When Virat Kohli decided not to enforce the follow-on against West Indies on day three of the second Test against West Indies, all eyes were on the Indian openers (KL Rahul, specifically) and what approach they would take. With a 299-run first-innings lead, India’s batting effort was always going to be brief and those situations are usually lose-lose for out-of-form players. Do well, and it will be brushed aside as a fairly meaningless effort. Struggle, and it only adds to the pressure.
Mayank Agarwal had already made a crucial contribution to the team’s cause in the first innings, so he was not under the scanner as much as his long-time friend Rahul was. When Agarwal got out with India’s score 9, their wait for a 50-run partnership as a pair was extended by another match. And from then on, all the attention was to see how Rahul go about his effort.
He started off with a maiden over against Kemar Roach, and then off the seventh ball he faced, he managed to squeeze an outside edge through the slip cordon for. From there (4 off 7 balls), Rahul’s innings was a struggle. He faced 56 more deliveries after that, off which he scored two runs. His misery in the middle came to an end when he nicked a good enough delivery from Roach behind, but for someone who has faced 63 deliveries, it was a delivery that could have been driven on the up or left alone.
Not for the first time in his career, Rahul was neither here nor there.
Fast forward to the start of the final session, when India resumed at 73/4 after 37 overs of toil. Virat Kohli had been dismissed by a peach the very next ball after Rahul fell, Ajinkya Rahane survived the hat-trick ball by the closest of margins, Cheteshwar Pujara had finished his series without a score of 30-plus extraordinarily. Hanuma Vihari had joined the Indian vice-captain in the middle and got off to a sedate start. The Indian innings was going nowhere and there was bound to be a reaction when the batsmen came out for the final session.
And that is when Vihari kicked on. When Rahane was getting boundaries off mishits, Vihari was timing the ball like a dream. There was an over from Roach when he played two balls on the middle stump to either side of the fielder at mid-on. The second shot was a picture-perfect straight drive. If that image could speak, it would have said: “look at the form I am in!”
Not for the first time on this tour, Vihari was doing exactly what the team wanted from him. He has come out to bat at different situations: repairing a top order collapse, accelerating when the team had to set a target, and building a sizeable first innings total with the tail for company. In every one of those situations, he has displayed great adaptability but never compromising on his batting style. He left the balls when he needed to, he dead-batted balls under his helmet, and he cut, drove and swept with precision when looking for runs. As the broadcasters kept alluding to, he knew his strengths (limited as they are in some cases) and he made the most of it.
A study in contrasts
Even though not directly competing for the same spot, Rahul and Vihari’s Test journeys in the last year, make for interesting comparison.
Rahul’s indecisiveness with his technique, uncertainty about his approach have been a stark contrast to Vihari’s understanding of his own game and maximisation of his talent ever since the latter made his Test debut at The Oval last year. Interestingly enough, that match is when Rahul played his last innings of note, displaying aggression at the top of the order in both the innings, going after the English bowlers early on. It was thought that his 149 in the second innings would give him a template going forward.
Vihari, meanwhile, could have been out on 0 twice in his debut innings but he fought hard and made a fifty in his first ever international outing. He could not hold on to his place in the side against the West Indies in the two-match series at home, when Rahul went back to struggling with his technique at the top of the order. The Karnataka batsman retained his place at the beginning of the Australia series but Vihari sat out in Adelaide. In Perth, Rahul failed in both outings but Vihari showed good temperament in his two innings that showed the team management he could open in Melbourne.
Looking back, that Melbourne Test is a significant point in the careers of both Rahul and Vihari already.
Tests since Hanuma Vihari's debut
|Test||KL Rahul||Hanuma Vihari|
|5th Test vs England, Oval||37, 149||56, 0|
|1st Test vs West Indies, Rajkot||0||Dropped|
|2nd Test vs West Indies, Hyderabad||4, 33||Dropped|
|1st Test vs Australia, Adelaide||2, 44||Dropped|
|2nd Test vs Australia, Perth||2, 0||20, 28|
|3rd Test vs Australia, Melbourne||Dropped|| 8, 13 (Opened, played 133 balls combined)|
|4th Test vs Australia, Sydney||9||42|
|1st Test vs West Indies, Antigua||44, 38||32, 93|
|2nd Test vs West Indies, Jamaica||13, 6||111, 53*|
While Rahul (and M Vijay) made way for Agarwal mid-way through the series, Vihari opened the batting (after having rarely played at that position even in his first-class career), and played a crucial hand. It is an innings Kohli does not tire of mentioning whenever he talks about Vihari, or in general, a player making the most of an opportunity given to him and playing for the team. Vihari has since returned to the middle order again, but he continues to make the most of the opportunities that come his way while Rahul does the opposite.
This contrast was once again in full view in Jamaica on Sunday. Rahul’s stay in the middle was a tortured affair, even though he showed some grit to battle through it. Vihari, on the other hand, knew what he needed to do and did it with minimum fuss.
Sure, this Test is not over yet but when the team is being selected for South Africa’s visit it is very possible that Rahul might retain his place in the XI while Vihari gets pushed out by Hardik Pandya’s return or the addition of R Ashwin. But, for his part, Vihari has made sure that leaving him out is going to be no easy decision.