When Hanuma Vihari was named in the Indian squad for the final two Tests against England, it created a buzz back home. Despite the Andhra player having scored a little over 5000 runs in first-class cricket with a top score of 302 not out, there were many who asked the question, “Who is Hanuma Vihari?”
The 24-year-old raised more eyebrows on Friday when he was handed a Test debut for the fifth and final game against England, the team management’s decision to consider him over Karun Nair receiving flak from some former players including the great Sunil Gavaskar. Vihari, known for his composure and simplicity with his state side, gave a reasonable first impression to the wider world of his talent with a fine 56 to bail India out of deep trouble in the first innings.
When he strode out to bat on Saturday evening, he was full of nerves and excitement. From a rare breed of aspiring young batsmen cut out predominantly for the longer format, Vihari played some uncharacteristic shots. It was primarily due to the hostile nature of bowling, first from James Anderson and Stuart Broad and then from Ben Stokes. The conditions — grey clouds and the lights turned on — made it all the more frightening for the debutant. One ball swung away, the other swung back in; Vihari enduring a baptism by fire.
He could have been out for nought off the third ball but to his good luck England didn’t review it. Stokes even had a verbal go at him but Vihari fought the battle head-on. Once the early nerves vanished, he settled in nicely and started to bat with confidence and composure like he was playing a Ranji Trophy game back home.
He managed to survive the testy evening and then batted with the responsibility of an accomplished international cricketer on Sunday morning. In the company of Ravindra Jadeja, he saw off Anderson and Broad yet again and almost took lunch unbeaten before Moeen Ali ended his stay. Vihari though had already made a strong first impression.
Speaking to the media on Sunday evening, Vihari said pressure made him do unusual things and the pep talk from Virat Kohli made him feel confident. “Initially I felt the pressure to be honest, going in yesterday, cloudy conditions and Stuart Broad and (James) Anderson bowling at you. I felt a little bit of pressure but once I got myself in, it eased my nerves and it was an important partnership between me and Jadeja.
“Initially, as I said, I had nerves. With that I wasn’t good with my decision making. But having Virat at the other end made my job a little easier I guess. His inputs helped me initially. He’s been playing very confidently throughout the series and his confidence boosted me at the other end. I will give a lot of credit to him for helping me out yesterday initially. But once I settled down, the wicket was very good to bat on especially with the medium pacers it got a lot slower yesterday. I got myself in and tried to capitalise as much as I could.”
Before Vihari arrived in England, he had a good run with India ‘A’ this season. In his last first-class game, he had scored 148 against South Africa ‘A’ at Alur. Vihari said he spoke to India ‘A’ coach Rahul Dravid just before his debut and the legend’s words of encouragement acted as confidence booster.
“He’s a legend of the game, everyone knows that, but his inputs especially in the batting department. I called him the day before I made my debut and told him I was making my debut. He spoke to me for a couple of minutes and gave his inputs and I thought it eased my nerves a little bit, because it’s coming from a legend and you know that you belong here.
“He just told me that you have the skill set, you have the mind set and the temperament, just go out there and enjoy yourself. That is what he told me before the game, and I tried to do that. I would like to give him a lot of credit for that because my journey with India ‘A’ was very important for me to come here, because not only that I performed there, but the way he gave us inputs, that made me a better player.”
Vihari, who has worked his way into the Indian side, said he is aspiring for a lot more now after getting a taste of international cricket. “I know I have to do a lot of things to cement my place in the Indian team, which I definitely want to do. Getting a 50 on debut is just the start. Going forward, scoring a lot of runs for India is my main goal.”