If you were to graphically illustrate Vijay Shankar's career over the last seven months, it would take the form of a N - a sharp surge followed by a steep fall before another surge. Between the two ebbs that saw him go from being in top form - a breakout Ranji Trophy season in 2014-15 was followed by solid performances for India A - to being regarded as one of the country's leading all-rounders and Tamil Nadu's limited-overs captain, he went through what he called the most difficult phase of his life.
A knee surgery to repair a meniscus tear and a grade-four patella injury rendered him unfit for India A's tour of Australia in August last year and kept him out of the game for nearly three and a half months. During that period, he watched Hardik Pandya, who replaced him in the India A squad, resurrect his career in Australia and find a place in India's ODI and Test squads. What hurt Vijay most was that for close to two months, all he could do was watch.
It hadn't been a straightforward decision to get operated upon in the first place. Vijay's left knee had troubled him for a while, but he got through the IPL with cortisone injections in the hope of playing a few games. But, Sunrisers Hyderabad's successful march to the title meant there weren't too many changes to the first XI, and consequently Vijay had to play a part as a substitute fielder. After being picked for the India A team, Vijay thought he could play through pain but discovered it was harder than he had imagined.
"Right after the IPL, we played a lot of cricket in Chennai. The effect of the cortisone wore off - once it goes away, you start feeling the pain," he told ESPNcricinfo. "That was when we had a week-long training camp in Bangalore ahead of the A tour. I found that I couldn't do anything. I went for another MRI and they said I have to go for a surgery so that I would be better at least during the middle of the Ranji Trophy.
"It was very disappointing, but I would have found it difficult to give my best on the tour. Obviously if I am playing with pain, it will be at the back of my mind and affect my game. I spoke to a few people - my parents, physios and [India A coach] Rahul Dravid - and was really confused whether to take another injection and go and play in Australia, or get the surgery done as early as possible. It was a difficult call, but everyone suggested that I go for a surgery which was a long-term relief."
Vijay underwent surgery on July 18 and after a month's rest, reported to the NCA in Bangalore for rehabilitation. With so much cricketing action around him, he felt miserable he wasn't part of it. It was Rajinikanth, the trainer at NCA, who helped him lighten up.
"The two months that I was at the NCA was the most difficult thing," Vijay said. "It was very difficult for me to watch a cricket match on TV, especially as there was a persistent feeling of missing something. But cricket was everywhere: there was some Test match in the morning, the Duleep Trophy and the Tamil Nadu Premier League - I missed the whole tournament for Lyca Kovai Kings - in the evening. So anytime you change the channel, you would end up watching cricket.
"What I missed more at the time was the experience of playing in Australia. But, being with Rajinikanth helped take my mind off from all these things. Whenever he would see me get a little uncomfortable watching cricket, he would say: "Kavala padadha da thambi. Namma nalla train panni we will get better (don't worry, brother. We will train hard and get better) and immediately take me out to take my mind off cricket. In fact, I have spent a lot of time with physios and trainers over the last few months. I have been lucky to have trainers Rajamani, Rajinikanth and Ramji Srinivasan and physios Kannan and Thulasi; they have given me so much time."
Vijay admitted he had let negative thoughts creep into his mind in the past and he didn't want to repeat the same mistakes. His only recourse, therefore, was to train hard. The desire to return to the Tamil Nadu fold for the 2016-17 Ranji Trophy season drove him to push the limits. He would even go to Chennai during the weekends and spend time with his personal coach S Balaji and the Lyca Kovai Kings franchise. "During the 2014-15 season when TN reached the Ranji final, I had a fractured finger and other problems after the first few games," he said. "Despite having a decent first-class average, I was still in and out of the side. So, obviously there was the fear that if I didn't score in a game I wouldn't play the next game and so I was restricting myself and not playing my natural game.
"I then decided that I should not think about what would happen if I didn't perform. The only way to get out of the negativity is to train hard. When you are tired after training, you don't have any energy to think; you just want to sleep."
Vijay could only pack in only ten batting sessions before the start of the Ranji Trophy. He missed the first three games, but was ready for the Madhya Pradesh game, where he scored a run-a-ball 41. But, his misfortune with injuries continued as he hurt his knee while fielding against Baroda. He missed the next game, but returned to play the remaining games to finish with 312 runs from seven innings, including a century and a fifty, at an average of 52. Vijay also smashed an unbeaten 103 off 81 balls against Bangladesh in a tour game.
Such exertions came with a price as Vijay had to live with a few niggles. While he couldn't bend his leg on the morning of the Punjab match, he retired hurt during his innings against Gujarat before returning to complete his hundred. "They say it is quite normal to get niggles after surgery," he said. "No matter how much I strengthen the surrounding muscles around the knee, if I am going to play a four-day match after a long time there would obviously be some impact. I needed to do some glute-activation work and pressure-release work to ensure there was no stiffness. I had to keep working on strengthening surrounding muscles and getting it better."
The upshot of the rehabilitation process was that Vijay developed a greater understanding of his body. "In the past, whenever I had a niggle, I would ignore it and let it heal on its own. Now, I tell the physio that I am facing some difficulty," he said. "In the past, I would train full throttle. Now, after the surgery, I have realised that it is important to give my body sufficient rest."
It is understood that the selectors rate Vijay as one of the top four or five all-rounders in the country. They also expect him to bowl a lot more. Vijay finished with seven wickets in the Ranji Trophy, including an impressive spell of 4-59 against Mumbai in the semi-finals.
"Obviously if I start bowling more, I will get better. To bowl more, I must be effective whenever I get to bowl - it doesn't matter if it is the 40th or the 100th over," he said. "I should start bowling more not just in the Ranji Trophy, but also in the TNCA league. Obviously this year has been a little difficult with the injuries; I have lost my run-up and my stride has become longer. I am working on those aspects. From that perspective, I am happy I did well in the semi-finals."
His hundred against the touring Bangladesh side earned him the praise of MSK Prasad, the chairman of the selection committee, but Vijay didn't want to get carried away. "During the Bangladesh game, I went in to bat at No.8. I never thought I will get to bat because I was slotted in at No.8 and other batsmen were already scoring big runs. But I got a chance and made use of it.
"The good thing about me over the last few days is I am not putting any pressure on myself. I don't wait for someone to appreciate me for what I am doing. I don't know how I have got this habit, but I try to play one match and give it my best - it doesn't matter which level of cricket I am playing in. It gives me satisfaction that I am not thinking about others, not competing with others. I am just trying to do well and get better as a cricketer everyday."
Having led Tamil Nadu to four wins in five games in the inter-state T20 tournament, Vijay said he enjoyed the challenges of captaincy and was looking forward to finishing games for the team. "Only when you start winning finals will people realise that players from Tamil Nadu are doing well," he said. "In the last two years, I played for India A because I did well in the knockouts. Only when we get into the knockouts do people start watching. That's how we get better as a team and better as individuals."