In 10th standard, we were called to school and the principal asked ‘has he even opened the books, what are you going to do? Do you want him to write the Xth class exam next year instead?’. Then I told the principal, ‘Next year also the same thing will happen’. You are saying for the past so many years that he isn’t coming to school at all, but he was scoring well. So you take it for granted that because of him, you will not lose one percentage in the school. He’ll pass, don’t worry. For 10th somehow, the principal agreed and he wrote exams,” Shankar says.
Much to the mother’s chagrin, her husband went to Vijay’s college more often than Vijay did himself. Yet Shankar, who remembers his son’s match-winning 107 in an Under-19 game, can’t quite recollect the course his son was signed up for at the graduation level.
But that didn’t stop him from constantly seeking reassurances about Vijay’s commitment to the cause at every decision-making juncture of life. “Decide. Again one more chance I am giving you. You should not waste your time, should not waste my time. Because education is a must. If at all you’re taking cricket as a profession, then average marks also you score, we’re not bothered,” Shankar had told his son, revealing a very unconventional side to his Tamil self. Each time, Vijay was unwavering in his choice.
The decision was never make or break for Vijay. The family sustenance didn’t hinge on his bread-winning abilities, as it had for the father all those years ago, forcing him to prematurely pull the plug on his cricketing aspirations and venture into the business of advertisement hoardings.
It also helped that Vijay had little in the name of distractions. The only millennial whim, so to say, was the desire to always dress well and stay connected with the #OOTD culture. Even movie plans made with his friends were willingly cancelled to remain indoors.
“He has had this group of seven-eight friends – Chaturved, Panchapakesan, Hariprasad. They will all decide that we should go for a movie but eventually drop the plan and stay at home. They don’t aimlessly roam around in the city or chase girlfriends… no bad habits. They’re always here. At best, they’ll go close by to a fruit juice store. They plan a lot to go out and all, but they don’t,” Shankar says.
Once sucked into the cricketing vortex, Vijay was constantly on the road, criss-crossing the state of Tamil Nadu – playing one day in Tanjore, and the next in Madurai. His father was a constant presence during these days, lugging around his spare kit bag, driving him to matches and back, and looking after the logistics. While not being occupied in the travels, Shankar would spend hours collating newspaper reference of his son’s cricketing conquests at every level.
“He also used to play university matches [at the Under-19 level] in Bombay in those days. In one game, he was batting in the 80s at Cross Maidan. I had a flight back to Chennai at 8 pm, so I was wondering when this game would get over so that I can rush to the airport. I got a phone call at that time from our district saying tomorrow morning there’s a Quarterfinals game in Salem, please bring Vijay to play that without fail. There was no other way out. Invariably my flight got delayed. By 8 I was in the airport, booked a ticket for him.”We both took the flight. He always has an extra kit bag and clothing here [in Chennai]. By the time we landed in Chennai it was late, about 12:30 or 1 am. Then came home, took the car and by the time I dropped him in Salem, it was 5 am. From there, he directly went to play and won the game for the district in Salem. This was an inter-district tournament. Whatever the match is, he will be ready to play. At that time, he wouldn’t say I’ve just played, I am tired. At that time, it was just cricket, cricket, cricket, cricket,” Shankar says.
Vijay’s parents pose in front of his trophy cabinet. ©Cricbuzz
When travel time in Chennai began to eat into his sleeping hours, Shankar found an elaborate solution. He sold the idea of constructing a second house on the empty plot right in front of his existing residence in order to join the two terraces and create enough space for an in-house nets facility, replete with bowling machine and a camera, for post-practice video analysis.
Coach S Balaji, who took Vijay under his wings during their time at ICF in second division cricket in Chennai, could now be called home for their one-to-one sessions. As Vijay entered his 20s, the improvement in power-hitting meant that Shankar had to install cushions along the two sides of the nets to protect him from the ball ricocheting back onto his face.
Progress was also made outside the confines of his terrace, with Indian Bank offering him a chance to dabble in first division cricket. Vijay also transformed from an off-spinner to a medium pacer, in order to break through into the state side, where a traditionally large number of spinners were already jostling for spots. The switch was perhaps influenced by his father’s staunch adage: You can play at one level lower, but thanni thookakudathu [shouldn’t become water boy].
When the first-class debut eventually came in December 2012, Vijay impressed with an unbeaten 63 and a two-wicket haul as a first-change bowler against Vidarbha in Nagpur. He also went on to captain an illustrious Vijay CC team in Tamil Nadu first division cricket, leading the likes of Abhinav Mukund, Subramaniam Badrinath, Lakshmipathy Balaji, Dinesh Karthik and Shadab Jakati. In the span of a couple of seasons, he would go onto become the centrepiece of Tamil Nadu’s run to the final of the 2015 Ranji Trophy campaign, making scores of 111, 82, 91 and 103 in the knockouts to finish with 577 runs at 57.7.
Life as a first-class cricketer dragged Vijay away from home for longer periods. Shankar too decided that perhaps it was time to take a step back and not be an overbearing parent of an embarrassed 20-something ward.
