Hanuma Vihari waits for his turn to bat
© Getty Images

Interview

'When I started, I wanted to play long for India. But now I just want to enjoy the ride'

Hanuma Vihari looks back at his eventful first year in international cricket, and talks about learning to keep his desire for a place in the team from hijacking his game

Interview by Varun Shetty  |  

As the batsman with the best first-class average for a career starting in the 21st century, Hanuma Vihari has little to worry about technically. But the rigours of competition and a perceived pressure to hold down his newly acquired spot nearly resulted in a horror Test debut in England last year. Since then, Vihari has played in all of India's overseas series, opened in a Boxing Day Test, and has steadily gained the trust of his team as a reliable middle-order batsman. After top-scoring in India's most recent series in the West Indies, Vihari spoke about his growth, the adjustments he has made to fit into an unfamiliar role, the people who have influenced him along the way, and about gradually discarding his desperation to succeed at the highest level.

Do you know what Virat Kohli's first-class average is?
I think it's 53.

Yes, 53.55. And what's yours?
60?

How does that make you feel? Something like seven runs on average more than one of the world's best batsmen?
Obviously I can't compare myself with him at this point in my career, but to know that I'm averaging around 60 is a great feeling. It is something I've always tried to do, you know - play for long and have that appetite for runs.

What sort of a relationship do you have with Kohli? You've played six matches under him now.
He sets an example - on the field and off the field, with the work ethic he has. He is an inspiration in the dressing room, especially for youngsters. We look at him like an idol and someone who we can follow.

You had an important partnership with him during the Test series in the West Indies. How does batting with Kohli compare to batting with someone like Ajinkya Rahane, with whom also you have had some important stands?
Both are quite different. The way they bat and also their presence in the middle. Kohli is more animated and more energetic. He likes that presence on the field. Whereas Ajinkya is more calm and he likes to do things his way. They both know their games well - that's why they have different styles. I like to bat with both of them.

With Ajinkya we always try to talk about what the bowlers are trying to do and what the conditions are. In the second innings of the first Test, he kept encouraging me to have positive intent, and to stand outside the crease to a few of their fast bowlers who were trying to swing and seam the ball.

And what about your partnership with Ishant Sharma in the second Test? Who was the senior there?
He has played 90-odd games!

He was telling me to trust him and bat normally, like I always do with the batsmen [higher up the order]. As a senior, if he can give me that confidence, then I can really trust him, and that's what I did.

Have you batted with the tail a lot before in your career?
I've done it a couple of times. Because I bat in the top order in domestic cricket, I haven't got the opportunity to bat that much with the tail. But it's a good experience. It's a new experience. I will often bat with the tail [as a No. 6], so I have to be well prepared for it. If we can add those crucial runs like we did in the West Indies, it'll be very useful.

Back to your debut, at The Oval, last year. You had to overturn an lbw on zero, and were almost run out trying to score that first run. Do you remember how you felt in those early moments of Test cricket?
I was very nervous, as you could see. The first 15 minutes I was really nervous. I wasn't sure where I was and what I was doing. I was lucky, as you said. It could have gone either way, but it went my way, and I thought I had to capitalise on that and play the way I normally do. I was 20-odd not out overnight, and I thought the next day I'd go out and be myself rather than thinking something else. So I was calmer.

Did you feel any nerves when you first entered that Indian dressing room?
Yeah. I'm usually introverted. I don't talk much or open up quickly. So coming into the dressing room, I was a little nervous, but I was also confident. I knew I had earned my place after playing so many years on the domestic circuit. So I was pretty confident, but at the same time I was being myself - and within myself. I wasn't really opening up.

In the year since then, how do you think you have evolved?
Especially after the tour of Australia, I felt like I learnt a lot as a player. I understood what it takes to achieve at the international level. The amount of intensity is not comparable. In domestic cricket you don't get anywhere near the intensity of international level.

