What two international tours can do to a young man’s confidence, eh?
In August 2018, Hanuma Vihari was still knocking on the doors of the national team, piling on the runs for India A against South Africa A in the outskirts of Bengaluru. Part of a line-up that included Prithvi Shaw, Shreyas Iyer and Mayank Agarwal, there were few people at the ground who even knew how Vihari looked like, let alone know his credentials.
That’s when stats-hungry folks realised his first-class average (59.45) was better than Virat Kohli’s. Heck, it was the best in the world. And on the back of a glorious 2017-18 domestic season – where he scored 1056 first-class runs, with four hundreds and an average of 96 – Vihari was called up for the last two Tests in England. Since then, he has played nearly all of India’s away Tests.
It meant that a big dog of domestic cricket – Vihari had scored a double ton in each of the last five Ranji Trophy seasons – had to give the 2018-19 tournament a miss. It correlated with his side Andhra finishing with only one outright win in eight matches.
Now that he’s back home again, Vihari picked up where he left off, striking two hundreds for Rest of India in the Irani Cup tie against Vidarbha in Nagpur.
He was the only RoI batsman to score a century on day one. But that isn’t surprising. He’s often been a savior of sorts in long-form cricket. What was surprising, was that despite having more ‘famous’ partners in the form of Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer at the other end, it was Vihari’s strokes to the boundary that earned the loudest applause. He is no longer someone who Indian cricket fans had to search on ‘Google Images’ to put a face to a name.
That was also evident when Vihari spoke to ESPNcricinfo after the fourth day’s play in Nagpur. The last time we had chatted, nearly six months ago, Vihari came across as quiet and soft-spoken. There were signs of a man still trying to figure who he is. But having been part of the Indian Test side in England and Australia, his voice, this time around, had a sense of conviction in it.
“Being with the Test team increased my confidence levels,” Vihari said. “Once you know you belong to the highest levels you have the confidence of dominating domestic cricket in a way.”
It was apparent in the way Vihari took on the Vidarbha bowlers late on the fourth evening while trying to push for a declaration. After tea, having already amassed 153 runs in the second innings (to top off his first-innings 114), he freed his arms to batter the ball to all parts. He hit two sixes – one nearly smashed the press-box window – and a four to add 27 runs off his last 18 balls. It was a fitting end to a first-class and international season during which his life completely changed. It also showed how seriously he takes every match, irrespective of the opposition and the number of people watching.
“Once you know you belong to the highest levels you have the confidence of dominating domestic cricket in a way”
“Domestic cricket has always been my grassroots,” Vihari said. “I’ve always known that I can score runs consistently in domestic cricket. But, yes, I don’t take my domestic cricket lightly. I play with the same intensity as international cricket.
“Playing with the Indian Test side has taught me that you have to be decisive with your footwork. Especially with your defence. If you have confidence in your defence, then you can play shots accordingly. You can select which shot you want to play according to the ball. But first of all, you need to trust your defence.
“Our second innings was tough for batting, because the wicket was so challenging. But one thing I picked up early was that you have to be busy and have that positive intent. That is the secret to success I guess.”
His match tally of 294 runs has single-handedly given RoI the stats of favourites as the game moves into day five. Still, having set the Ranji Champions a target of 280, Vihari isn’t quite ready to relax.
“I think it’s going to be hard work for us tomorrow, but we can definitely win this game. First, we have to bowl really well and take all our chances, but despite the [95-run] lead that Vidarbha got in the first innings, I am happy me, Rahane bhai and Shreyas have been able to make a match out of this.
“After tea, Shreyas and I were playing for the overs. The captain told us at the tea-break that we wanted Vidarbha to bat 12-15 overs today. But we got the last fifty runs very quickly, and we declared slightly earlier than expected. We got the crucial wicket of [Vidarbha captain Faiz] Fazal early, and hopefully we can get nine more tomorrow.”