“I knew when I have to be there, when I don’t. That way I’m clear, he should have no disturbance. And I was very particular he should not be uncomfortable. He would say: “Don’t worry Daddy, I’m very comfortable”. What he felt inside, we wouldn’t know, right? But he is very open minded. What I did was that I stayed away, even if he asked. Some matches, I just dropped him and came back.”
Even post-match chats have reduced, with coach S Balaji taking up the nuances of the game with him. “That was a ball to be hit only Daddy,” Vijay would say, if his shot selection would ever be question by Shankar. “Will I willingly get out? All these questions sir has already asked.”
“After that 22-23 stage, I slowly stopped going with him. I would tell him, I’ll see it in the paper. Other parents, friends of his, would call me to come. I’ll just skip saying I have work,” Shankar says.
But Vijay, being a “nalla paiyan” – the proverbial good Tamil boy – keeps his parents abreast of his every move on tour. So much so that, his mother still stays awake till late by the telephone in the hall, just to wish him a good night. The father gets brief summaries of Vijay’s knocks through whatsapp texts, including the intra-squad practice game scores for Sunrisers Hyderabad.
With Vijay’s cricketing routine now set in stone, Shankar’s responsibilities have evolved towards creating a structure around his son to tend to the emotional upheavals that are commonplace in the fickle world of the sport. The Nidahas Trophy final is a case in point.
Shankar shuttled between Chennai and Colombo during the T20 triseries, and was there at the final when Vijay played and missed four dot balls against Mustafizur Rahman in the 18th over. Dinesh Karthik pulled off an astonishing victory in the end, but Vijay somehow couldn’t indulge in the celebrations wholeheartedly. He’d spent the night before the game visualising and the three nights after it, reliving the horror.
“That’s the time we have to mould him well. Just keep encouraging. Say ‘don’t worry, it’s just a game, you can comeback anytime’. For those three [four] deliveries, he was terribly upset. But it’s all part of the game. It’s passing clouds. At that time we may not have the knowledge to recognise it as passing clouds. He was restless for three days. Sleepless even.”
Vijay’s cricketing equipments on display at his house on the Venkatesha Perumal street. ©Cricbuzz
Words were not the only solace. “My wife knows what [food] he’ll ask. So she’ll have it ready,” Shankar says, “Dosa sapduvan, thayir sadam avalo thaan. Nalla vatha kozhambu, uralakazhangu kaara curry panni kuddu. [He’ll eat dosa, curd rice. He’ll also ask for tangy, south indian gravy. Also make spicy potato curry for him].
The Nidahas final turned out to be a decisive chapter in shaping Vijay’s personality. The three nights of sleeplessness opened his eyes to a more equanimous take on life in general.
“Generally he is neutral but after Nidahas, he has become over matured. That’s why he keeps telling, ‘I have to learn to be neutral. Even if I do well, I won’t be overly happy, if I do badly, I won’t be sad.’ If you saw that [final over of the] Nagpur ODI, he punched the air once but didn’t overcelebrate,” Shankar says.
Is the father ever concerned that his son may have attained this kind of mental maturity a little too soon? No, if Shankar is to be believed. He, after all, wanted his son to be playing for India by the age of 24. Vijay nearly pulled it off after being picked for the India A tour of Australia in August 2016, until a persistent knee trouble stalled his progress, and opened up opportunities for Hardik Pandya. There was still a decision to be made, and the tough task of steering away from the short-term but tempting solution of injections.
“When he informed that he may not be able to give a 100%, even the team management was happy that the boy was honest in his acknowledgement. Immediately we spoke to BCCI, and they booked him in the Dhirubai Ambani hospital in Andheri. Next night, surgery was done. It was that quick. After that, rehab…,” Shankar says.
“It was about going and telling [India A coach] Rahul Dravid that the knee is not fine. Dravid himself said, ‘you’ve got plenty of cricket in you, don’t go for a temporary solution, go for the surgery, that’ll take you a long way. If you take an injection, in another six months you’ll need it again. Maximum you can take three injections. So don’t take a chance.'”
The time lost there has been more than made up for in his rapid progress as an ODI cricketer. Vijay made his 50-over debut for India in January, incidentally as Pandya’s replacement, and less than three months later, finds himself packing his bags for England to play in a World Cup.
His selection for the showpiece event – as the first-choice No.4 – is in line with one of the many philosophies his father imparted all those years ago when Vijay was making his way through age-group cricket.
“The team management, selectors should write your name automatically. Without second thoughts, your name should be there in the squad sheet. Which means you should be a pucca cricketer. No one should think ‘This boy, we will see later. We’ll put him in the 15, and then decide,'” Shankar had said.
Life in Indian cricket moves quickly, cyclically and sometimes even unexpectedly. Four years ago, an unsuspecting Vijay Shankar, still carrying some baby fat on his face, posed in an ICC World Cup 2015 merchandise and captioned the photo ‘a different experience’ on Instagram. In a month’s time, he’ll get the real taste of it, and perhaps, set Shankar’s phone abuzz again.