When Hanuma Vihari was 9, his father took him to the Gymkhana ground in Hyderabad to watch Ambati Rayudu bat. There they saw Rayudu pull off an exquisite on-drive, a shot that Satyanarayana would challenge his son to master and reproduce. The young Vihari would take it on too and spend the next two days practicing nothing but the on-drive at a local maidaan, and then impress his father with his rendition of it. His mother, Vijayalakshmi, even recalls the boy leaving their home by himself and walking some 5-6 km to the Gymkhana ground a few days later, just to see Rayudu bat and maybe compare their on-drives.
It wouldn’t take long for Vihari to start holding court at that very Gymkhana ground with bat in hand, and play not just the on-drive but an assortment of easy-on-the-eye strokes. And hundreds would walk in from far and wide to see him score a sensational 250 in an under-14 school match, earning him comparisons with not Rayudu but a slightly more high-profile Hyderabad batsman.
“They all wanted to see who this little boy was, making such big scores. I had predicted back then that someday this boy would go on to play for India. I’d only said that about one other batsman, VVS Laxman,” recalls John Manoj, who coached the future India star in his early days and would similarly take Vihari under his wings. And earlier this week, the 24-year-old edged one step closer to making the veteran coach’s words come true, for the second time, by being picked in the Indian squad for the final two Tests in England.
Vihari had been recommended to Manoj as a kid by a former Ranji player, Nagesh Hammond. And it was Satyanarayana who’d get his son for practice on his first day at the St John’s Sports Coaching Foundation. Unfortunately, the senior Vihari wouldn’t be around to see his son being spoken of as the next VVS Laxman. Satyanarayana, who worked at Singareni College and spent most of his weekdays away from home, passed away in 2005. Vihari was just 12 then. But while the rest of the family was trying to deal with the tragedy, the youngster would remain untraceable. It was only 4-5 days later that Vijayalakshmi would discover that he’d been playing a school match, and winning it for his team with a score of 82.
“That’s the day I realised my son will definitely go on to achieve bigger things. For someone that young to have that determination at a time like that was unbelievable,” says the proud mother. Vihari’s single-mindedness would encourage Vijayalakshmi to take a big risk too. Rather than look for a job, she decided to run her family on the pension she was receiving from her late husband’s employers, and instead took a deep dive towards supporting her son’s cricket. She would take him for practice and matches daily and sit around watching him play all day long. And with good reason too, she says now.
“Not taking up a job meant we had lots of financial struggles. I wanted to monitor his cricket closely and see how he was doing considering the risk we’d taken, not just with not me not working, but also that he was playing cricket at the cost of his studies,” she explains. The risk Vijayalakshmi speaks about in terms of Vihari’s academics was unprecedented too, considering she asked him to choose cricket over academics when he was approaching in 10th standard.
“I didn’t want him to have one leg here and the other there. His cricket was going great, so I said focus on that. A lot of people around me scoffed at that decision and would say stuff to me, but I would simply smile back at them,” she adds.
Vihari’s cricket was going great. By 16, around the time others around him were preparing for their 12th standard exams, the teenager was making his first-class debut for Hyderabad. Within three years, he was playing in the IPL and being told by Kumar Sangakkara that he was the “best young player” the Sri Lankan had ever seen. His career did seem to hit a rut a year later, and he was even ignored during the IPL auctions. Amazingly for someone who presently holds the highest first-class average across the world of 59.79 after 63 matches, he averaged a middling 33.77 after his first few seasons.
The IPL snub only seemed to burgeon his numbers in the longer format, and he averaged 93.44, 77.81, 48.15 and 57.33 over the next few seasons, scoring a double-hundred every year. And Manoj recalls how he was piling on the runs despite having been handed the responsibility of leading the side at a young age. “I remember a game against Himachal Pradesh, where he dropped the wicket-keeper and kept himself just so that he could include Pragyan Ojha, who was returning after getting his action cleared. He promptly went on to score 263 in that game,” the coach says.
Then came the move to Andhra two seasons earlier, and he topped it off with his best season yet, with 1056 runs at 96 and a maiden triple-century — one that his mother reveals he had promised her. But in an interview to this paper last November, he would talk about how more than the runs it was his new-found self-belief that was pushing his game to the next level. He also added a new feature to his batting last season, that of dominating the opposition once he had his eye in.
“Maybe earlier I used to play the same way in all situations. Now if there is an opportunity I look to dominate the bowler. The strike-rate takes care of itself. I realised if you get a ton, you should cash-in” he’d said. And he’s carried his penchant to make big hundreds into this season, having just come off a 148 against South Africa A in Bangalore. “This century really gave me the kind of confidence I’d never felt before,” he said on the day of his selection.
Those around him though have always seen him as being confident and mature beyond his years, and Manoj recalls how he gave away the bowling machine his uncle had gifted the boy to the St John’s Academy. “He felt more boys will get benefited if it was at the academy,” he says. Vijayalakshmi adds how the youngster has even funded some of his cousins’ weddings.
In the past, she’d treat her son to his favourite “homemade prawns curry” and a “Hindi movie, even though I preferred Telugu” whenever Vihari would score runs. She also rightfully claims to have seen Vihari bat more than anyone else, and reveals how she gauges whether he’s going to have a good day or not, “when he plays one of those on-drives early in his innings,” and hopes to see him play many more of those, now at the Test level.