G Hanuma Vihari is now India’s 292nd Test cricketer, and he may well go on to have a successful career. However, even as he battled at the Oval, it is fitting to think back to May 20, 2016; the day Vihari issued a press note, saying he won’t be continuing his alliance with Hyderabad Cricket Association (HCA) on the Indian domestic circuit anymore.
Till that point, Vihari had made 4,543 runs in 102 innings at 44.53 across three formats in seven seasons for Hyderabad. He had also won the Under-19 World Cup with Unmukt Chand’s Indian team in 2012 in Australia. Outside of Hyderabad, he had not played for any senior team other than Sunrisers Hyderabad in IPL and CLT20, and for South Zone in that famous 2014-15 Duleep Trophy final where he had a crucial role in a match that swung like a pendulum before Central Zone won by nine runs despite conceding a lead of 103 runs.
After having made an important 75 in the first innings, he was expected to shepherd South’s chase in the second innings. Vihari, however, was consumed by pressure and some good bowling with the title within grasp.
Not much was seen of Vihari on television outside of Sunrisers Hyderabad and that Duleep Trophy final, as he went about his business of scoring runs for a largely unfancied Hyderabad side in front of empty stadiums.
Unhappy with how things were heading in his career, Vihari issued that press statement. He said he was moving to Andhra as his family had shifted base out of the city. He was profusely thankful in the support HCA had extended in his career till then. It was also widely reported then that being born in Kakinada, the city that came under Andhra Cricket Association, Vihari was moving to his new team as a local player and not as a professional. So, he was not going to make another local player sit out by virtue of each team being allowed to field only three professionals.
Crucially, Vihari's shift from Hyderabad to Andhra came a few months after the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had sacked Roger Binny as the South Zone representative in the national selection committee. Back then Stuart Binny was an active Indian cricketer, and at the 86th Annual General Meeting on November 9, 2015, it was believed that the senior Binny could come under the conflict of interest radar.IMAGE: Twitter/BCCI
MSK Prasad replaced Binny as South Zone selector. Was this a game changer, considering not many Andhra players had represented various representative India sides - ‘A’ tours, teams for domestic tournaments or the senior sides - till then? A total of three Andhra players represented two Duleep Trophy teams in 2016-17 played in September and October that year.
The next big boost came at BCCI’s 87th AGM in November 2016. Prasad replaced Sandeep Patil as the chief national selector. Prasad came into the national setup with a strong reputation of having done some pioneering work for Andhra at grassroots level for both men and women, but here within a space of exactly two years, his national prominence had risen significantly. The power skewed in Prasad’s favour furthermore when in January 2017, as a part of Lodha Committee’s recommendation, the BCCI reduced all selection panels to three members.
When the three-member committee met on January 20, 2017, to select the Cheteshwar Pujara-led Rest of India squad for the Irani Cup against Gujarat, there were no Andhra players in the squad. But suddenly the representation of Andhra players in various ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘Blue’, ‘Red’, and ‘Green’ spiked. Not that it was not noticed in the circuit, but these are essentially developmental sides and a nudge here or a push there is understandable, and even acceptable at some level. A selection committee cannot pick sides only on the back of statistics after all.
Chama Milind played for India B in the Deodhar Trophy in March 2017. It was around the same time Vihari travelled to Malaysia for the Asian Cricket Council Emerging Teams Cup. It was not an important tournament from India’s perspective as a lot of domestic players had already joined the pre-season IPL camps, and that opened up spots for the fringe cricketers. No doubt, Vihari grabbed the chance with 115 runs in two matches. In fact, he was only one of two Indian cricketers along with B Aparajith, the captain, to cross the 100-run mark in a tournament where India failed to make it to the semi-finals.
Every team that was selected thereon had some form of Andhra representation, and there were definitely genuine explanations to back those selections. For example, the 2017-18 Duleep Trophy had four players across three teams. It was in September 2017, and a heavy India A calendar against international sides needed the selectors to dig deep into the reserves.
Vihari was one of the Andhra players who played one four-day game against South Africa in Potchefstroom where he hit the winning runs to level the series. He then came back to make 105 as an opener for India Blue to secure a first-innings lead against India Red in a Duleep Trophy match played with a pink ball and under floodlights in Kanpur. By the next Duleep game, he was in Mulapadu to represent India A against New Zealand A in another four-day game.
With Rahul Dravid taking complete charge of representative Indian sides, the former captain now had more control in the running of affairs. He was not hesitant to fast track Under-19 talents to the ‘A’ side - one of the reasons why Prithvi Shaw too finds himself in the Test squad now. The need of the hour was to clearly reward performers at Ranji Trophy level also. So, curiously, Andhra players started to miss the bus again except for rare circumstances. Vihari, however, had done his bit, and he sealed his case further in the Rest of India’s Irani Cup game against Vidarbha in Nagpur in March this year.
After Vidarbha declared on 800 for 7, Vihari walked in at 77 for 3. He survived some tight bowling even as wickets fell at the other end and score became 98 for 6. This is when he got support from Jayant Yadav and rest of the tailenders to stitch a creditable rearguard act of 183 in 327 balls. Rest of India could not take the lead, but Vihari was on the flight to England for the ‘A’ tour. There in the triangular white-ball tournament involving England Lions and Windies A, he made 253 runs in three matches with a highest score of 147 and average of 84.33. His strike-rate of 100.39 was instrumental in India winning the trophy. He helped India A beat Windies in the second four-day Test and seal the series, and returned home to make scores of 54 and 148 against South Africa A.
The media picked up that Vihari’s first-class average of 59.45 at that time was the best among all contemporary batsmen, with Steven Smith, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara following him. Runs in Test cricket versus representative first-class cricket. Apples versus Oranges, anyone?
The road that had been paved with a simple press note had finally been fructified more than two years later.
To Vihari's credit, he has done what has been expected out of him. But there have been others who have done it too, and for a much longer period of time. Manish Pandey and Karun Nair, who was the first-choice selection for this squad but was benched for all five Tests, are two examples. At the other end of the spectrum is someone like Shreyas Iyer who has spelled out that he is confused. For the sake of argument, let’s not bring Mayank Agarwal into the picture here since he is an opener.
What the immediate future holds for Vihari remains to be seen, but the tag away of being the country’s 292nd Test cricketer - a status that holds more weightage in the grander scheme of things – is now with him forever. So, now MSK Prasad, the last Andhra player to have played Test cricket was in charge of the national selection committee when the state’s drought was broken after almost two decades.
Who's legacy are we talking about here?
(Sidhanta Patnaik has reported on six ICC men's and women's tournaments. He is the co-author of The Fire Burns Blue - A history of women's cricket in India. @sidhpat)