Vijay Shankar wasn't even in India's World Cup plans until the start of 2019. Barely ten ODIs old, the batting allrounder is likely to start the tournament at No. 4 for India. Shortly after he packed his bags for his maiden World Cup, he spoke about the challenges he would face in England and his evolution as a bowler.
Around the time of the 2015 World Cup, you posted a photo on Instagram of yourself wearing World Cup merchandise. What is it like to actually play your maiden World Cup now?
Yes, it's my first World Cup and [to be playing in] that India jersey will be more special because the World Cup comes once in four years. Wearing the jersey itself oru thani [is a unique] feeling. Every time I wear that and step out onto the field, it's going to be a great feeling.
Are you feeling any pressure?
Pressure is always there. If you start giving too much importance to pressure, you won't be in the present. I just want to enjoy the game and work on all aspects - batting, bowling and fielding. The more I enjoy my game, the better I can perform.
In New Zealand, you were supposed to bat at No. 8 in the Wellington game, but you were promoted to No. 6 and and managed to rescue India. Did you start enjoying your game more after that knock?
I always think a lot about the game - a couple of days before a game, I plan, do some visualisation - but on the field it's important for me to react to the ball. In Wellington, I just had to play out the new ball. I don't know how to describe it... my mind was blank. It was a challenging wicket, we were 18 for 4, but I just reacted to the ball. I feel it's important for anyone to adapt; you never know what kind of situation you will walk into.
Chief selector MSK Prasad hinted that you might start the World Cup at No. 4. What are the challenges of batting at that spot in England?
More than the batting position it's the situation that's going to matter, like I said earlier. Sometimes you might walk in at 200 or 250 for 2 and you might have to finish the innings. If you can prepare yourself to the best of your abilities and react to the situation, things will fall into place.
The experience of having played in England for India A around the same time last year will also help. It was very hot when we went with the A side and it was mostly high-scoring games. But this time it might not be as hot and the conditions can be different. Whatever the situations or conditions are, I feel now I will be able to adapt to it and perform for my team.
"Power-hitting is important to clear the boundaries. But can you also keep the scorecard ticking by rotating the strike, being calculative and going over the infield?"
In the IPL, you started with a bang, but then you moved down the batting order and your form suffered a dip. Is that a concern for you heading into the World Cup?
Definitely not. If you see most of my innings, it might seem as if I had batted at No. 3 or No. 4, but more often I walked in after the 13th or 14th over. So it doesn't matter when you have just a few overs left. When you have wickets in hand, you should have the intent of going after the bowling attack. In that sense, I might have missed a couple of innings, but other than that I was happy to show the right intent for the team. I got three or four 20-plus scores at a good pace.
Even if I feel it's just an okay season, I've ended up with nearly 250 runs, which is decent. Last year, I got fewer runs [for Sunrisers Hyderabad] than I did for Delhi, but I ended up with more not-outs, which helped my average. Batting-wise, I feel I did reasonably well.
What was it like sharing the Sunrisers dressing room with top players like Kane Williamson and David Warner?
I don't talk much, but I make sure I watch these top players train and get something out of that. If you have top players around you - or whoever it is - if you [imagine] yourself as a captain, start to observe everything that's happening around you more carefully, and notice who's doing what, and why they're training a certain way, you can improve your game.
When you and Rashid Khan played street cricket in Hyderabad, several kids were chanting your name and holding up posters of you. Have you now got used to this recognition in your brief career?
I still feel I'm the same Vijay. The responsibility comes once you start playing a higher level of cricket, but I always try to treat every game with the same intensity. So, cricket-wise, I don't compromise on all of this. When you start doing well, the public tends to notice you - it's part of any cricketer's life. I need to handle it and just respect everyone.
What has your training been like after the IPL and in the lead-up to the World Cup?
I train one and a half hours [each] in the morning and evening. I've been working out at a gym in Chennai and have had sessions with [personal coach, former Railways player] S Balaji. I've been taking throwdowns from him both inside my house, on the terrace and outdoors. In between, I ensure I have a proper break. It has been hectic after the IPL but training is something that I can't avoid. I've always given importance to it.
In training you batted with a steel rod with a grip that's roughly of the same length of your bat. What was the idea there?
It's just to make sure you middle the ball more often and avoid the edges. Also, if you keep middling the ball, the confidence level will be a lot higher. It's not just the World Cup or Australia series - I've always used this method.
You played some jaw-dropping straight-bat punches over midwicket against Australia in Nagpur. Most other batsmen tend to swat the ball away with the cross bat. How did you develop that straight-bat punch?
I actually don't know (laughs). It just came off. It came out of instinct and it wasn't planned as such.
In New Zealand you tinkered with your stance and deployed a longer reach. What was the thinking behind it?
I'm not quite sure if my reach was longer there. Sometimes, when you're in the middle, such things just happen on their own.
How has your bowling evolved?
After the series against Australia, I've started to bowl more. Even in the IPL, I did a lot of bowling training, and the more you bowl, you'll get better at it. I've also started to enjoy bowling more. I started out as an offspinner, then took up medium pace and worked on it. It's important to train with purpose and not just practise for the sake of it.
B Arun [India bowling coach] was helpful during the Australia series and later during the IPL. I was working on a few things. I try out variations, work on my speed, and look to be more stable while delivering the ball.
The management also backed me in the Australia series and that was very important for me. I bowled four overs in the T20 at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, which is one of the most difficult grounds to bowl at. My last ball went for a six, but otherwise I thought I bowled decently. I'd also done well in the Deodhar Trophy last year.
"If you put yourself in the captain's shoes, you start to observe everything that's happening around you more carefully, and notice who's doing what, and why they're training a certain way. You can improve your game that way"
After every India A tour, except for the one in New Zealand in November last year, you tended to get injured. How do you assess yourself now on the fitness front?
I've always been fit. Fitness has never been an issue for me. Physique-wise, speed-wise, I've never had any problems. Whenever I didn't give myself enough rest and pushed my body further, that's when I got injured. Besides domestic cricket, I kept playing league cricket [in Chennai]. I think I had those injuries because of not giving myself enough breaks. I've understood my body better now and know when to stop.
You are known to be a technically correct batsman in domestic cricket. Have you unlocked the power-hitter in you after these IPL stints?
Power-hitting has become a part of every format now - even in Test cricket [one has to] to hit sixes. But sometimes even in T20s it's not just power-hitting. Yes, it's sheer power when it comes to [Andre] Russell, but most cricketers can work their way around. Power-hitting is important to clear the boundaries. If you have the full confidence, you can keep hitting sixes. But can you also keep the scorecard ticking by rotating the strike, being calculative and going over the infield? That is important for someone like me. I've also managed to hit sixes off my first or second ball, so it's just a combination of both and I need to use both correctly.
Have you figured out this combination of brains and brawn?
It's very difficult to say that and it depends on the situation. It's always important to put the team ahead of yourself. Sometimes you get carried away and throw wickets. Earlier, I tried to overhit the ball and I got out. I could have done things differently and got the team to a better position. I've learnt all these things in the last couple of years.
Have you set yourself any targets for the World Cup?
No, no. I just want to keep my mind blank and do what the team needs me to do.