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India v New Zealand

Pigeonholing Hanuma Vihari as an overseas specialist doesn’t make sense for anyone

by Sarah Waris 6 minute read

In a world obsessed with numbers, Hanuma Vihari’s average of ‘just’ 32 in Test cricket fails to display the impact he has had on Indian cricket. Often thrown into the deep end in tough conditions while sitting out at home, he has stood tall in his limited chances, but is that treatment fair?

An incident, not privy to most outside India, sums up the life of Hanuma Vihari. During his epic knock of 23 runs off 161 deliveries at the SCG earlier this year, an innings where he battled through physical injury and showed his mental resolve to help India to a draw, Babul Supriyo, a singer-turned-MP tweeted, “Playing 109 balls to score 7 ! That is atrocious to say the least. Hanuma Bihari [sic]  has not only killed any Chance for India to achieve a historic win but has also murdered Cricket.. not keeping win an option, even if remotely, is criminal. PS: I know that I know nothing abt cricket.”

The cricketer managed to keep his calm, not getting into an argument with an individual who ‘knew nothing about cricket’, but still managed to have the last laugh with a tweet that said,”*Hanuma Vihari.”

It can be argued that Supriyo’s opinion hardly accounts for much, because, well, who even takes politicians seriously about politics? But as one dwells on it further, Vihari’s reply only goes on to reveal the thick skin of a cricketer who probably has heard even more nonsensical remarks in a career that hides more than it reveals.

A ‘tough runs’ kinda guy

Vihari has played 12 Tests in his career since his debut at The Oval in 2018, scoring 624 runs at an average of 32.84. Yes, ‘just’ 32.84. In an era where averaging anything less than 45 is considered a blot, Vihari’s numbers are, well, mediocre at best. It doesn’t matter if 11 of his 12 games have been overseas, and by overseas, I do not mean Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or the UAE, where conditions are almost India-like. Vihari has played six Tests in Australia, two each in West Indies and New Zealand along with a solitary game in England.

In those 11 Tests away, he has made 614 runs with one hundred and four fifties at a slightly better average of 34.11. But it really doesn’t matter. In a team of Virat Kohlis and Rohit Sharmas and Ajinkya Rahanes and Cheteshwar Pujaras, in a side of superstars, Vihari, without the oomph or flair or experience or steel, never really fitted in.

Not even when he scored a quickfire 55 in just 70 balls on a wicket at Christchurch against the trio of Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee in a low-scoring game. Not even when he ended the tour of West Indies as India’s leading run-scorer with knocks of 32, 93, 111 and 53*. Nope, not even when he opened in Australia in 2018 during the Boxing Day Test, in what was only his third match, making only 8 and 13 in the game, batting for 80 and 53 minutes, respectively, facing the second-most deliveries by an India batter in the second innings. And not even in his debut game, where he stood at the crease for over three hours to end as India’s second-highest run-scorer in the first innings, facing 124 balls to guide India  near England’s total of 332, and warding off threatening deliveries from Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes without signs of nerves.

Since his debut, Vihari is the sixth-highest run-scorer overseas for India (neutral venues excluded), playing six games fewer than Cheteshwar Pujara, who leads the list. His average of 34.11 is the fourth-best among players with more than 610 runs in this duration, and only three players have more fifty-plus scores than him. In wins, his average leapfrogs to 55.16, which is the best among all India cricketers with at least 180-plus runs in an overseas win since Vihari’s debut. Including draws, his average is an impressive 50, indicating that whenever he does well, the chances of the team losing lessens.

But it doesn’t really matter, for he is the first to be benched when a more ‘popular’ player rises the ranks. He continues to be ignored at home, and well, recently, even abroad, having not played a single Test against England despite his past showings. While seniors are backed, sometimes rigidly, despite their poor run, Vihari, who has been a tried-and-tested performer against the toughest, quietly warms the benches.

What next for Vihari?

His recent axing for the series against New Zealand, with the selectors instead flying him to South Africa to play against the ‘A’ side is, at best, puzzling. While it could indicate that Vihari is primed to be the main man for the senior team when they meet the Proteas at the end of the year, and thus, want him to get acclimatised to the conditions, the second view, and this is more logical, is that the player is not in the fray for home Tests.

With Virat Kohli sitting out of the first game against the Kiwis, Vihari could have been a solid option in the middle-order, but the inclusion of Shreyas Iyer along with the option of playing Shubman Gill at four shows the Andhra Pradesh cricketer might never be a regular in the India XI at home. An FC record of 55 after 94 games, in which he has 21 hundreds and a high score of 302* should make Vihari a must-have in the side. Coupled with his technique to counter the seam and swing overseas, an almost-ready-made option for all conditions is in front of India, but it’s almost like they don’t want the easy way out. Instead, Iyer has been given his maiden call-up, and it’s not to say he wouldn’t make the most of his chances; it’s just that having a player who has mastered the tougher conditions deserved it too.

Vihari’s future remains uncertain, and that’s unfortunate, to say the least, after his unheralded performances. He could have a poor series against South Africa ‘A’, and might not play any Test match that follows. His career could go the Karun Nair way, or he might have to continue warming the benches as he sees the Indian management prefer players who have excelled at home in overseas Test matches as well. His average might never reach 50, or even 40, and he might forever be seen with scrutiny in a world that is obsessed with numbers.

All of it might not make sense, but it doesn’t really matter for he’s done what has been asked of him, time and time again.

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