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Why is Hanuma Vihari opening for India?

By Sudhir Bisht
Last updated on: December 26, 2018 15:24 IST

Rishabh Pant, not Hanuma Vihari, can be the next Virender Sehwag that India is looking for,' says Sudhir Bisht.

Physio Patrick Farhat checks on Hanuma Vihari after he was hit on the helmet by a bouncer from Pat Cummins. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

IMAGE: Physio Patrick Farhat checks on Hanuma Vihari after he was hit on the helmet by a bouncer from Pat Cummins on Day 1 of the MCG Test, December 26, 2018. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

The Indian team management's -- read Captain Virat Kohli, Head Coach Ravi Shastri and perhaps Vice-Captain Ajinkya Rahane -- decision to put up an apprentice in Test cricket called Hanuma Vihari as opener for the Melbourne Test has shocked me.

I am a huge fan of Kohli, the batsman, and the worst critic of Kohli, the Test captain. But I never imagined that Virat would be so bereft of compassion for a fellow cricketer who is just into his third Test match so as to ask him to open for India when big names like K L Rahul and Murali Vijay failed.

Vihari is a useful batsman in the middle order, but he has hardly ever opened the innings, even for his Ranji side.

Perhaps Virat was drawing inspiration from Ravi Shastri, who like Vihari was a spin bowling all-rounder and was pushed to open the innings for India by his then Test captain Sunil Gavaskar.

 

Gavaskar is still around as a commentator and look what he has to say on Vihari opening the innings. 'Playing with the same openers would have been a greater risk. It is a positive move,' Sunny said. 'Hanuma Vihari was very impressive with the way he played in Perth, he showed a good sound defence.'

I have the greatest regard for Gavaskar who is the greatest batsman India has ever produced and the shrewdest mind in Indian cricket ever, inside and outside the cricket ground. But I believe Gavaskar seems to be concealing more than he wants to reveal.

He appears to be giving more of a pep talk to Vihari rather than commenting on the merits of the decision to push him up to open the Indian innings.

Gavaskar knows perfectly well that showing good defence against a set of bowlers who have bowled 15 overs each is not the same as defending against genuine fast bowlers who bowl at a speed of 150 km per hour with a ball as red as a cherry and on grounds as virgin as they are in the morning hours.

It is one thing to square cut Mitchell Starc for 4 in his 15th over and quite another thing to fend off his rising deliveries in the very first over of the match. The mentality of a fast bowler is at his aggressive best when he is bowling his first spell and it takes lot of courage and a lot more skills for a batsman to face a fast bowler in his first spell.

Gavaskar also knows Vihari's defence may have looked good but the defence record of Ajinkya Rahane, Kohli or Cheteshwar Pujara is tried and tested.

Rohit Sharma celebrates a ton against the West Indies, October 21, 2018. Photograph: ICC/Twitter

IMAGE: Rohit Sharma celebrates a ton against the West Indies, October 21, 2018. Photograph: ICC/Twitter

So if is just Vihari's 'good sound defence' that tilted the scales in his favour to open the innings, why was Ajinkya Rahane's even better defence ignored? After all, Rahane has opened the innings in shorter versions of the game.

I am also surprised that Rohit Sharma, the biggest puzzle of a batsman, so sublime in the shorter versions but utterly disastrous in the red ball version, was not asked to open the innings.

I quote from a Times of India report in August wherein Rohit said, 'Look, I have never been offered to open the innings yet, but I am open to anything as in whatever the team management wants.'

But Rohit is a Bombay boy and has someone up there who likes him and continues to give him repeated opportunities in the longest version of the game. The Bombay boys club wouldn't push him to open the innings and open him to the danger of failing yet again in Tests. I am not blaming Rohit here, but his admirers who won't rest in peace unless he has succeeded in Tests.

Interestingly, the Bombay wallahs all seem to be on the same page on Vihari opening the innings. Shastri and his fellow Mumbaikar Ajinkya Rahane are the coach and vice-captain respectively.

Sanjay Manjrekar, another Bombay batsman turned commentator, was the first to suggest that Vihari should open in the third Test against Australia.

On his blog on espncricinfo.com, Manjrekar writes: 'India have no choice but to clutch at straws when selecting their openers. With the mountain of runs he is scoring at the first-class level, coinciding with the failures of the existing openers, everyone agrees that Mayank Agarwal deserves a chance in the Indian team.'

'My thought is: On Australian pitches, against the hard Kookaburra ball, is it fair to throw a young talent in as an opener with no practice games under his belt? Also in India's long history of Tests, there is not much evidence of front-line batsmen having made their debuts in Australia; there must be a reason for that.'

