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Vijay Shankar: 'I'm not thinking about making an India comeback. I'm just enjoying myself'

After a season hobbled by injury, the Sunrisers Hyderabad allrounder says he's fighting fit and ready for anything the IPL might throw at him

After Vijay Shankar came home from the India A tour of New Zealand in late 2018, the side's backroom staff, led by then coach Rahul Dravid, quipped that it was probably the first time the allrounder was coming back from a tour injury-free. That stint with the A team got Shankar into the senior side soon after, but injuries have stalled his progress since. He hasn't played for India after he hurt his toe in the nets during the 2019 World Cup. He has played just one competitive match between the 2020 IPL and the upcoming IPL season - a Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy fixture for Tamil Nadu against Jharkhand at Eden Gardens, where he bowled only 13 balls before suffering another injury. Shankar has since married, completed his rehab, and is now looking forward to returning to action.
You have entered your thirties. Has that made you wiser and more responsible?
I've always been responsible with whatever I've done in my life so far (laughs). I'm also married now, so there's a lot more responsibility. It's going to be interesting…
You've played 98 T20s so far and will likely tick over 100 this IPL. How do you look back on a career that has had its share of highs and lows: from the Nidahas Trophy final to winning the IPL with Sunrisers Hyderabad in 2016?
Actually, this number [100] was in my mind when I joined the Tamil Nadu team for the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy in January. I was thinking of playing my 100th T20 game, but then I totally forgot about it.
I think most of my lows came around my injuries, which set me back in whatever I was working on, but I learnt how to come out of it and handle these situations. So, playing my 100th T20 game will definitely be a good thing for me. I think I've also played 90 [88] List A matches, so I thought I would get close to 100 in that as well.
You've had to deal with multiple freak injuries over the years. What has been the biggest learning since your T20 debut?
It has been an amazing journey. When it goes your way, things might happen quickly [for you], but sometimes you may have to grind all the way. I had to wait for my opportunity to get into the Indian side. And then injuries and all… These were all great challenges for me and I just thought I should focus on things I can control: my practice and training. Every time I come out of an injury, I've always focused on my own thing rather than what's happening outside. That's one thing that made me push myself. I don't really compare myself with others and I don't think about what others are doing. For me it was important to get better as a cricketer.
With all the data available, it has given us a lot of cues on how we can approach a game. I haven't had any set batting position as such. For example, even last year [at SRH], I batted at No. 5, No. 7, No. 4 when early wickets fell. In the previous season, I've batted at No. 3. So, with these cues, all you can prepare for is what best you can do when you walk into that particular situation. I try to [imagine] two, three different situations, prepare for it, so that when I go in, it is easier for me. I've learnt this over a period of time.
Power-hitting has become a vital part of T20 middle-order batting. How have you improved on that front?
For me, it's all about adapting. I don't see myself as a middle-order batsman or a top-order batsman. Since I've played at various positions, it's very important for me to be flexible. What I've been doing is trusting my own strength more than these things, because [be it] power-hitting or conventional batting, the end result is important. It's about showing results and doing well.
I had a very good practice session with my personal coach [S Balaji, former Railways player] before joining the SRH camp. So I've just started to enjoy my own batting and not think about changing my game and things like that. I think I have a lot more to offer and it's about enhancing that.
Your last IPL season was also cut short by injury. Your most recent injury came at the start of the Indian domestic season. How frustrating was that?
The injury happened on January 10. It was the Jharkhand game. The Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament was very important for me to make a mark in some way, but then the very first game, I got injured. I was pushing myself to play but I realised later there was no point [doing that] when I was not 100%. After the [2020] IPL, I did all my tests and I was fully fit, but I came back and got injured. These things are very frustrating mentally, especially when you want to make a mark and push for India selection and all that.
Soon after that you got married. Did the celebrations at home take your mind off not being able to play?
Yes. No one at home asks me about these things. They always support me and don't ask why this or that is happening. I do update them about my status, but they know I'm doing my best and some things are beyond my control. I went to Maldives for a few days and to Ooty, and then mentally I was much more free. Most importantly, I took the decision of backing out of the Vijay Hazare Trophy. I thought I should be smart. I've played a lot when I'm at just 80-90% fitness before.