On batting with Virat Kohli at The Oval in 2018:

On batting with Virat Kohli at The Oval in 2018: "He came in and was just hitting it like it was on a flat track. At that moment I felt awe. I didn't have any words" © Getty Images

Can you give an example of that difference?
Even when you are batting on a hundred, you don't get any easy balls. They still come hard at you, they want to take your wicket. Even if they're out of the game. They feel that they have to be on top of you. That's the attitude. They are quality players and you expect them to carry that intensity. In domestic cricket sometimes you don't get it. So you get some easy runs, but in international cricket you have to earn each run.

Has your game changed through this period?
Skillset - I have adjusted a few things, but it's more in the mindset. Now I play with a mindset where I don't put undue pressure on myself - that I have to survive in the team and perform to survive. I go out there, read the situation and play according to it. I changed my mindset completely in the West Indies series. I went out there and didn't care about my position. There's a lot of competition to get into the Indian side and then survive there. However long you have, it's not permanent. Just enjoy the journey - that's the mindset I have now.

Do you have a routine to get into that mind space? Someone like Shikhar Dhawan, for example, does a lot of meditation and visualisation.
No [it's not that intense]. I'm more calm and go with the flow. Once I enter the dressing room, I have a few things I do. I try to do that. Then I try to read the game before I go in. I bat at No. 6, so I have enough time to read what the opposition is trying to do on that surface. Then I plan my innings accordingly. Once I plan, I try to commit to it.

You must have so much time to think, with guys like Pujara and Kohli who make big runs ahead of you.
Yes, No. 6 is a difficult position to bat. Sometimes you get in to bat quite early, sometimes you wait a long time. When you're batting at three or opening, you know you just have to go out there and react to the ball. But sometimes when you have a lot of time to think, then you're confused how to play and get tense and mentally fatigued. But when the situation is good and the team is on top, [No. 6 is] a very good position to bat. So I think positively: if I get a challenging situation and I can put my hand up for the team, then I can be noticed more than maybe if I'm batting at the top of the order.

Have you learned how to deal with that mental fatigue?
I stick to the game plan. Once I know I have to bat accordingly, I don't have [second] thoughts. Once you think whether to do something or not, you're stressing yourself more. I just try to be simple and have a simple plan and stick by it.

"At No. 6 you have to use your feet and put the bowler off. I developed that skill because I knew I would bat at six"

Another thing is, No. 3, you know, you can take your time. I've batted No. 3 all my life. I know that I can take my time because there's four, five, six, seven, eight to come. No. 6, you know you're batting with one batsman, then the wicketkeeper, then the lower order. Your intent should be always to score runs. You have to survive and at the same time try and stay at the wicket too. So your mindset changes from No. 3 to 6.

Have you made any technical adjustments for No. 6?
Not really. Technically I have kept everything simple. Only thing I have realised is, in international cricket when you get the ball in your area, you have to dispatch it. Sometimes in domestic cricket, you can be a little cautious, but not in internationals.

Elsewhere you said Ravi Shastri asked you to flex your knees more in your stance in the West Indies.
In the first innings [first Test against West Indies] I got 30-odd, and he didn't say anything. The next day, before the huddle, he said that if I could flex my knees a little more, then I can move well on the front foot and leave well on the back foot. It would help me judge the length quickly.

He's an experienced coach, he has watched a lot of games, he has been a great player for India. I visualised it, thought about it. I shadow-practised it, because obviously in the middle of the game, you don't have time to have a net session. So why not give it a try and see how it works? I did it straight away in the second innings, and I thought it worked very well for me.

In Australia, when you were asked to open, was it more of an adjustment in terms of calming the nerves, or was it technical as well?
It was only about the nerves, because I was quite excited to do that role. It was a great opportunity for me, putting the hand up for the country and opening in a Boxing Day Test. It can't get better. It was about easing into that situation. I did a good job but I would have loved a big score. Once you get in, you'd love a big score. But we won. It was good overall, batting in front of 85,000 people.

Vihari's first Test hundred came in Jamaica this year. He finished the two Tests with 289 runs at an average of over 96

Vihari's first Test hundred came in Jamaica this year. He finished the two Tests with 289 runs at an average of over 96 © AFP / Getty Images

Can you talk about the importance of A games? Do they help bridge the gap between domestic and international cricket, like they are meant to?
Definitely. It takes a good couple of tours to adjust to that level, so once you perform at A level, you know that you're almost there. One step [away from playing] for the country.