'Hanuma Vihari has not set the stage on fire, but he has batted decently in his two overseas Tests, and every time he has batted he has looked more a No 1, 2 or 3 batsman to me than a No 6.'

Cheteshwar Pujara bats on Day 1 of the MCG Test, December 26, 2018. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

IMAGE: Cheteshwar Pujara bats on Day 1 of the MCG Test, December 26, 2018. Photograph: Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Sanjay Manjrekar's logic is weak, to say the least. Why does he not think of the No 1 down batsman (Pujara), the No 2 down batsman (Kohli), the No 3 batsman (Rahane), the No 4 down batsman (Rohit) or the No 5 down batsman (Rishabh Pant) to open the innings?

To my mind, the reason for pushing up Vihari at the top is very simple. He is the only one who can be pushed up the order. The others are not as 'pushable' as he is. He needed the least amount of persuasion to get pushed into the opening batsman slot.

Pujara is the current rockstar of the Indian team, after Kohli that is, at least in this series. He has made the 1 down position his own by his recent showing.

Ironically, Pujara is such a fine team man that he would have agreed to open for India. But Pujara has been treated less than fairly in the past and the public has a great deal of sympathy for him.

If he was pushed as an opener and had he failed, the media would go bonkers against the team management.

Ajinkya Rahane bats during the first Test in Adelaide. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

IMAGE: Ajinkya Rahane bats during the first Test in Adelaide. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The No 3 down batsman is Ajinkya Rahane. A decent fellow, he may have been pushed to open the innings, but he is not the most feeble member of the team. Pant and Vihari are much junior and feebler than him. So he managed to evade getting pushed upwards.

The No 4 down batsman Rohit Sharma has an unimpressive Test record. It suggests that he struggles against genuine pace in overseas conditions and the odds are loaded against him to succeed as a Test opener in Australia.

And then he has powerful satraps backing him up, waiting with unending patience for him to taste success in the five day version of the game. They wouldn't want him to open and fail. They think their boy has some chances of coming good, batting lower down the order in Test cricket, batting at No 6 or 7.

Who these powerful satraps are, no one clearly knows as yet. But the day will come when we will all know that, and we will continue to remain silent.

Rishabh Pant. Photograph: BCCI Domestic/Twitter

IMAGE: Rishabh Pant. Photograph: BCCI Domestic/Twitter

The No 5 down batsman, Rishabh Pant, is the new wonder boy of Indian cricket. Once hailed as a better batter than a 'keeper, he has equalled the world record of most catches in a Test match.

His batting style is cavalier in nature and he can't be trusted to open the innings. That's what the team management seems to be thinking.

I think if there is one Indian player who could be the reincarnation of Virender Sehwag, it is Pant.

He has the shots, the eye-hand coordination, the youth, the attitude, the X-factor to be the modern day Sehwag.

The boy from the Himalayas even has the footwork that the Nawab of Najafgarh lacked.

By the way, I didn't dwell upon Kohli yet.

Virat Kohli celebrates his century against England during the first Test in Birmingham in August. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

IMAGE: Virat Kohli celebrates his century against England during the first Test in Birmingham in August. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Virat is the Narendra Damodardas Modi of the Indian cricket team today. If he sneezes, the BCCI catches a cold.

And Virat loves his batting slot. He doesn't want to tinker with it. He knows if he goes out for a first ball duck, the Indian batting would fall like a pack of cards.

I would love Virat to open the innings. Only if he succeeds at the very top order would I rate him as the Best Indian Batsman Ever. Till then he remains the Second Best after the legendary Sunil Gavaskar.

In my book of cricket scores, 11 centuries scored by a 2 down batsman are as good as six centuries by an opening batsman. You do the math and Sunny will come on top of Virat and Sachin.

Hanuma Vihari in his first Test against England at the Oval in September. Photograph: BCCI

IMAGE: Hanuma Vihari in his first Test against England at the Oval in September. He scored a half century and took three wickets. Photograph: BCCI

That just leaves Hanuma Vihari, the most malleable member who can be asked to open the innings. The only big-time ex-cricketer who has spoken against sending him as an opener is V V S Laxman.

Laxman knows from experience how difficult it is for a lower order batsman to bat at the very top. VVS's defence of Vihari also proves that VVS still bats with the straightest bat of them all!

I wish Hanuma Vihari scores a massive ton in the Melbourne Test. This looks improbable, but I am rooting for him.

I always stand by those who have little support or backing. But they have it in them to succeed.

Sudhir Bisht, PhD, author and columnist, tweets @sudhir_bisht

Sudhir Bisht
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