One day in 2016, a distraught Hanuma Vihari got a call from his coach Sanath Kumar to come to the hotel room. Sanath was Andhra’s coach and had noticed the new player was a bit down. “Confused,” Sanath says. Vihari had quit Hyderabad after six years of first-class cricket and was left disillusioned with the whole experience. “I am not getting into the particulars but enough to say that the entire experience was unpleasant,” he said.
That day at the hotel, after a long chat, Sanath wrested a promise out of Vihari. “You are not going to do anything silly like quitting the game or anything like that. I promise you this: give me three years of cricket and I think you will play for India. You are that good. And if things don’t work out there (Andhra), I will take you wherever I go.”
Jambavan to Hanuman, basically. Of letting him know his own strengths. “I remember he was so happy and told me right away that he would totally plunge himself back into the game. No self-doubts. No more confusion.” He did it. Not only did he transform himself personally, he would dedicate to changing the culture of the team. “I can confidently say that Vihari was one of the primary reasons we turned around. The dedication and focus he showed rubbed on to the other players. He would constantly speak to them, get them to train properly and became the leader. He had great captaincy traits.”
However, for the boy who lost his father at the age of 12, one more tragedy was around the corner. His mother and her brother were his guardian angels. The uncle, in particular, took great interest in his growth and Sanath remembers how close the two were. One day, sometime last year, Vihari was down again. Sanath found that the uncle was suffering from a kidney ailment.
“Vihari spent a lot of money and time into the treatment. He got a surgery done.” But the uncle didn’t survive it. Once again, Sanath watched over the boy and talked him into doing it for his uncle. “This time around, there was no need for any major talk. He was determined to make it, play for India for all the right reasons. The poor boy has struggled a lot in life, and it gives me great joy to see him play for India.”
Calm and secure
When was the last time a debutant looked so secure out there? Compact in defence, knowledge of the off-stump and a penchant to look for runs. Once again, one was reminded of Tamil Nadu’s S Badrinath, who got the India opportunity too late in his career. The forward stretched defence to spinners, the purist lean into his cover drive off Stuart Broad, and the sweep caught the eye. England perhaps missed a trick against him. The day before, Stuart Broad had him in some trouble with the in-cutter. He then got locked in his position a bit and the hands didn’t come through quickly enough. England didn’t try much of that on Sunday, preferring to test his off-stump awareness instead. came through with flying colours on that front. He left many a ball and wore an impassive mask on his face. You couldn’t detect what he was feeling inside.
Tightening his game to the occasion
Saturday had thrown more emotions. A big breath of release, of exhaling the pressure built by Broad, and he tightened up his game. He was also caught in a verbal battle with Stokes. Rather he stayed silent and watched Stokes have a go at him and had his skipper rush to his side during those moments. Again, one couldn’t detect what he felt. He would just punch the gloves and carry on.
“He is very strong mentally,” Sanath says. “He has seen enough in his life to be upset with all this.” Personal tragedies and cricket politics he has shrugged off to focus on cricket. “The best thing about his batting is how early he picks the length of the ball. You haven’t seen his on-driving yet or the punch off the back foot.” When a debutant scores a fifty and the coach tells you haven’t seen his full repertoire yet, it can only be good news.