Hanuma Vihari is fighting severe jet lag and can barely remember the last 48 hours. “It was a blur to be honest… I really don’t remember doing anything much apart from sleeping,” he gushes. The 24-year-old middle-order batsman, however, remembers vividly the heady fortnight that preceded this niggling hangover, right from the moment he was included in the Indian team for the final Test at The Oval, to those dreamy five days when he made his first confident strides as an international cricketer. This England trip was short, but “deeply satisfying.” “Making your Test debut at The Oval against the likes of Anderson and Broad is something everyone aspires for,” he says.
Despite being with the squad, Vihari had no inkling about his impending Test debut. In fact, it was only a couple of days before the Test when head coach Ravi Shastri told him that he will be playing. “When Ravi sir told me about it I was excited, but tried to remain calm and focused.” After spending a sleepless night, he called up Rahul Dravid, his India A coach on match eve. “He didn’t drill me with technicalities. He told me to take it easy for the first 15 minutes when I’m batting and then the rest will just fall in space.” The 20-minute conversation helped soothe his frayed nerves.
His big moment came towards the end of Day 2, when he walked out to bat with India more than 200 runs adrift. “I barely had much time to think, as we had lost two quick wickets (Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane), but thankfully I had captain Kohli batting at the other end.” True to Dravid’s words, Vihari’s first 15 minutes in international cricket was eventful, to say the least. James Anderson and Stuart Broad were getting the Dukes ball to swing around prodigiously and run-scoring proved to be a herculean task. Vihari had a slice of good fortune early on when he survived a rather close lbw call, after he misread Broad’s booming in-swinger. That’s when his captain walked up to him and gave him a simple advice.
“They had a plan to bowl in-swingers and trap me lbw. After 15 minutes or so, Kohli told me to open up my stance a bit and bat three steps outside my crease,” Vihari says. “This helped my batting enormously. I could counter the swing and scoring runs became easier.” After the early struggle, Vihari came into his own, hitting some languid cover drives and impressing everyone with his willingness to grind it out. He finished with 56 on his debut.
After an auspicious start in international cricket, Vihari failed to open his account in the second innings, getting caught behind to a short-pitched delivery from Ben Stokes. Even in the first innings, England tested him out with bouncers, one of which was top-edged for a six. Despite a promising half-century, doubts persist about his ability to handle short-pitched stuff. But the Andhra batsman plays down such talk. “When you’re playing international cricket, bowlers will keep doing things to dismiss you.”
Sanath Kumar, someone who has watched from close quarters how Vihari has become a hard-nosed batsman, believes he needs to curb playing instinctive shots early on. “He can play the horizontal shots very well, but he needs to curb them early on, like that hook shot he played in the first innings that went for a six. Such moments of indiscretion can go against him. But again, he was making his Test debut and I think the situation got the better of him,” Kumar says. Going forward, Kumar believes Vihari has the game suited to meet the demands of the shorter formats.
“He has the game to succeed in the shorter formats. For that, he must get out of his shell a bit more, look to play more innovative strokes and perhaps rotate the strike a bit more. Trust me, he has the game for it,” Kumar adds.
Vihari did show glimpses of that side of his game when he scored a rapid 131-ball 147 against West Indies A in a tri-series ODI competition in June this year. That knock, replete with 13 boundaries and five sixes, illustrated Vihari’s burgeoning repertoire and ability to adapt to the shorter formats of the game.
Vihari, though, is not dreaming of donning the blue India jersey just yet. Instead, he is focusing on the upcoming domestic season, which begins with the Vijay Hazare Trophy, where Andhra takes on Kerala in the opening duel. “I am not thinking too far ahead right now. I have made my Test debut, and enjoyed my outing. After a short break, my focus will be on leading my team in the Vijay Hazare Trophy and the remaining domestic season.” Fresh from his England sojourn, Vihari could be the catalyst for Andhra this season.