One year and a few months after his Test debut, Hanuma Vihari has become like Virat Kohli in more than one ways. He does not possess the build and theatrics of his captain, but he matches Kohli in attitude, approach, and thoughts.
Hanuma scored his maiden Test hundred recently against a good bowling attack of West Indies in Jamaica. Earlier, he had scored a 93 in Antigua. The tour to Caribbean nations has not only boosted his confidence, but also sharpened his perspective, both as a batsman and a team man. To put it more precisely, as a batsman and a team man in a Virat Kohli-led unit.
Speaking to Firstpost after landing in India from Jamaica, Hanuma sounded more confident than he did last year after coming from England. He is six-Test old now and has grown quicker than any other newbie in Indian team, at least in the longer format. A lot in his progress is to do with who he is — someone who is ready to be thrown any challenge. He is someone who does not care of the result but the process. Someone who is open to good criticism and advice on his batting, someone who has adopted the team ideology very soon. Someone who is not fearful of any bowling attack. His Kohli-like attitude comes forth as he begins talking about his successes against Windies.
His induction began last year in England when he came out to bat in the first innings of the fifth Test. It was pretty much the most difficult first day in office anybody would ask for. But the immediate grilling also paved the way for a shiny future. He was facing an on-song James Anderson and a fiery Stuart Broad. They were hunting in pair, as usual. Kohli had told him how this was the best start any debutant could wish for. This would prepare him for the tough battles in the future. This was England in England, these were two great fast bowlers of this era. Hanuma showed glimpses of his brilliance with a gritty fifty and gifted himself a ticket to Australia.
Down Under, the conditions were tough again and as the openers failed innings after innings, he was asked to do that job. He could only contribute a little but ensured good starts for India with Mayank Agarwal. Hanuma's induction was still on. He was training under a hard taskmaster in Kohli who was throwing him in difficult situations and he came out on top in some occasions and displayed massive grit even when he failed.
The West Indies challenge was no different. At the end of the tournament, he has made sure his induction is over and has settled down beautifully in the elite company that Indian batting order is.
And while many might not welcome playing first six Tests abroad in difficult conditions, Hanuma said the challenges prepared him for better. "Playing abroad is always a challenge, especially when you are playing against England, Australia and West Indies in their backyard. Those are not easy conditions but I took it up as a challenge and thought whatever I can contribute to the team with both bat and ball, it will be a big plus for me. I am happy that I could do well in the Caribbean against the West Indies. However, I feel the little contributions I did in Australia and England were also very crucial. They built me for the West Indies tour," he told Firstpost.
The 25-year-old walked in with India in a spot of bother on two occasions in both Tests. His 93 and 111 are, of course, his two best knocks so far and he had applied a different approach to pursue these runs, looking to play more with bat and score whenever there was a run-scoring chance. This is a template of batting Kohli uses in Tests as well.
"The approach was that whenever I get the ball in my area I wanted to score runs off it because the wicket was challenging. So, positive intent helps you come on top in such situations. When you get a loose ball or get a ball in your area, you have to make sure that you capitalise on it. That approach was there but at the same time, having a tight defence was also very important. If you don't have any tight defence and right technique then any ball can get you. You have to have a balance of both. I was able to maintain that balance against Windies," said Hanuma. One might as well attribute these words to Kohli, and they would fit perfectly.
Hanuma had got out on 32 in the first innings after which he had sought Ravi Shastri's advice. It helped him feel good at the crease. Shastri told him to flex his knees more as it would help his footwork.
"I thought it (Shastri's advice) improved my game a lot. And to be honest, it is not about the result even. It is about the feel and comfort which I got while batting which was more important."
The advice worked for Hanuma instantly as he scored 93 in the second innings of the first Test. However, that was an opportunity missed to hit the maiden ton. While Hanuma had lost his wicket and a chance to score a ton, his temperament was still intact.
"I was confident the second time I was in 90s. In the first Test, I had time in my hand but I was also in a phase where I had to accelerate. In the second Test, I was in a phase where I knew I could take a little more time and make sure I reached the landmark. In the first Test, I was happy that I could make the contribution. I missed out on a hundred then but nevertheless I got it in the second Test."
The 289 runs he accumulated in two Tests has put him in a healthy mind space. The fact that he kept Rohit Sharma waiting on the bench must have added the pressure. The competition in the middle order has now got stiffer with Ajinkya Rahane among runs after a long gap as well. Hanuma does not see any negativity in this competition.
"As a team, we are happy that we have this competition within our group. There is a competition for places. When senior players like Rohit (Sharma) and Ash (R Ashwin) cannot get into the playing XI then that means we are pushing for places which is a good sign going forward in the Test Championship. You have enough players at your bench who could come into the XI at any moment. I am quite privileged to get a spot in the star-studded playing XI," said Hanuma. That's another thought straight from the Kohli playbook.
He revealed more of this ideology when he said, "I have only played six Tests so I cannot come to a conclusion as in what suits me the best or what suits me more. It all depends on team combination and what the team wants me to do. I am open to whatever the team wants me to do. And that's the challenge — when the team wants you to do a job, you have to raise your hand. I am the kind of person who wants to take challenges."
These answers tell that he is just the man Kohli would want in his team. Someone who is clear-headed, wants to take up challenges and does not mind the changing and chopping when the captain does it. His maturity is resembled not only in his batting and demeanor on field but understanding who is in command of the team.
It could be an early call to make but Hanuma making a cut in the ODI or T20I unit might not be a distant reality as the team looks at different options for that still uncertain No 4 slot. "Whenever I get that opportunity (selection in ODI and T20I team), I will be ready for it. I am up for a challenge. But it is up to the team management and selectors. Whenever they need me, I am up for it," said Hanuma.
The one other challenge that he sees in front of him is fitness. Not that he is unfit for any format, but he understands the ever-increasing demands of international cricket. While speaking on the fitness levels, he emphasised on the aspects of 'team culture', 'running between the wickets', something on which team management and Kohli have put a lot of stress on in the recent past and have not bogged down on even after receiving criticism.
"More than the skills, I am working on my fitness. That's the team culture. I really want to get better at it. That will eventually improve my batting and running between the wickets. That is one area I am very concerned about and working on it," said Hanuma.
Into his second year as an Indian Test cricketer, Hanuma has progressed at a rapid speed. His clarity of thought and acceptance of hard truths is a testament of what lies ahead of him.
"As far as my batting is concerned, I know what my strengths and limitations are. I play within my limitations. I don't like to complicate things," he said. Understanding of his limitations have set him in charge of his own strengths. And that gives him more freedom to take challenges. So is he prepared for another tough outing, this time at home, against Kagiso Rabada and Co?
"Every team posses quality bowlers. In international cricket, you hardly find bowlers who are not quality bowlers. You don't have to give special attention to certain bowlers. They are good bowlers but you have to stick to your own plans," said a bold Hanuma, looking forward to the Tests against South Africa. Yet again, remove Hanuma's image and read that answer again. It could well be Kohli behind those words.
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