IN HANUMA Vihari’s opinion, he’s always been mature beyond his years. Not surprising, considering the number of life-changing events that occured even before he’d turned 20. At 11, he lost his father. At 16, he made his senior debut for Hyderabad. At 19, Kumar Sangakkara called him the best “young player he’d seen” and that the Sri Lankan wouldn’t have even come close to how good Vihari was at that age. And within a year of that, Vihari had already hit a hole in his cricket career, going unsold in the 2014 IPL auction and being tagged as being too “boring” a batsman for the modern-era.
Vihari is now 24 and still “young” even if his thick beard does its job of giving him a slightly more mature disposition. He’s played 58 first-class matches, scored over 4600 runs at an average of 59.46 and already captained two different teams in the Ranji Trophy. The right-handed batsman is presently in the midst of his most successful first-class season—having scored 788 runs at 98.50 including a maiden triple-century—and has more or less helped Andhra qualify for the knockout stages. Vihari presently sits at No.2 in the run-getters’ tally behind Mayank Agrawal and calls it his most “exciting” season yet. But more than the glut of runs, it’s got to do more with the leap in the self-belief that he could boss around.
“I am feeling different this year. Not only because I got runs, but even in the first game when I got out early but I was feeling different. I feel like I can dominate any bowling, regardless of whether it is Mumbai, Tamil Nadu, Baroda or whoever. When you know you are ready to play at the high level, you get a feeling from within. I got that feeling this year that I can dominate domestic cricket,” he tells The Indian Express.
Vihari started off with a century against the pink-ball in the Duleep Trophy before scores of 150 and 302 not out against Baroda and Odisha to kick-off the Ranji Trophy. He’s then scored crucial half-centuries in the first innings of every match that’s followed in a group that Andhra have dominated. But the new level of confidence, according to Vihari, comes from his maiden tour with India A to South Africa in August. The former under-19 World Cup winner played only a single match there, scoring 7 and 4 not out.
“I learnt a lot from watching bowlers at a higher level and their tactics from the sidelines. Once you learn those tricks, you tend to be one step ahead of the bowler when you come back to first-class cricket. There they keep coming hard in every session. There are no easy runs ever. At Ranji level, I feel against a normal side, once you get to a 100, the teams tend to give up on that batsman. That’s the time to cash in and get a big one,” he explains. And cash in he has over the last few years, with most of his 13 centuries generally being off the “daddy” variety. The triple-century against Odisha was his fifth score above 200, with his previous highest being the 263 against Himachal Pradesh in 2015.
“If you want to get recognized you have to score a 300. Hundreds and two-hundreds are commonplace these days,” he adds.
A feature of Vihari’s batting that has seen a significant transformation in recent times is the rate at which he gets his runs. It’s a conscious alteration that he brought in three years ago to ward off the unnecessary murmurs about his apparent stodginess with the bat. Vihari insists on not having sulked even a bit over the IPL snub and instead calls his subsequent decision to go play club cricket in England—for Hutton CC in the Shepherd Neame Essex First Division League—as the turning point of his career. Away from home by himself, the youngster recalls having not only freed up his mind but also broken the shackles that he’d put upon himself with regards to his natural stroke-play.
“I went to England and came back as a better player. In club cricket you have to score runs and pick wickets or the team will lose. You have only one or two good players. The responsibility is on you. They pay you money and expect performances in each game. It taught me consistency too. I learnt to put a price-tag on my wicket. Before that I used to perform in a few matches and then have a lean patch,” he says. Vihari’s first-class average has also witnessed a gargantuan increase of Steve Smith proportions since, going from 33.77 to where it stands now, nearly 60.
“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,” he adds.
Ironically, his first foray in the IPL—back in 2013—had started off on a memorable note as he debutedwith a man-of-the-match award, getting rid of Chris Gayle in his first over—a picture of the dismissal still hangs in his room back home—after Sangakkara threw him the ball. In the audience was his mother, who Vihari believes has been greatly responsible for him being a cricketer, especially following his father’s death. Cricket, he feels, helped him get over the bereavement a lot sooner.
“It was tough but I never had the time to think about it since my mother ensured I was back into cricket straightaway. We own a ladies boutique in Secunderabad called Viola and she took over the business and has been running the place ever since,” he says. Till two years ago, Vihari too would chip in and spend time taking care of the shop, at times even being recognized while sat behind the counter.
Academics hasn’t featured greatly in Vihari’s life so far—he’s yet to pass his 12th exam—considering that he’s spent more than half his young life on the cricket field. But it’s a case of choice over circumstances, not to forget a lot of self-confidence.
“I decided cricket was my career from the time I started playing junior age-group for the state. I always believed I would make it,” he says. And what does his mother have to say about it? “She’s not your quintessential south Indian mother. She was the one who said I should give a 100 per cent to my passion and not worry about other things.”
But despite riding an unprecedented wave of confidence presently, and being used to premature breakthroughs all his life, Vihari doesn’t mind waiting for that ultimate life-changing event—being called up for the highest level.
“If I continue scoring like this, my time will come. I am not desperate for an India call. I am doing what I can.”