Shared News| December 29, 2019 3:55:55 pm
Andhra captain Hanuma Vihari. Reuters File
At 160/6, India had been under the pump at the Oval. As Ravindra Jadeja joined him, Hanuma Vihari suddenly became the senior partner on his Test debut. It was the fifth Test in England in September 2018. Vihari responded to the challenge with a half-century.
Cut to January 2019, and India were playing at the SCG to protect a 2-1 lead that would eventually give them their first-ever Test series win in Australia. When Ajinkya Rahane got out in the first innings, it was still anybody’s game. India needed a partnership to slam the door shut on Australia. Against Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Vihari dug in and added 101 runs for the fifth wicket with Cheteshwar Pujara. Rishabh Pant capitalised on the platform and hit a blazing hundred. In the Indian dressing-room, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri applauded Vihari’s contribution — a gritty 42.
Then, in the West Indies, he scored his maiden Test century and a couple of half-centuries under pressure. Vihari was praised for his technique and temperament.
The IPL, though, judges a batsman differently. 101-metre sixes are considered iconic there and brawn is celebrated over finesse. That’s the nature of the beast and Vihari, with only 39 sixes from 74 List A matches and 31 sixes from 74 T20s, wasn’t ‘IPL-qualified’. At the 2020 IPL auction, franchises broke the bank for lesser players, cricket-wise. Vihari, after being released by Delhi Capitals, went unsold.
After Andhra’s Ranji Trophy match against Bengal at Eden Gardens, the 26-year-old spoke to The Sunday Express. He admitted that sometimes “it hurts” to see utility is rewarded at the expense of quality. But Vihari will not change his game to get an IPL contract.
“You can’t really say it doesn’t hurt. (But) my mentality is such that I try to play whatever game I get the opportunity to play. If I get the opportunity to play for Andhra, I try to play the game with all my heart. And if I get a game for India, I try to play that with all my heart. I’m that kind of a character. So I don’t really think about an IPL contract, why am I not getting picked. You can only do those things that are in your control. I don’t really know what is ‘IPL-qualified’ batting. But I will not change my game, because I bat for my team. And I only think about the team I’m playing for and bat accordingly.”
Bat-speed is one aspect of Vihari’s game that holds him in good stead in tougher conditions, against fast bowlers. “I think it’s natural. Whatever I have from early on I didn’t try to change much. I try to stick to what I have and play to my strengths. And I try to play as long as possible,” Vihari explained.
A solid foundation allowed him not to tinker with his technique, when he graduated to Test cricket. “Small changes I made with my grip and backlift. But nothing major. My strength is my base and the technique which I play with. I always stick to that.”
Vihari had been a surprise pick for the Test series in England, which was criticised. He, however, kept himself immune to naysaying and showed character when he made his Test debut. “I had to score a lot of runs before I got into the Test squad. So that mental toughness was always there, because I had to grind through first-class cricket to come to the Test level. I had to grind a lot and once I have gotten into the Test squad, I know what exactly I’m capable of.”
Vihari, like Mayank Agarwal, is an example of a domestic thoroughbred making a seamless progression to Test cricket. Jasprit Bumrah is a freak, an exception. But the likes of Pujara, Vihari and Agarwal further attest the fact that away from the glamour and glitz, domestic first-class cricket remains the breeding ground for future Test players.
“They (captain and coach) were happy with my approach,” Vihari said, as he revisited his knock at Sydney. Cricketers value the opinion of the dressing-room. Expert opinions change quickly. Fans are even more fickle. So when, after stitching the partnership with Pujara, Vihari returned to the SCG dressing-room and Kohli and Shastri gave him a pat on the back, it felt satisfying. They were impressed with the youngster’s ability to read the situation.
That innings and the runs he scored in the West Indies helped Vihari cement his place in the Test squad. But getting into the playing XI for the home Tests against South Africa and Bangladesh was tougher. He was left out because of the team combination.
“It wasn’t frustrating at all. You have to understand the situation again. When you play at home, you have to play five bowlers. So one batsman will miss out and that usually be the No. 6 batsman. I understand the team combination. As long as we win, we never have a problem.”