It’s not easy being Hanuma Vihari

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12 matches, 21 innings, 664 runs at 32.84. If surface stat buffs are handed a paintbrush, they would create a very unfair and cruel picture of Hanuma Vihari. For Vihari’s has been one of the most challenging starts as an Indian Test batsman. Right from the beginning, it’s been a battle, fought as much physically on the field as mentally off it.

Hanuma Vihari is not just a Test specialist, he is an ‘overseas’ Test specialist, with ‘overseas’ here categorically meaning places as mercilessly demanding as Australia, England, New Zealand, West Indies and South Africa.

And even while travelling to those places, when each of India’s first-choice picks are available, there is no place for Vihari in the top 5. He is required to bat No.6 – a spot that brings with it unique sorts of challenges – for which also there is stiff competition now with the emergence of Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja’s excellent progress as an all-rounder.

The duo of Pant and Jadeja gives India a lot of balance and depth, as they can play five bowlers without having to worry about their batting. It forms an ideal combination for Virat Kohli’s team, something captains of the past missed. But where does it leave Hanuma Vihari?

Hanuma Vihari

Test cricket is a slightly easier game when you’re playing regularly, scoring runs, taking wickets, improving day by day, carrying confidence out of it. Not from the sidelines, where you’re left alone, waiting, vulnerable, questioning yourself, fighting the demons within. Motivating yourself while warming the benches is hard. Preparing earnestly in the nets, only to be left out again takes a lot of mental toll.

It’s not easy being Hanuma Vihari

And it’s not just about being sidelined with Vihari. One can play some first-class cricket to keep himself going, but there is no substitute for a Test match environment. Hanuma Vihari faces the toughest of bowlers in their own den with very little cricket of high standards behind him. Every innings has been an examination for our quiet and composed Andhra right-hander, who tackles the most challenging of conditions with a limited range at the crease.

Vihari is not an ideal No.6 either in the mould of VVS Laxman, who would manoeuvre the field with his beautiful wrists and breathe easy at the crease. For Vihari, it’s a hard grind, endured through resilience and defiance. He can’t break an attack down like an enforcer, he has to be an absorber who doesn’t bow down himself despite taking regular blows.

All this only makes Hanuma Vihari’s 12-Test long journey and his characteristically gritty displays that much more heartwarming. There’s a reason why Virat Kohli has nothing but good things to say for Vihari, who he has seen overcome a nervous debut at The Oval against Anderson and Broad to raise his hands and open through a crucial first hour at the MCG to pull off a survival act for the ages at the SCG. In between, slam New Zealand’s best-ever pace attack in Christchurch and dominate the West Indians in Jamaica.

Only 27, Hanuma Vihari might, of course, get a run of games home and away at some stage in the future and score a truckload of runs. But his 23 not out of 161 deliveries in the New Year’s Test last winter could still prove to be a legacy-defining performance for the man. Vihari didn’t just overcome an Australian attack of the highest quality, he did so while facing enormous physical pain.

Despite having torn his hamstring, Vihari stood resolute out there for hours on a deteriorating SCG track. He defended each ball as if his life depended on it and didn’t leave the ground till ensuring he saved the day for his team and the country. Whatever happens in time, nobody can take that Sydney epic away from Hanuma Vihari.

Every sportsman wishes for a day where people can identify him as their hero. Hanuma Vihari has seen one such day very early in his life. That he chose to play despite an injury that he knew will force him out of the following series at home against England, shall make him an inspiration, a picture of selflessness and courage for aspiring youngsters.

And to think of it, only hours before he walked out to bat Hanuma Vihari had his career on the line, with people calling him out for failures in Adelaide and Melbourne. These are the hardest innings a batsman plays, said the great Rahul Dravid once, where you’re having to fight for your survival, not just at the crease but in the team. Coinciding with his birthday, it was a knock that even Dravid would’ve been proud of.

But, that isn’t to suggest Sydney has changed it all. He’ll still have to wait, warm the benches, work hard for his chances, face criticism if he fails to make some of them count, have people questioning his place and numbers again. It is his reality. It is his life being Hanuma Vihari.