And you were in West Indies [with India A] before the Test team arrived. Did that help? You didn't get runs early on in that A series, though.
Honestly, I was a little concerned. You want to be in a good frame of mind before a Test series. I didn't get runs in the first two Tests [with the A team]. Third game I was really determined to get runs and I focused to get a fifty and hundred. That set a good platform for me for the Test series. That game really turned my tour altogether. Suddenly I was hitting the ball well. So being on the A tour and getting runs is also important. I understood where I was going wrong and corrected that. I was in a really good frame of mind.

Kohli says when you're batting, the dressing room feels calm. Has that always been a feature of your game?
I have always had that. I wanted to score as many runs as possible, even in domestic cricket. So I had to be calm and not show too many emotions or be flamboyant. I'm not that kind of person or player. I know my strengths and I wait [to be able to play to them]. That carried into international cricket, in the last couple of matches especially. If you saw, I was waiting for shots in my area. Maybe that's why he said that. That's a great compliment for me, especially at the start of my career.

What would you say are your strengths? Viv Richards was impressed with your playing in the V.
Playing in the V was always my strength. If you ask anyone who has seen me in the early years of my career, they would say it is. Once I get my eye in, I dominate the spinners. Even the fast bowlers. I widen my range of shots, but initially I try to hit in the V and play as straight as possible.

Have you always been aggressive against spin? It's almost non-negotiable for a No. 6, isn't it?
There will be more spin at six than fast bowlers, so you've got to capitalise on their mistakes. I try to use my feet as well. At No. 3 I never do that, because I have time on my hands. But at six, you have to use your feet and put the bowler off. I developed that because I knew I would bat at six. It is all in the mindset. I know I have the skill, but in my mind, at No. 3 I know I won't even take that chance. But at six it's not a chance, it's an opportunity for me to score runs.

"I think positively: if I get a challenging situation and I can put my hand up for the team, then I can be noticed more than maybe if I'm batting at the top of the order"

I know what sort of a game I have. It's a classical game, but at the same time my mindset is my biggest strength. Not many people will know that. I know that I have a strong mind where I can read situations well and bat accordingly. I just want to keep improving on it.

There was period during your first century where you got only two runs off 28 balls. It was similar during your debut last year. In that first game you got a top-edged six and top-edged four to come out of the rut. You did it differently here. What changed?
This time I knew that after that spell, the spinners would come and the runs would flow. In England I was nervous. I just wanted to get off 2 and I was too anxious. That's the difference. Now I know my game, I know the phase [to score] will come, where I'll get runs quickly again.

Ishant helped me in that phase [in the Kingston Test]. He told me to just keep batting and not worry about the runs. Also, there I was batting on 86 and back then it was 2, so it was different scenarios.

At any point have you felt like you need to make a statement or prove that you belong?
The first three-four games I felt that. As I said, I had a mindset where I wanted to play long for India. But now I just want to enjoy the ride. It's not a permanent thing, playing for India. It's a great honour and privilege, so I want to enjoy it as long as I have it. I obviously want to cement my place, but it's not a desperation.

You spoke about the difference in intensity between international and domestic cricket. What is the immediate challenge you felt playing against guys like Kemar Roach, James Anderson or Pat Cummins, as opposed to years of domestic cricket?
The skillsets I faced, especially Anderson and Roach, are far superior than what I've been facing in domestic cricket. Obviously you expect that in international cricket, and they're senior bowlers who have taken lots of wickets. And in their home conditions as well. They know their conditions. The only thing I can do is see what I can do in my game to tackle those spells or those conditions.

"If the situation demands I play shots, then I will. If it doesn't, I wouldn't want to prove to someone that I have those shots" © PA Photos/Getty Images

What did you do with someone like Roach, who plugged away in a channel and kept you quiet?
Both things are important - scoring and being at the crease. So you have to have that balance. In the West Indies I made a lot of adjustments. Where I stand to a particular bowler in the crease. The batting coach suggested where I could stand for certain bowlers. Because you know what a bowler is trying to do nowadays with the footage, and where they're trying to get you out. You can be one step ahead of them by standing in a particular position in the crease. That is the big difference I felt from domestic cricket, where I used to stand in one place for every bowler.

