Hanuma Vihari keeps a beard but he does not own his captain's machismo and style. He is young but does not own the flamboyance of a Rishabh Pant. He does not come with a promise of a KL Rahul either.
Vihari is just seven innings old in Test match cricket but he seems to be quickly earning a special status in Kohli's playing XI. Well, hopefully, he is. And it could well be that of a reliable batsman. Vihari has given Kohli surety in his batting, Kohli now needs to give him assurance of a long run.
Vihari has his own way of doing things and in a batting order packed with authority, creativity and grit, he has found his own way of approaching a Test inning. The approach, however, is not exclusively his. It's an old Test match batting template that has been followed earlier. Vihari's excellence lies in two things. One, knowing what works for him. Two, making that factor work for him.
Many current India batsman, young mostly, are failing to discover either of the two things or are stuck between them.
Vihari's batting is not influenced by how few of his contemporary, youngsters or the captain bat. His uniqueness lies in his understanding of self.
On day 4 of the first Test against West Indies, he was, well, himself. He walked in quite early after Kohli departed in the second over of the day. India's lead was still less than 300 and the Indian skipper's wicket so early in the day had opened the gates for the home side.
Vihari began with a positive intent playing his first 18 balls. There was no sign of any jitters in his stroke-making or defence before Shannon Gabriel came into the attack for the first time in the day. Before that, he was easily pushing the ball on the back foot, nudging it for single to square leg and playing a solid forward defence. His bat was in business. He was 15 off 20 soon and was already looking set in the middle.
Gabriel's over however prepared him for the long day with the bat. His first delivery, fuller in length, was driven through cover-point by Vihari for two. He had been middling the ball and was growing in confidence. However, the pacer brought the second ball in sharply from outside the off-stump region and Vihari was beaten comprehensively as he attempted a cover drive. The ball whizzed past the inside edge, and it even dared to kiss the off stump. That was the first close shave and it sort of awoke him.
The third delivery was on length, outside the off stump line, and Vihari let it go after coming in line of the ball. Gabriel banged the next ball short and Vihari lowered his gloves to let it pass to the keeper. The penultimate ball, again a short one, was dealt almost in the same fashion. Vihari, who was looking to play with his bat before this over, was now looking to cover the line and leave. But on the last ball, he showed that he was not going to get too defensive. Gabriel bowled a half volley, and he drove it through mid-off for a confidence-boosting four.
From thereon, there was a pattern in his batsmanship. Anything on a good length and wide of the off-stump was left alone. Anything too short was pulled for runs. Anything fuller was either driven through covers or hit with a straight bat. Anything around the off stump line and on a good length was defended on the front foot or tucked to backward point. Vihari's unflustered approach to Test batting is what stood out in the two innings he has batted in Antigua Test.
His 93 off 128 balls came at a brisk pace on Sunday. He was in control of things. With the Windies bowlers bowling fuller, Vihari went on the attack. His innings included ten fours and one six and none of those shots were half-hearted or came courtesy of good fortune. Vihari looked to play mostly in the V, pulled, swept brilliantly as well at times. Yes, an attempted pull brought about his fall, but that shot was more the result of him trying to score runs quickly to help Kohli declare sooner than a product of his own shortcoming. Vihari fell seven runs short of his first Test hundred. But hopefully, there are more hundreds written for him.
With his unfrazzled attitude, he scored a fifty on debut against England but since then, courtesy of non-selection, floating up and down the batting order and of his own faults, Vihari struggled to get going. But even when he has failed, he has looked to apply himself. He has not played less than 46 balls except on one occasion when he got out on 0. Even when told to open, he was happy to help the team and tried to stay for as long as possible.
After gruelling tests in England and Australia, Vihari has made a mark for himself with a good batting performance in Antigua, if not a great one. He has sent across a strong message to Kohli that he might be the missing link in India's batting order.
With Hardik Pandya coming into picture and Kohli's horses for courses theory continuing, Vihari might not always feature in the XI and that itself could be a big tragedy, not entirely at times for Indian team, but for Vihari, who somewhere keeps the promise of a long and illustrious Test career.
The next year will tell what he does with his talent. But more importantly, what matters the most is what Kohli does with it. For now, Vihari is playing it well with a straight bat and a calm mind.
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