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Can Vijay Shankar solve Sunrisers' middle-order issues?

He's begun to find his feet as an India player, and a couple of startling stats suggest he could do the job at No. 4 in the IPL as well

Vijay Shankar tosses the ball up, New Zealand v India, 3rd T20I, Hamilton, February 10, 2019

Vijay Shankar tosses the ball up  •  AFP/Getty

Since the start of the new year, only one Indian cricketer has been written about more on ESPNcricinfo than Virat Kohli. Who? Vijay Shankar.
From a sluggish display with the bat under excruciating pressure in the Nidahas Trophy final to a nerveless final over to close out a tense second ODI against Australia, Vijay's reputation as a white-ball cricketer has swung from one extreme to another, all in the space of 12 months.
And as he returns to Sunrisers Hyderabad, the team he was part of in 2016 and 2017, life comes full circle for the 28-year-old.
Tom Moody gushed, his face flushed with redness, when asked about Vijay's role in the 2019 Sunrisers squad. Moody was the Sunrisers' coach in 2016 too, and he has witnessed a raw version of Vijay develop into a thoroughbred, overseeing his development up until his switch to Delhi Daredevils in early 2018. He seemed delighted to have the allrounder back in his team.
"The growth and improvement in Vijay Shankar's game has been a pleasure to watch, particularly given he was part of our family originally," Moody told the media on the eve of Sunrisers' opening game against Kolkata Knight Riders. "Seeing him progress and do well for India... that's one of the pleasures of coaching. To see players evolve like that and blossom."
But in a team that has a prospective middle-to-lower order of Kane Williamson, Manish Pandey, Shakib Al Hasan, Mohammad Nabi, Yusuf Pathan and a wicketkeeper, where does Vijay fit in best? Can he bat at No. 4, as he has done recently for India? It would give Sunrisers an aggressive, six-hitting option in a middle order that has otherwise found it difficult to accelerate and dominate bowlers in the recent past.
Here's a stat. Among batsman who have faced 100 or more balls in those particular innings phases in the IPL, Vijay has the highest batting average in the death overs (54.33, with a strike rate of 163.00) and the second-highest average in overs 7-15 (70.00, SR of 123.89). He has only been dismissed three times in ten innings in the last five overs, and only twice in eight innings in the middle eight. These are unexpected numbers, and they point to the kind of role Sunrisers could use him in - a middle-order cog capable of scoring quite quickly himself, around whom batsmen such as Nabi, Shakib and Yusuf can go hard at the bowling.
In the first of two batting sessions at the Eden Gardens before Sunrisers' first match, Vijay walked in at second-change in the nets. Batting without a helmet, he took on the Sunrisers spin bowlers - Rashid Khan, Yusuf and Shahbaz Nadeem - using his feet to get close to the pitch of the ball. Some shots over the bowler's head clattered into the bucket seats, some flew off the bat's edge and zipped across the net. Vijay, however, did not bowl on either practice day.
If Vijay plays the role of an out-and-out batsman, which he can in a team full of allrounders, including Rashid and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the lower order, it would mean that one Deepak Hooda or Pandey may not find a spot in the XI. But Vijay's inclusion would give Sunrisers a versatile performer capable of tailoring his game to the demands of both 100 for 2 after 10 overs and 15 for 2 in the Powerplay.
It's a flip-switch that Sunrisers' middle order has lacked for a few years, and it has been one reason for their being a team most suited to defending totals or chasing down middling targets in the 160s. Vijay has the game to give them an extra dimension.
He still has to go out and prove all of this, of course, and do it when more eyes are watching him and expecting things from him than ever before. Will the pressure get the better of him? Or will it bring out his best, with only weeks to go for the World Cup? We don't know yet, but it's a question that's occupying the minds of fans all over India.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo