India vs West Indies: Hanuma Vihari’s grit a middle-order necessity
To understand the most significant facet of Hanuma Vihari’s five-Test old career, one must start from the beginning. The 25-year-old’s debut in the fifth and last Test of India’s tour of England in 2018 was overshadowed by the bigger news of Karun Nair getting overlooked. He scored a half-century too in that Oval Test, but it was No. 8 Ravindra Jadeja’s unbeaten 86 that was hailed as a more gallant effort. (Full scorecard)
Cut to the Boxing Day Test at MCG, when Vihari was pushed to the top after regular openers KL Rahul and Murali Vijay failed. He was tested by Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and even took a dent on his helmet from a Pat Cummins bouncer. But his resilient 8 off 66 balls at the start was lost in the applause over No. 3 Cheteshwar Pujara’s 109.
“The management liked the way I was composed wherever I played, in Australia or England. Honestly, I think I can deliver in a big way. I am looking forward to the Tests that are coming up after the World Cup. Now that I have tasted international cricket, I don’t just want to contribute to the team’s success, I want to dominate like all big players do,” Vihari had told Hindustan Times in an interview post the Australia tour.
In the shadows
And when Vihari did get the chance to play the central character over two sessions against West Indies on Saturday, Jasprit Bumrah’s six-wicket blitz — including a hattrick — seemed to efface the batsman’s toil. It is in the shadows of flashier performances by his teammates that Vihari seems to slowly grow, a feature that has been the most persistent theme in his career since his U-19 days.
In the current scheme of things, the India team management can very well do with the low-key approach of Vihari in the middle-order.
With Pujara, Rahane and Vihari, the Test team seems to have players who cannot only score big, but also buckle down and grind it out. Vihari is still a long way from being India’s go-to man under pressure but he certainly has shown the composure to stick to the crease when the need arises. His 111 off 225 balls on Saturday is a prime example.
He came on to the crease after the departure of Rahane on Day 1 and contributed 12 in 38-run stand with Kohli. That was followed by three stands with Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja and Ishant Sharma in which he never looked to get ahead of his partner.
When others perished, he just continued to take fresh stance. It is in this quality of staying back and delivering that Vihari seems to be most comfortable in. “When you are batting at No 6 the intent has to be positive. At that position you will be batting with a batsman and then a wicket falls and you will be with the wicketkeeper or the lower order,” Vihari said at the end of the day.
His intent was indeed positive with the way he stood and delivered a straight drive off West Indies’ senior-most pacer Kemar Roach for his first boundary. Vihari also oozed confidence when he danced down the track against off-spinner Rahkeem Cornwall to smoke him through mid-off ropes.
His nonchalance often showed through the 16 boundaries hit by him but they were stretched far between. In the lull periods, he defended with a straight bat. It isn’t as if he wasn’t challenged but Vihari’s effect was in being able to survive and make it count.
He was even dropped once at first slip when a Cornwall delivery touched his edge but John Campbell could not hold. DRS too came to his rescue too when he was given out leg-before to a Holder delivery that nipped back late. He was on 79 off 148 deliveries then, with 13 boundaries. Vihari made all the reprieves count as well.
Not with flamboyance but with grit. The next time Vihari got four runs off bowler was more than an hour later, in the post-lunch session off Shannon Gabriel.
That marked Vihari’s entry into the nineties, in 187 balls. From 79 to 90, Vihari took 39 balls. Vihari had been in this zone before in the first Test in Antigua where he fell for 93 but not on Saturday.
The nervous nineties were crossed in just 13 balls as Vihari reached three figures for the first time in Test cricket. His patience over two days had finally paid off.
“When I was batting overnight on 42, I didn’t sleep very well. My thoughts were on how to get a big score and I am happy that I crossed that three-figure mark. I’m really happy to get a hundred in those conditions,” he said.
“I knew they would come hard in the first session. That is the best way to get us out early. They did get an early wicket but I just wanted to bat patiently, wait for the balls which were in my area.
“I was batting at 82 during lunch. I was patient, they were bowling really well. We scored 400 plus but that doesn’t show the way they bowled. It was challenging conditions and I really relished it.”
If there is one thing has stood out in Vihari’s career since his U-19 days when he was part of India’s 2012 World Cup winning team, it’s his perseverance. Captain Unmukt Chand (246 runs in six matches), Smit Patel (178), Prashant Chopra (172), Baba Aparajith (171), Vijay Zol (151) were the stars of that campaign while Vihari stayed at the background with a tally of just 71 in six matches.
That was just the start. In the next few years, Vihari emerged as the one meant for the long run. He shifted to Andhra Pradesh from Hyderabad in the 2016-17 season and started amassing runs in domestic cricket.
“If you play in the U-19 Indian team it will somewhat help you have that recognition. But as a player it will not help much because there is a huge gap between U-19, Ranji Trophy or international level. You have to grow as a player very quickly to get into the state side and then further.
“After U-19, I worked hard for close to 4-5 years. Virat (Kohli) was exceptional to get India call up very early after U-19 but I had to really work hard to get selected for the senior team because of many reasons,” Vihari told in the earlier interview.
The hard work Vihari mentioned resulted in 752 runs in six matches with an average of 94 in the 2017-18 season. His first-class career average had touched 59.79—the highest in the world at that time, even better than Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Rohit Sharma.
Vihari had finally arrived. He was already turning out for India A by when he was asked to join the squad in England for the last two Tests of the 2018 tour. It was again time for Vihari to start from the shadows. The century at Kingston may be the first sign of Vihari emerging out of it.