Hanuma Vihari: A chip off Laxman-Dravid block

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Hanuma Vihari plays a shot on Day 2 of the second Test against the West Indies at Sabina Park in Kingston on Saturday. (Photo: BCCI)

Hanuma Vihari is your everyman cricketer, the one without tattoos and strut, the one who barely tweets or instagrams, the who can hit the streets in the anonymity of a cap and pass of un-mobbed, the one who hardly wears his emotions on the sleeves, the one who hasn’t yet been lulled into the accompanying glamour of the game. Heck, he doesn’t own a luxury car or a swanky villa. So much so that he’s an anachronism, a chip off the Laxman-Dravid block, the one whose crease-occupation is as quiet as his demeanour. But what he has proved to be since his controversial debut last year at Oval is that he’s a remarkably equipped batsman at this level, a reliable batsman in crisis, a safety valve who the captain and team management can entrust any chore and expect him to not shirk away from it. At times, he has surpassed their expectations.

Surpass the expectations — it could well be the story of his life. When teens of his age were happy scoring 50s in U-14 matches, he was churning out 250s, when teens of his age were content facing 100 balls in the nets, he would be satisfied only if he had faced a minimum of 1,000. His childhood coach John Manoj once told this newspaper that Vihari made him visit the physiotherapist on a weekly basis. “Other boys used to get tired after facing 100 deliveries. Vihari would be just warming up after facing hundred balls. He used to make me send so many throw-downs that I had to visit the doctor every week. I have always expected big things from him, but he keeps exceeding all my expectations,” he says.

Another incident made Manoj realise that his soft-spoken ward is marked for bigger feats. Vihari was just 12 when his father passed away, but in five days he returned to play a school game and smacked an unbeaten 82. “That day, I realised the boy has the courage and determination to become a great player, that he genuinely has the stuff,” he says.

Baptism by fire

Both these qualities, Vihari has staggeringly exuded in his still-nascent career. Imagine the kind of gruelling audition he underwent in his first 10 outings. With the Karun Nair non-selection raging, the pressure cranking up for Mayank Agarwal’s inclusion, he was walking on fire, before he walked in at No 6 in Oval, the team in strife at 103-4, the English bowlers making his life as hostile as possible, beating him, bruising him, acquainting him with Test life. But remarkably he didn’t wither. He gradually allayed his nerves and showed poise to first hang around and then accelerate. There were edges, misses and iffy moments, but he was unruffled and defiant.

It was the poise that he exuded then and the canniness of his off-breaks that pulled him into the scheme in Australia, where playing two spinners is bogus unless it’s in Sydney. It was also his readiness to embrace any task given to him that endeared him to the team management and made Ravi Shastri speak glowingly about him. “He’s someone whom we can give any job and expect more than 100 per cent. His willingness to accept challenges and improve himself is terrific,” Shastri had said before the Perth Test.

The next Test, in Melbourne, he was tasked to open at a critical stage of the series, with Australia having fought back to level the series in Perth, their attack refreshed and rejuvenated. They unrelenting inspected and interrogated every bit of his technique and temperament. He didn’t flinch, survived the early onslaught and saw off the new ball. He made just eight runs off 66 balls, but the effort had Shastri and Kohli repeatedly raving. “That effort was as valuable as Pujara’s hundred,” Kohli had remarked after the match that eventually nailed India’s maiden series win in Australia.

Since that effort, his career has only blossomed, enhancing his reputation as India’s go-to man in crisis, a possible to the No 6 spot since the departure of VVS Laxman, besides the man who infuses the balance. He might not be as graceful as Laxman — he’s not graceless cricketer, he’s your everyman cricketer — but he relishes the sniff of a crisis like peerless Laxman. In this series alone, he had been part of several re-engineering acts. In the first innings in North Sound, he strode in with teetering at 93-4. With Ajinkya Rahane he added 82 pressure-releasing runs. Remarkably, he didn’t withdraw into a shell but batted freely to reverse the momentum. The circumstances were much favourable in the second innings, but he didn’t squander the opportunity to cement his spot in the side. He fell short of his 100 by seven runs, but shrugged it off with a warm smile: “Sometime, in my career, I will reach that figure.”

Consistency and adaptability

It was typical Vihari. In the next outing, he was again India’s contingency man. India were 164-4, soon departed Rahane, then Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, but Vihari kept building his innings without any fuss. With Rahane and Pant, he batted steadily, with Jadeja, he became warier in preserving his wicket, but after left-hander’s departure, he became more judicious in rotating strike and clinical in consigning the bad balls to the ropes.

His consistency and adaptability are but an affirmation that he unquestionably belongs to this level. But you get the feeling that it’s just the start of a grand story, the narrative of an everyman cricketer who keeps surpassing expectations.

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