By Khurram Habib
Hanuma Vihari’s rearguard action on Monday in Sydney with a torn hamstring may have put on hold his Test career — he is likely to be ruled out of the fourth and final Test — but it has certainly put him on a high pedestal and vindicated the faith regular skipper Virat Kohli reposed in him before the series.
Kohli had said in a chat with Steve Smith before the series that Vihari was one player he was looking forward to during the Test series. The regular India skipper carries him overseas for the lower middle-order. More often than not, Vihari turns up some gritty knocks here and there.
There could be a reason for Kohli’s liking for him and his grit.
The two overcame the same ordeal as youngsters. Kohli lost his father during a Ranji Trophy game when he was 18; Vihari lost his father when he was around 10. Kohli continued to play that Ranji game against Karnataka despite his father’s death in 2006. Vihari, too, returned on the third day of his father’s death to play a school final.
“He is very gritty. He turned up on the third day after his father’s death to play the school final and scored 80-odd runs. That was the determination he has right from his younger days. His mother has backed him to the hilt, surviving on a pension of his late father,” says his childhood coach John Manoj. “That was his first show of grit.”
The right-handed Hyderabad batsman was a non-performer in the ongoing series until Monday, not just with the bat but also on the field as he dropped a sitter on the fourth morning of the third Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground to provide Marnus Labuschagne a life.
But Monday’s performance virtually on one leg — he faced 161 deliveries for just 23 and was the slowest ever in Test history to get to double digit — was deemed by stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane as more important than the Andhra batsman’s century against the West Indies at Kingston last year.
“I thought his knock was more special than his hundred, the way he batted after he got injured…there was pressure and the way he managed his batting — his injury especially — it was really special to see,” said Rahane after the match.
Vihari is not known to budge in face of challenges. He doesn’t have the flamboyant shots of any of players he is fighting for the No.6 spot — Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant — but he plays within his limitations.
Even if Vihari were to get fit in time for the final Test, starting on Friday in Brisbane, he would not have been included in the squad for the home Tests against England as India generally go in with five batsmen at home.
Of his 12 Tests, Vihari has played just one in India. But he is the one the team trusts overseas as they look to play six batsmen abroad especially in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries.
Importantly, Vihari does what is needed by the team.
Back in 2018, during the previous tour of Australia, when India were struggling to find an opening pair after failures in the first two Tests, Vihari was pushed to open. He played an innings similar to the one on Monday, making an 80-ball eight and seeing off the new ball from where Cheteshwar Pujara took on, and India won the Test.
This isn’t the only style Vihari plays with as he showed in one innings in New Zealand in February last year. While his career strike rate is just over 42, he made a 70-ball 55 at a rate close to 80 in the Christchurch Test.
Vihari tried to start the tour quite aggressively, scoring 16 off 24 balls, before he was trapped leg-before by Hazlewood in the first Test in Adelaide. The moving pink ball may have affected him mentally and he went into his shell.
“Vihari was batting really well in the last three Test matches, but unfortunately, he didn’t get those big scores. Today, we all saw that special knock. To show that motivation and hunger, hanging there for the team. That is what we wanted from every individual — show that character on the field,” said Rahane.
Vihari, incidentally, is the only player to graduate to the senior India team from the victorious 2012 under-19 World Cup-winning team in Australia even though he averaged just 11.83 — not even half of Vijay Zol, India’s fifth best batsman in the the tournament.
But Vihari scored runs by tons in domestic cricket, averaging 56.75 overall in first-class cricket, while rest of those players fell by the wayside.
“He was always focussed when he returned home from that World Cup. He had a goal to play for the country. We had faith in him and always used to motivate and the result is there,” said Manoj.