The last few months have been different compared to the life I was leading before. I'm not expecting much now. I just want to enjoy my game.
How have you been preparing for this IPL?
I've put a lot of work into my bowling and batting with Balaji sir. I'm someone who likes spending more time at the nets, but unfortunately, due to the injuries, I had to focus on rehab, which I did with my physio Thulasi Ram and trainer Rajinikanth. Now, I've been giving more time to my skills.
In the last few months, pretty much all the training facilities and gyms have reopened in Chennai. There was a facility called Throttle, where I had enough space to practice and had net bowlers to bowl to me. I really have to thank all those who helped me out because it was really, really hot. My coach also came and stood there in the [mid-day] sun, so it's important for me to do well. That's the only way I can give back.
I have also worked on my bowling run-up during this period with Palani Amarnath, who played for CSK in early 2008-09. Alternate days I was working on my bowling at Guru Nanak College. I tried to set a few things right with my stride length. If I get it right in the match, it will be at least 1% different than what I was bowling last year.
You bowled your full quota of four overs for the first time in the IPL, against the Kolkata Knight Riders, in 2020. Do you see yourself doing the job as a bowler more often for SRH?
Definitely. I'm confident in the role. Last year, if you see, overall I had an economy of around 6.6 [6.22] and bowled reasonably well in the opportunities I got. Last year also I mentioned that I've worked on my bowling. It was about putting in more time, and I have now.
I'm not thinking about doing extraordinary stuff or making a comeback. It's about enjoying myself. I started playing this game because I love it. If I enjoy the game and take things as they come, I think I will be in much better mental space.
Almost every seamer at SRH can bowl the knuckleball. Have you picked up that variation?
Yes, I'm learning from them and they come up with different variations. It's important for me to learn how they execute it, and in a way it's good to talk with them. Even my coach says he learns now by watching the game. As a cricketer, learning is never-ending.
Can you recount your tussle with Jofra Archer in Dubai, where you hit him for three successive fours?
That innings is very special [to me] because I was supposed to bat down the order. Because we lost early wickets, they asked me to pad up. I just went in. I was completely blank and had no clue when I went in - as in, I knew I had to fight that situation out and get the team to a good position. I wasn't thinking about Archer bowling really quick and all that. I was being myself and trying to go with my instinct. I was pretty happy that it was coming out pretty well. As a cricketer, you always want to do well against the best. So that innings gave me confidence in some way.
After finishing off that game, you spoke of it being a do-or-die situation for you. You had a back spasm earlier in the season and dropped down the order.
It definitely was added pressure for me. I knew that either that game or the next would have been the last for me had I not got runs. If you see the previous games I played, I hadn't batted much - in the first match I got out first ball, and then I was out [of action] for a while. I came back and played against KKR and CSK.
To walk into a situation where we were really under pressure [against the Royals] and to come out of that and do well and the team winning from that situation gives a player great satisfaction. I knew it would be the most important innings for me. If not for that, I wouldn't have played the next game for sure.
Going into the IPL, has the thought of making an India comeback crossed your mind?
That keeps coming up every now and then (laughs). Sometimes when I'm idle in my room, I watch my own videos [of old innings]. As a player you will want to push yourself for a comeback, but I want to do it the other way. I don't want to put myself under pressure to perform or get back into the Indian team. I just want to enjoy the game and I feel I've done really well when I've enjoyed every small thing I do. The end result will take care of itself. So, whatever happens, I'm ready to take it.
You enjoy playing against the Chennai Super Kings, particularly in Chennai. Are you looking forward to playing in Chennai as a Sunriser?
I'm from Chennai and I've played a lot of matches here, but this is going to be really different because if you see in the last one and a half years, I haven't played much at Chepauk. It's going to be really new for me as well. This ground is always special because as a youngster, when I started playing my cricket - Under-13 or whatever - it was my dream to play at Chepauk. I'll definitely look forward to it. I can see the ground from my room as well. It's always, always special.
You have Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi, J Suchith, Shahbaz Nadeem in a spin attack that seems well suited for the Chepauk conditions. You could also ditch your medium pace for offspin there.
(Laughs) For now, we really don't know how the pitch is going to behave. However the wicket is, they [Afghanistan spinners] are some of the best in the world right now. When they come good, it's going to be challenging for whoever comes up against us. As a team, we've been doing consistently well for the last few seasons. So, it's important for us to keep doing that and look to get better from that.

Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo