The selection of Andhra captain Hanuma Vihari for the fifth Test in preference to Karun Nair has become the talking point. The sentimental choice for the Oval Test was rightly Nair, only the second Indian to get a triple hundred, Virendra Sehwag being the first with two.
It is no fault of Vihari or Nair, but it would not have been easy to explain to the Karnataka batsman why he was not picked. Sunil Gavaskar was one who took up cudgels on behalf of Nair, and seldom has one seen the elder statesman of Indian cricket so livid, blasting the team management on television.
So, all eyes were on Vihari when he went in to join Virat Kohli out in the middle on the second afternoon to face two of the world’s best fast bowlers in their own backyard. He played and missed, took the ball on his pads and not many may had given him to stay for long.
His admirers were praying for him to succeed since they know how talented he is while the others had a dismissive look.
Vihari’s first boundary in Test cricket was not a four but top-edged six over long leg. Still, he was not out of the woods. The only confidence he could have gained is watching his skipper at the other end.
Slowly but surely he gained confidence, though he could have and should have been out legbefore. A flowing coverdrive might have eased his nerves, and a 50-run partnership with Kohli put him at ease.
Once Kohli, left, Vihari knew his real Test had begun, holding the innings together with the lower order. Luckily for him, Ravindra Jadeja stuck round to tell him that he would hang in with him.
Vihari got his fifty on debut and just when the two looked like seeing through the first session of the third day’s play, he was caught behind off the innocuous looking off-spinner Moeen Ali.
Vihari is not an overnight discovery. He has come through the rungs, working his way up hard from junior ranks. He was in the team that won the Under-19 World Cup in 2012.
There was clear flair, but it did not blossom or attract immediate attention. He made his debut for Hyderabad, but the Kakinada-born youngster started getting big runs after he moved to his native Andhra two seasons ago and got more responsible being made captain.
He also has stats to back him, averaging 60 in first-class with 15 hundreds and another 13 centuries in List A. The 19 first-class wickets or the 12 in the List A are not enough to get him the all-rounder tag.
The argument against Vihari was that he joined the squad only for the fourth and fifth Tests whereas Nair, one of the two triple centurions in Indian cricket, is part of the original squad.
Nair came in for Rohit Sharma, whereas Vihari was selected as an extra batsman omitting Chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav.
The selectors also picked dashing opener Prithvi Shaw in place of Murali Vijay, the Mumbaikar also getting in on the strength of his recent form, particularly in List A games.
Apparently, the national selectors and the team management went by Vihari’s current form, scoring massive runs with big hundreds, starting with the Ranji Trophy. Vihari also bowls a bit of off-spin regularly.
What might have swayed the selectors is the hundred Vihari got against South Africa when the visiting captain asked India A to bat in English conditions in India, overcast conditions.
He got his 148 runs when in-form Mayank Agarwal, who scored a double century, and Shaw, who hit a century, in the previous unofficial Test were dismissed quickly. Some thought Agarwal should have been the opener to have got the nod first.
Vihari did not get his Test selection for gratis, he got it by right, scoring 752 runs at an average of 94.00 in the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy season, his 332 against Odisha being the highest.
The 24-year-old went on to make 183 against Ranji Trophy champs Vidarbha in the Irani Cup, the right place to impress the selectors. Vidarbha attack had the fastest Indian pacer Umesh Yadav and the bowler who is responsible for Vidarbha winning the national championship, Rajneesh Gurbani.
Vihari scored two centuries and two fifties in his last five first class innings and that’s good enough to impress any captain. He also has one-day hundred, 147, against the West Indies in a tri-series in England to aggregate 253 runs in three innings.
Isn’t that good enough for a player to earn his spurs?