About a year back, Vijay Shankar took on Lockie Ferguson and co. on India A's tour of New Zealand, then broke into the senior white-ball side, and made a compact 45 after a top-order collapse in an ODI in Wellington. Vijay's technique in swinging conditions had impressed the team management and the selectors so much that they took a punt on him for the No. 4 slot in the 50-over World Cup.
Vijay's family travelled all the way to England to watch him live on the biggest stage and although he took a first-ball wicket against Pakistan in the World Cup, the dream soon turned into a nightmare as a toe injury in the nets sidelined him after a mere three games in the tournament.
Vijay has fought more injuries and is now fit again, but hasn't been part of the India side since. With Hardik Pandya, too, recovering from a back surgery, Mumbai allrounder Shivam Dube was trialled recently in the shorter formats. Pandya was originally picked for the New Zealand A tour that begins this week, but the BCCI said his rehab was "taking longer than expected".
That has once again opened doors for Vijay by accident as he was called up at the last minute to replace Pandya in the A squad for the two warm-ups and the three one-dayers against New Zealand A which begin on Wednesday. Vijay had a decent workout with the bat in the second warm-up over the last weekend, helping finish the innings with a 41-ball 58, but proved expensive with the ball - his weaker suit - to concede 50 runs in only four overs in Lincoln. Vijay, though, had fared much better with the ball in the first warm-up, claiming 1 for 26 in six overs.
Vijay is now looking for a second chance in a country where he had been handed his first real chance last year. Recently, former India batting coach Sanjay Bangar had said on ESPNcricinfo that the conditions in New Zealand could suit Vijay's nippy medium-pace and he could give the senior side some batting depth and a fifth-bowling option in Tests.
The India squads for the three ODIs against New Zealand, which begin on February 5, and the two Tests, beginning on February 21, have not been announced yet. Vijay will hope the selectors will wait to look at the three-match one-day series against New Zealand A on whether he stands a chance as a seam-bowling allrounder or not.
It has not been an easy wait for Vijay since the World Cup. He was in line to play against South Africa A at home last year, but he split his webbing at a club game and spent further time on the sidelines.
"Coming back from an injury has always been a tough thing for me because I've always had some setbacks, which has kept me out for a while," Vijay told ESPNcricinfo during the domestic white-ball season. "Being out [of action] is very disturbing and irritating at times, but what has happened has happened and it's going to be a fresh start.
"I kept training hard, which kept me going. I travelled with the Tamil Nadu team to Jaipur [even when I wasn't playing]. By watching the game also you can learn. When I started batting, I wanted to implement that in my game and definitely, yes, [I've] been batting well and bowling well after those injuries."
Vijay had floated up and down the order in the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy and 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. After forging some crucial partnerships with his Tamil Nadu captain Dinesh Karthik in the 50-over matches, he nearly took them to the Syed Mushtaq Ali title. Once Tamil Nadu were reduced to 80 for 4 while chasing 181 in the domestic T20 final, Vijay took charge and made a calculated 27-ball 44. He had focused on his strengths - timing the ball and taking the chase deep as opposed to slogging against the Karnataka attack. He narrowed the equation down to four off two balls, before he was run out, by a rocket throw from Manish Pandey, despite a sprawling dive.
"If you see my opportunities, I've carried the bat in some games and a couple of games I batted down the order, where I've got out also," he said. "In whatever other opportunities I got I have done well, I just need to adapt to the situation and condition and deliver what the team needs. I need to take up responsibility and deliver at that particular moment. That will give me more satisfaction. Scoring 100 or 150 matters, but playing tough situations at some point is also important."
Despite the narrow loss in the Mushtaq Ali final, Vijay did show that he had learnt from the Nidahas Trophy final, where he was desperately swiping and missing balls against Mustafizur Rahman. Vijay's personal coach and former Railways player S Balaji said that they have been working on ensuring that Vijay maintains a stable base when he meets the ball.
"We discuss on the balance at the crease during training," Balaji said. "If you see Rohit Sharma, he has the best balance in the whole world. You can't copy him, but we're trying to make it better [for Vijay]. If you look at M Vijay as well, his balance and control when he hits the ball is good. You need to be in proper position when you want to hit the ball wherever.
"Last year during IPL, he tried to hit the ball straight and over the leg side. We're looking more at the off side now, behind point and over covers, where there are vacant areas. If you hit straight, there're always two fielders to stop the ball if you can't clear the rope. Sixes can come later on, you need to build the innings - maybe start at a strike rate of 80 and then move to 150 in T20s - and we're working on that."
On the bowling front, Vijay had taken the new ball on the seamer-friendly pitches in Jaipur during the Vijay Hazare Trophy and then hit hard lengths in the Mushtaq Ali semi-final against Rajasthan in Surat, where he returned with 2 for 13 in his four overs. While Vijay hadn't picked up a bagful of wickets in the domestic season, he was pleased with the way his bowling was coming along following multiple injuries in 2019.
"With the ball the numbers might have not been like three-four wickets, but then it's very important for me to bowl well," he said. "Sometimes you might not get wickets, but it's important to bowl tight and sometimes you will end up picking wickets at some stage, but it's important to keep at it and try to execute it."
Vijay and Balaji were initially targeting a "big" IPL at the turn of 2020, and the latest India A call-up has come as a pleasant surprise. With his ability to bounce back and having made it to the World Cup last year, he has fond memories from the last New Zealand tour to look back on as he prepares to grab his second chance one year on in the same country.