Hanuma Vihari
Hanuma Vihari (AFP Photo)

Melbourne: So, in the interests of the team, a young man who will be playing just his third Test will have to bear the cross of opening the batting. That’s perhaps the price of having a tight, reliable technique, because having batting in the middle-order all but thrice in his 67-match, 104-innings first-class career, G Hanuma Vihari will have to face a fresh and unfettered Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood operating with the new ball in the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

On Tuesday (December 25), in a startling break from norm, the Indian team management unveiled their XI for the third Test, with the series tied 1-1 against Australia. Dumped from the Perth Test, not without reason, were the misfiring opening duo of Murali Vijay and KL Rahul. They were replaced by Vihari, the Andhra captain who has batted at No. 3 for a majority of his domestic career, and Mayank Agarwal, the 27-year-old from Karnataka who will become India’s Test cap No. 295.

Vihari’s solidity and levels of comfort at the crease in the Perth Test sealed his fate as makeshift opener, chairman of selectors MSK Prasad said at the MCG on Tuesday (December 25), shortly after the playing XI was tweeted by the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Whether, however, Vihari comes bearing the gifts that the Indian team is so desperately looking forward to remains to be seen.

The 25-year-old Vihari, a stylist and extremely impressive while playing close to his body in his fledgling two-Test career, has opened the batting only thrice previously in first-class cricket. The first instance was in December 2012 for Hyderabad against Rajasthan in Jaipur, and that only by default. K Sumanth had opened the batting in the first innings alongside P Akshath Reddy after keeping wicket for 120.3 overs, but when Rajasthan batted a further 105 overs in the second innings, it was humanly impossible for Sumanth to open the batting again. In the 12 overs to the end of the game, Vihari saw off 38 deliveries in making 15 not out, but he didn’t open the batting again for nearly four further years.

The following season, also in December and again in the second innings, he blazed to 145 against Kerala in Uppal, after having batted at No. 3 in the first.

His only other stint at the top of the tree was in the Duleep Trophy in September 2017, when he batted for almost seven hours in piecing together 105 in 227 deliveries for India Blue against India Red in Kanpur. Impressive as that sounds, that century came at the Modi Stadium, against an attack comprising Karn Sharma, Siddharth Kaul, Basil Thampi, Chama Milind and Vijay Gohli. To expect him to reprise the heroics against Starc, Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon – if he gets that far – in front of nearly 75,000 fans at the MCG on the noisiest day of this cricketing year might prove a step too high.

Once they decided that both Rahul and Vijay, who between them have scored 97 runs in eight innings this series, had to go, the think-tank had to look around for options to partner rookie Agarwal. The choices were Vihari, Parthiv Patel – who has opened previously, and with reasonable success overseas too, in Test cricket – and Rohit Sharma, who has been a full-fledged white-ball opener for close on five years now. Parthiv would have been a luxury unless he was also replacing Rishabh Pant behind the sticks, but while the latter has not exactly set Australia afire, he hasn’t done anything to warrant the axe either.

In normal course, Rohit would have been an automatic stop-gap choice, but the management core felt Vihari was the better equipped to handle the challenges of taking on the shiny red cherry than the man who is now in his 12th year in international cricket. Rohit’s issues, even in the middle-order, have been well-chronicled, and while a case can be made out for the senior player to put his hand up and embrace responsibility instead of throwing a young kid into the deep end, bravado can be counter-productive, too.

So Vihari it had to, by process of elimination. In his four Test digs so far, all overseas, he has scored 104 runs, 56 of them in his first innings at this level at The Oval. Significantly, he has played 251 deliveries, 121 of them in Perth while making 20 (46b) and 28 (75) in the two hits. He looked to have time at his disposal, not being hurried despite the up-and-down nature of the surface, and has already shown that he has a wise, composed head on his shoulders.

Prasad said it was ‘really unfortunate’ that Vihari was being put in this position, adding that his role as an opener was ‘not a long-term solution’. The chairman pointed out that the man who moved to Andhra – from where Prasad himself hails — at the start of the 2016-17 season from neighbouring Hyderabad was a long-term prospect for Indian Test cricket, making it amply clear that Vihari won’t be judged harshly if he doesn’t deliver as an opener. Hopefully, there will be some synchronicity between words and deeds.

For Vihari, this is a glorious opportunity to make a name for himself. He finds himself in a win-win situation, and if he can turn it around in his favour like Virender Sehwag did when he was thrust into the opener’s role in 2002, then nothing like it. The Hyderabad-born Vihari, however, is more in statemate VVS’s Laxman mould than the Sehwag one, and everyone knows how Laxman’s stint as non-regular opener panned out. To open the batting, in Australia, at the MCG, against Starc and Hazlewood, is as big a challenge as it gets. If, from this challenge, Vihari can emerge with his head – and bat — held high, then he will iterate the belief that on decisions of chance do careers turn, and champions emerge.