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Series Editorial

Hanuma Vihari needs to show he’s more than just the cameos

Hanuma Vihari
by Rohit Sankar 5 minute read

To save his Test career, Hanuma Vihari might have to do more than just lurking in the shadows and showing the odd flashes of brilliance, writes Rohit Sankar.

Hanuma Vihari had an eventful Test debut in England two years ago. When on nought, Stuart Broad nipped one back into him and hit him on the pads. The England fielders went up in unison, but umpire Joel Wilson was unmoved. Had England reviewed the decision, Vihari would have walked back for a debut duck.

An over later, with Vihari still on zero, Broad had another one swinging back into the right-hander which pinged him on the pads. This time, the umpire raised his finger, and after a lot of deliberation with skipper Virat Kohli, Vihari reviewed the decision. Ball tracking showed that the ball would have gone well over the leg-stump, giving Vihari another life.

His quota of luck for the day wasn’t done. Two balls later, he took off for a quick single by dabbing one to the cover fielder, almost desperate to get off the mark on debut. The fielder missed an underarm shy at the stumps and Vihari was safe, yet again.

As a direct hit found him short of the crease on Saturday against Australia, Vihari’s Test career appeared to have come an entire circle, a little more than two years since it began.

The middle-order batsman broke into the Indian setup boasting of one of the highest first-class averages in modern cricket. Currently at 56.99, it is still within the top 20 batting averages in the history of first-class cricket. Consistency and scoring big were Vihari’s forte in domestic cricket. From 2013/14 to 2017/18, Vihari hit at least one double hundred every domestic season. When that didn’t get him into the national setup, Vihari hit a triple century in 2017. Less than a year later, he was playing Test cricket.

Two years and 20 innings in, a seemingly out-of-form Vihari has the trust of the Indian team management; he was retained for the Sydney Test even when opener Mayank Agarwal, who hit two double hundreds in the home season, was left out. But statistics, which possibly got him into the side, are now going against Vihari.

In his chat with Steve Smith ahead of the Australia Tests, Virat Kohli spoke of Vihari as the player to watch out for in the series. It wasn’t the first time the India captain had been lavish in his praise of the 27-year-old batsman.

“He looks confident and the dressing room feels really calm watching him bat. I think that’s a quality he possesses naturally because his game is so correct,” Kohli had said back in 2019 when Vihari scored a century in the Caribbean.

Technically perfect, statistically impressive and a likeable personality: there’s little wrong with Vihari. In fact, he ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to India’s requirement for a gritty middle-order batsman. However, all of that hasn’t translated into runs, and it feels like Vihari is just about hanging in there, drifting into an extended rough patch and on the cusp of being excluded. That might indeed be the case when Virat Kohli returns from his paternity duties and Ravindra Jadeja retains his place as the all-rounder India have forever sought in their Test line-up.

That’s not to say Vihari hasn’t performed. His overall numbers need to be viewed in context too. For instance, in New Zealand last year, Vihari was one of only four Indian players to make a fifty in the Test series. In the practice game against Australia A in the ongoing tour, Vihari compiled a solid hundred, which was overshadowed by a blistering century from Rishabh Pant, who smashed 22 runs in the final over of a day’s play to get to a 73-ball 100 and help India A declare before the next day began.

At the MCG in the second Test, his fifty-run stand with Ajinkya Rahane helped India out of a tricky spot after Shubman Gill and Cheteshwar Pujara had been dismissed in quick succession. But, Vihari’s 21 was never in the spotlight — worth noting that Pant, who made just eight runs more, was talked about for altering the momentum in the innings — as India took a considerable lead, with Rahane making a hundred and Jadeja scoring a fifty.

The bottom line is that while Vihari hasn’t exactly floundered like it is made out to be at times, he hasn’t stood out either. It can be argued with conviction that Vihari has been lucky to stay put in a strong Test team brimming with talent. It’s hard to see him being a part of the side when they have a full-strength team at their disposal. That’s unless he can draw inspiration from his own domestic exploits and get those numbers ringing again with a big one in the next few innings in Australia.

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