Vijay Shankar holds his nerve to stake World Cup claim
It was only his second over of the innings. He had ten runs to defend. Vijay Shankar pulled off victory for India
On the eve of the second ODI against Australia in Nagpur, Vijay Shankar was eyeing Virat Kohli's bat like a kid would do a box of candies. After getting the MRF thing in his hands during training, he shaped to punch the ball over the leg side.
He rolled out two such jaw-dropping straight-bat punches over midwicket during his 46-ball 41, including one that elicited applause and approval from his captain in a breezy 81-run stand for the fourth wicket.
Vijay was unfortunately run-out when Adam Zampa deflected a drilled drive from Kohli onto the stumps at the non-striker's end in the 29th over. He slapped his bat against his thigh, threw his head back, and walked off like a kid whose box of candies had been stolen.
It was a sense of deja vu for Vijay: he had been run out for 45 in the Wellington ODI in February after having bed in for a big score on a seaming track. He slapped his bat against his thigh then as well and departed.
Welcome back to Nagpur. Marcus Stoinis, whose towering frame and sixes have drawn comparisons with 'The Incredible Hulk', is doing more of a Bruce Banner here. No violence. No monster power. Just good old limited-overs smarts. A dink here, a dab there, and he is keeping Australia alive.
He has just seen off India's gun bowler Jasprit Bumrah and hauled the game to the last over - not too dissimilar from how MS Dhoni deals with chases. Kedar Jadhav has conceded just 33 runs in eight overs with his low-arm slingers. More importantly, Jadhav has bowled eight dots out of 13 balls to Stoinis. But, Kohli trusts Vijay with the last over of the game. This is only his second over of the match; he had leaked 13 in his first over.
The master at the death, Bumrah, has a word with Vijay. The allrounder cracked under pressure against Mustafizur Rahman in that Nidahas Trophy final. His good friend and Tamil Nadu team-mate Dinesh Karthik, however, conjured a last-ball six and pulled off a famous win. However, that Mustafizur over was still playing in Vijay's mind on repeat mode.
Karthik then calls him to join the post-match revelry, but Vijay is utterly shattered. Karthik drags him into the celebrations, but that doesn't quite lift his spirits.
He is getting trolled on social media. He reads nearly every troll post there, and ultimately switches off from social media. He was so scarred by trolls that when he revisited his school as a chief guest during a golden jubilee function on Valentine's Day, after returning from New Zealand, he advised the students to "stay away from social media a little bit" and use it carefully.
Ever since the night of the Nidahas final, Vijay has been "literally waiting" to look pressure in the eye and say: you're next like WWE's Bill Goldberg does. On Monday night, with 10 to defend off the last over against, he speared Stoinis and Adam Zampa in three balls to deliver India a tense victory.
Bruce Banner couldn't quite transform into the Hulk, but the nervy Vijay transformed into a nerveless player.
He hit a hard length with the first ball of the last over - neither short enough to pull or full enough to hoist it over mid-on - and had Stoinis swishing and missing. Boom. Stoinis pinned lbw. The next ball was on a length on off, and Zampa made some room to jab it to point and hurry back for the second. Vijay, on the other contrary, is in no rush. He reckons Zampa might back away, again, and hurls the ball into the blockhole to floor his middle stump.
Vijay punches the air, lets out a roar, and his pent-up emotions: the frustration of multiple injuries, including a knee problem that forced him out of the India A side that was set to tour Australia in 2016. Hardik Pandya then replaced him and then went onto establish himself as the senior team's No. 1 allrounder across formats.
Vijay was initially confused whether to take injections and go to Australia or go under the knife to repair a meniscus tear and a grade-four patella injury. He finally decided to get the operation done, and had to spend two months at the National Cricket Academy [NCA] in Bengaluru.
It was the most difficult phase of Vijay's cricketing career. He couldn't travel with the A team to Australia, he couldn't play the Chennai first-division league or the 20-over Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) for his franchise Lyca Kovai Kings. And every time he switched on the TV, there was some cricket that was unfolding, reminding Vijay what he was missing.
He was depressed with everything around him. Rajinikant (nope, not the actor, get acquainted with the trainer) was instrumental in pulling Vijay out of depression and inspiring him to train harder and get fitter quicker.
Having a strong family support system has also helped him. His father H Shankar and elder brother Ajay, both of whom have played lower-division cricket in Tamil Nadu, knew that injuries are part and parcel of the game. His father, brother, and personal coach S Balaji, a former Railways player, all made Vijay believe in himself again.
Vijay returned to domestic cricket and enhanced his reputation as Tamil Nadu's crisis man. His struggle in the Nidahas Trophy final at the Khettarama then shook up his confidence, again.
But Vijay has always found a way past the hurdles. At the start of his domestic career, he was an offspin-bowling allrounder, who couldn't break into a spin-heavy Tamil Nadu team. So, he switched to medium-pace. After he broke into the national side thanks to his ability to pitch in with medium-pace, he worked harder at it - the result of which was on show in the second ODI against Australia. Vijay's plays and misses in the Nidahas Trophy are now history.
Sure, he has his limitations as a bowler - he can't get his speeds past the lower 130kph range - but his form with the bat has contributed to a spike in his bowling. And his confidence was on bright display in Nagpur under pressure. Pressure? What pressure? Say hello to the nerveless Vijay Shankar who has staked his claim for a place in India's World Cup squad.
Deivarayan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo