Hanuma Vihari and the struggles of Indian cricket’s Aam Aadmi

It's tough to see Hanuma Vihari in a lead role, he is more suited to be the strong and silent side hero. The one with forlorn puppy eyes, reluctant to express his inner feelings for the leading lady, who has already lost her heart elsewhere.

If the late RK Laxman had been alive to pen a cartoon on Saturday, he might have chosen to make his common man wince at sight of the human personification of his creation Hanuma Vihari run himself out, dragging his career to the ledge. Vihari is easy to like, easier to forget. His real worth is probably known best only to his team-mates. Outsiders wonder why he wasn’t dropped to make place for x, y or even z.

It’s tough to see him in a lead role, he is more suited to be the strong and silent side hero. The one with forlorn puppy eyes, reluctant to express his inner feelings for the leading lady, who has already lost her heart elsewhere. It’s the kind of character, Bollywood inserts in the script with the intention of connecting with India’s many single males.

Reporters think about writing articles on his game, but they keep waiting. Like this correspondent. Quotes were solicited last year from the coach Ravi Shastri.. “Gutsy, ticker, tremendous team-man” he had said. No wonder, Virat Kohli too had picked him as the batsman to watch out for this series in his pre-series chat with Steve Smith.

His batting isn’t spectacular but that’s exactly they wanted from the moment he walked into the team on a lovely sun-lit day at Southampton in England in 2018. He was drafted in the middle of the series along with Prithvi Shaw and both had walked to the training session that morning in a city from where Titanic ship had started its ill-fated journey. Almost immediately, he impressed. Even as the team management decided not to risk Shaw in English conditions and Shastri continued to work with his game in nets, they chose to play Vihari in the Oval Test.

And he found himself staring at trouble, right away. But he dug in superbly. That was also the game Ravindra Jadeja played out his best Test knock thus far, an extremely competent 86 against the swing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, certainly his best overseas and confirmed that he can be played as a Test allrounder anywhere in the world. Defensively, that was as tight as he had ever been. Little forward press, arms tucked in, and lots of leaves. But, look, the attention has drifted to others, instead of staying on the subject – Vihari.

India were 94 for 2 when Anderson blew in. When he left after six breath-taking overs, India were 109 for 4 and his figures read: 2 wickets, 8 runs in those six overs. Vihari was subject to a mouthful from Stokes, so much so that Kohli chose to intervene. Once, at the end of the over when Vihari had top-edged a six and nearly holed out, trying to drag-pull from outside off, Stokes had a go. Kohli charged across. Neither the type to shy away. Neither did. Vihari stayed in his bubble, wearing the same resolute look he has done to this day while batting.

It was a pressure-cooker situation but Vihari had handled it with great grit and good skills and helped Jadeja pull India out of trouble. He had then reminded one of Subramaniam Badrinath to an extent. As secure in the style of compact defence. Even the bat held in the stance in a similar way. His intent and heart had unsurprisingly caught the gaze of the management.

Since then, he has continued to play gritty cameos. In India, he showed he can tackle reverse swing, one of the better handlers in this team. He opens out his stance, crouches, doesn’t let his front leg come in the way. Last time in Australia, he showed he can handle bounce, punching off the back foot.

He likes that area within the crease. He trusts his hands and believes he has control over his feet and would not get in a lbw tangle. He is aware of his off stump. He leaves. He punches. He stays quiets. He runs. He also adapts. Little tweaks. After the Adelaide debacle, he started to move towards off stump in his stance at Melbourne. Shastri would have liked it, perhaps even suggested it.

In the first innings, his partnership with Ajinkya Rahane was the first Indian resistance. In some respects, he showed even more intent than Rahane, trying to take on Nathan Lyon. A late cut and sweep materialised before he perhaps over-extended himself. He had just got a four but wanted to continue to try to upset Lyon’s lengths. Another sweep was attempted but Lyon’s over-spun meant it bounced more and popped up off his gloves. Resolute look blinked into a sullenness, as he trudged back. Just three innings, and already tongues had begun to wag about his presence in the team.

This time around in Sydney, the intent was missing (5 from 38 balls) but he looked solid. Even as Cheteshwar Pujara turned his game around after Rahane’s fall, trying to score very briskly off the old ball, Vihari held fort. Perhaps, he wanted to give the strike to Pujara or perhaps the long personal lull forced him, he went for a non-existent run.

A short while later, on ABC radio, Sunil Gavaskar would offer his post-mortem on Vihari’s knock. “When as a batsman you get into too much of a defensive groove, you sense an opportunity which might actually not be an opportunity. Since he was bogged down for so long, he thought the ball was past the fielder. Also, often batsmen think fast bowlers aren’t athletic.” Fair observations and incidentally so far in his brief but promising career, Vihari had shown he was alert to such moments. A game awareness of when to keep the score moving and when to hold fort, and an understanding of the skill sets of the opposition.

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On a vital day in his career, both eluded him. Now, it all comes down to the second innings unless his backers in the team think tank are able to withstand the pressure to let him go if he fails again. Else thoughts would go to KL Rahul, Suryakumar Yadav, Shreyas Iyer or even the fallen openers Mayank Agarwal and Shaw, and all the other numerous contenders. However, the team management and Vihari would hope that he scripts his own future with a substantial knock. It would need guts, heart, and skill. He has it, no doubt about it but will it all come together in time, with possibly the series and his career on line?

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