The bigger the challenge the bigger the opportunity to rise and shine and come out of the shadows, which is going to be the case for India's Hanuma Vihari for the upcoming Test series against Australia. With Kohli missing out on the last three Tests, it’s time for Vihari to take up a greater role.
As daunting as it is for the Indian fans to imagine the Indian Test side sans Virat Kohli that too in Australia, it is a golden opportunity for others to rise. Not only India are going to miss their best Test batsman but also with the cloud hanging around Saha/Pant selection and R Ashwin's lack of batting returns in Tests in the last two years, it would put the hot and cold Indian middle-order to stern test.
Of all the batsmen, this is going to be a big tour for Hanuma Vihari as well. While for Rahane, he still can get away with average performances like he usually does, the same cannot be said for Vihari, whose place already depends on different team combinations, and with the rise of Shubman Gill, things can go downhill for the Andhra Pradesh batsmen.
Promising yet unfulfilling Test career yet
When a 24-year-old Vihari made his Test debut on the 2018 England tour, he was carrying a big reputation with the highest first-class average 59.79 after 63 first-class matches making him the first Andhra cricketer in 19 years to be picked up for Tests.
In domestic cricket, the right-hander had proven his mettle with his textbook batting, tight technique, solid temperament, ability to make the bowlers bowl boundary balls with his monk-like patience at the crease, capability of playing long innings amidst the empty Indian grounds, the unrelenting spirit and hunger to keep performing day in day out. He gave out a clear message to selectors with his reliability that yes, I am ready for the big stage, will keep performing what may come, just pick me up once and see the magic. He wasn't fast tracked unlike the Shaws of the Indian cricket who are seen as avatars of Sachin, Sehwag, and Lara but rather he broke all the doors with a heap of runs that just kept piling up.
Vihari was lucky in his debut Test innings not to return with a duck against England but did make a resilient fifty and showcased his magic after that reprieve. But after that, the team management had other ideas of testing him in Australia. The best thing about being a versatile batsman is that they get first preference in a lot of scenarios but that also works against them as they have to walk on untested waters and explore areas that a lot others aren't willing to. That was what happened to Vihari in Australia when he was made to open in MCG. He was solid there as well, took the shine of the new ball, but all he could manage were scores of 8 and 13 in the game while batting in the middle-order, he had scores of 20, 28, and 42 in Tests Down Under.
Then the West Indies tour came and he was even preferred over Rohit Sharma and slotted in middle-order unlike the previous tour and didn't disappoint with an average of 96.33 in the two-match Test series. But he played only a Test in the home summer last year when India played five Tests against South Africa and Bangladesh respectively due to team combinations.
Now, fast forward to the New Zealand tour in 2020, it was supposed to be a series where the Kakinada-born batsman was expected to carry forward the West Indies form. But Vihari failed badly, raking up scores of 7, 15, 55, and 9. He averaged 21.50 in New Zealand to go with an average of 22.20 in Australia Tests, and 28 after a Test in England. While one could give leeway to Vihari for England and Australia displays, it can't be so for New Zealand for he was guilty of throwing away his starts, not showing enough belief in his game plan and batting instincts despite boasting the ability to shift gears, attack spinners, he adopted a poking-bat approach much like his middle-order compatriot Rahane. No wonder Kohli had stated after the series loss that batsmen made too much of the conditions, with Vihari being a classic case of the same.
The Big Australia Test
Much like his Test career, Vihari has failed to convert his starts into big scores in the ongoing practice games in Australia barring the final knock. He managed scores of 15, 28, and 15 in the first three innings, and only in the fourth outing, he could convert his start into a hundred that too against a third-string Aussie bowling line-up. With India already missing Virat Kohli, Rahane's horrific last Test series or overall performance in the last SENA cycle, and uncertain lower-middle-order, it puts a lot of pressure on the 27-year-old to perform and prove himself.
Let's admit that for players like Vihari, making runs more consistently is far more critical than let's say a stroke-wise talented player because whether we like it or not, public preferences and even team's choices are largely influenced by these aspects. No wonder for the Shaws and Gills of the world, it takes far lesser First-class games and runs to make it to the side or even a certain Rohit Sharma to get elevated as Test opener owing to their special gift of stroke play/natural flair, which attracts people more than the boring aspects of the Viharis and Pujaras of the world - the patience, the resilience, the ability to bat for long hours. Especially if all this doesn't translate to runs, which has been the case for solid looking Vihari, who doesn't boast eye-catching aesthetics but just the art of continuously pushing the envelope with his limited abilities.
Vihari averages 36.8 after nine Tests, which is mediocre at best, in a country filled with special batting talents, it won't sustain him for long. If Gill does well this series, Rohit and Virat are both back in the XI, another mediocre series for Vihari can put his place in danger and he would need to awaken the giant within that has made him the domestic bull that he has to take Tests by storm because for some, margin of failures and stretch of opportunities are far lesser than others, no two ways about it.