So with someone like Roach you take a middle-and-off stump guard?
Yeah, because he's always angling in and taking the ball away. So you can't show the stumps to him. You have to cover the stumps and play inside the line. And stand outside the crease - because he's a swing and seam bowler, he's not going to beat you by pace.

What adjustments did you have to make against pace, like Cummins, Mitchell Starc, and Shannon Gabriel?
To them, I just thought I had to have to have a good base and play as close to the body as possible. Because you only get a split second to make a decision, and I thought if I can have a good base and a steady head, I can pick the length early. I don't really think that much. Once I'm in the middle, I only focus on the ball.

Is it easy to be that way - not think too much?
No. Now I only think about the game plan. It's very exciting once you're batting in a position where it's almost a one-dayer. The second innings of both Tests, I had to accelerate, so it was almost like a one-dayer. It was exciting because I had not done that previously. And now it's like, if I have a game plan and the right mindset, then I can go out there and express myself. I take it as a great opportunity. I want to be that person - wherever I get the opportunity, I just want to grab it.

That's something a lot of people might not have known - your attacking game - even though you've got so many runs. Do you sometimes feel like you have to show people you can be a white-ball cricketer? Because technically solid players like you usually get pigeonholed as red-ball cricketers.
Not really. It is just situations. When the situation comes, automatically the game changes. It is not that I have to play certain shots to show them that I can play white-ball cricket. When the situation arises, automatically I play those shots. I know that I have the skillset.

"Their outlook to the game - Dada and Ricky - is different. They always want to win. They want to win every ball. Even Virat carries that. Even Ravi [Shastri] sir. So much passion and desire"

Even Virat says that - if I don't have to take that risk, why should I? Even in one-day cricket, he doesn't take those risks. He plays risk-free and still scores run a ball. So if I don't have to take those risks or play those shots, I won't do it. That's the mindset I try to have. If the situation demands I play those shots, then I will. If it doesn't, I wouldn't want to prove to someone that I have those shots.

You were recently with Delhi Capitals, training under Ricky Ponting. Did that help your attacking game?
It was a challenging period. I only played two games. In the IPL there are 20-25 players for a coach to look after. I didn't really get the opportunity to work with [Ponting]. But his mindset and talk, it always used to be positive. So now when I look at a scenario, I always look at what I can do positively and at how I can change the game for the side. How can I be the impact player? I got it from Ricky. The way he looks at scenarios are very different from other players and people.

Did it influence your leadership too?
Their outlook - Dada [Sourav Ganguly] and Ricky - is different. They always want to win. It's their best quality. Even in the dugout you can feel they want to win every game. They want to win every ball. That rubs off on all the players. Even Virat carries that. Even Ravi [Shastri] sir. So much passion and desire. When I captain at domestic level, even I have that passion to win every game. Those kinds of qualities I've learnt from them.

Have you ever watched an innings from close quarters where you thought, "Wow, didn't think it would be this good"?
Watching from the non-striker's end in my debut game. Virat got 40 off 50 at The Oval. He was batting well the whole series, and I got the opportunity to bat [with him] in the last Test. The way he was hitting the ball, especially in the cloudy conditions - the floodlights were on and the ball was moving. He was timing it very well. He was cover-driving. It felt like he was batting on a different surface. Obviously I was playing my first Test and struggling for each run, and he came in and was just hitting it like it was on a flat track. At that moment I felt awe. That he's the best batsman I've seen live. I didn't have any words.

Is it difficult to bat with someone like that? To stay true to your own style?
Even in Australia we had a partnership in Perth. It was a difficult track and he was batting so well. It is obviously difficult, but at the same time it is easier too. The way he talks to you, the energy he carries in the middle. It will pump you up and make you alive in the middle.

The home season is about to start - your first one. Are you looking forward to that, where maybe runs might be easier to get?
As I said, no runs in Test cricket are easy. Every team, especially now with the Test Championship, will come hard for a win. Especially when they're playing away. They want an away win. It'll boost their chances for the championship. I don't want to take it easy and be complacent.

Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

 

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