To enter the St John’s Cricket Academy in Hyderabad’s twin city Secunderabad, anyone taller than four feet has to bow down and go through a tiny wicket gate – a small entrance carved into the door of the larger main gate.
The academy, started in 1987 by former India Test cricketer MV Narsimha Rao, is located on a patch of land in the Nehru Nagar area of Secunderabad that used to be an Anglican cemetery 200 years ago. VVS Laxman, one of the academy’s first pupils, once said that it’s good the wicket gate is present. One can then bow down and seek blessings before entering. You don’t want to upset the spirits, after all.
Laxman was the first of five cricketers who bowed their heads to enter St John’s academy and went on to represent their country. He was followed by the Indian women’s team captain Mithali Raj, former India wicketkeeper and current chief selector MSK Prasad, and Tarun Sai Nethula, who migrated to New Zealand and represented the Black Caps in five one-day internationals.
The fifth and latest graduate of the academy to play international cricket is Hanuma Vihari, who is making his India debut in the fifth Test against England at The Oval. Vihari was 11 when former Hyderabad cricketer Nagesh Hammond, who used to run his own small academy, brought him to St John’s.
“He felt his academy was not the place for Vihari to hone his skills,” said John Manoj, who has been running St John’s since 1989. “So he called me and told me, ‘Why don’t you take him? He is a good kid.’ When I saw him, I was impressed. I gladly took him in.”
Not long after Vihari joined St John’s, his father passed away. “But the next day, the boy scores 80 and wins a school tournament for us. That’s the biggest memory I carry of him,” Manoj said.
From those days itself, Vihari was very hungry to learn, the coach added. He used to sit and watch Laxman bat at the academy every day. “Laxman never missed a practice session here under any circumstances, so Vihari had that motivation,” Manoj said. “He had that itch that he wants to play for the country. I knew he would be the next Laxman to come out of here.”
Vihari is not a wristy player like Laxman, but instead loves to play shots in the ‘V’ and square off the wicket. He bowls some part-time off-spin and is a very good fielder, according to Manoj. Vihari has also done some wicket-keeping at first-class level. “When he was captain of Hyderabad in Ranji, he decided to drop the wicketkeeper and keep wickets himself to accommodate Pragyan Ojha after his bowling action was cleared,” Manoj said, with a smile.
“I asked him, ‘What is going on?’ He said, ‘We can’t drop [Pragyan] bhaiya, we can’t drop Mehdi [Hasan], we can’t drop [Akash] Bhandari. We have no choice.’ It was against Himachal Pradesh and he scored 250-odd after keeping for a whole day.”
One of Vihari’s qualities that stands out is his ability to step up when handed responsibility, according to Manoj. “That’s the reason Hyderabad made him captain when he was very young,” said Manoj, who was the secretary of the Hyderabad Cricket Association till 2017. “We realised that when he is captain he puts a price on his wicket and does not throw it away.”
Learning to deal with the loss of his father has also made Vihari very strong mentally, according to Manoj. After being picked as a last-minute replacement for the injured Manan Vohra for the 2012 Under-19 World Cup, Vihari did not impress much in the tournament. However, he put that disappointment aside and went on to have a decent Indian Premier League in 2013, scoring 241 runs in 17 games, including two man-of-the-match performances.
In spite of that, Vihari was not picked the following season and played only five matches in 2015 for Sunrisers Hyderabad. But that did not deter him and he went on to score a bucket-load of runs in first-class cricket.
“He is not someone who is bothered about selections,” said Manoj. “IPLs will come and go. The ultimate aim has to be playing the longer version of the game. We had set a target for him to play for India by the time he is 23-24 no matter what happens. And he has managed that.”
Vihari is making his India debut at 24 with the world’s best first-class average – 59.45. This is not his first time playing in the United Kingdom. In 2014-’15, he played for Hutton County Club in the Essex First Division League, scoring six centuries. Last June, he was one of four players who were picked for India A in both the one-day and four-day squads. He finished that tour as the third-highest run-scorer in the one-day series.
Vihari could get a chance to bat for India for the first time on Saturday, or latest on Sunday. Whenever he does, don’t be surprised if he bows down before entering The Oval.