Hanuma Vihari’s bat at the Sydney Cricket Ground had the word TON on it. It’s an interesting word, that. Across different fields, ton has different usage. In cricket, it refers to a century. In measurement terms, it refers to a unit of massive weight. The Indian batsman might not have achieved the former in Sydney, but in terms of value to his team, the latter was true for his 23 off 161 balls as the third Test between Australia and India ended in a gripping draw on Monday.
And in a video that showed us the scenes at the end of day’s play, there were hand-shakes, fist-bumps, hugs... about 90 seconds of pleasantries before a final moment that hits you hard: that of Hanuma Vihari climbing the steps to enter the dressing room with a pronounced limp, using his SS-TON bat as a support to lean on.
It was, as his partner-in-heist Ashwin Ravichandran put it, an innings worthy of being counted as a Test century... one that was played through pain.
Down but not out
On the final day at SCG, Rishabh Pant had walked out to bat ahead of Vihari and it proved to be something of a masterstroke by India. The move was, as we learned later from Ajinkya Rahane, to have a left-hand right-hand combination in the middle. Rahane, of course, was the first man to be dismissed on the day and Pant did not have to wait long to come out and play arguably the best international innings of his career yet. But once he was dismissed after an exhilarating 97, it seemed India’s best bet was to play for a draw. And even that, seemed a long shot against a relentless Australian bowling attack.
Thoughts quickly turned to what India would have to do to *when* Vihari was dismissed, not if. He was not coming into this innings on the back of many runs, his place was under pressure. So, the question was would Ravindra Jadeja be able to bat? Can Cheteshwar Pujara just take India to the close of play? And in the immediate moments after there was a buzz seeing Jadeja getting padded up and sitting with his gloves on, Vihari became the latest Indian player to get injured. It was his right hamstring.
Now, pause. Let’s rewind how this Test match had panned out for Vihari till that point in time. His first innings dismissal belongs to the highlight-reel of the series as Josh Hazlewood came up with a sensational piece of fielding, but the need to take a quick single had come under scrutiny. Already in need of runs, the pressure increased on Vihari. Then, while fielding at short leg, Vihari took blow after blow on his body when Matthew Wade kept sweeping at him. Later, on day four, his dropped catch off the second ball of the day became a lightning rod for India’s poor fielding.
The Kohli-Dravid factor
When Vihari pulled up with his hamstring hurting and was on his haunches on the SCG turf, you would have forgiven him for getting bogged down by the many questions. Does he continue batting here, knowing he could cause more damage and miss the next Test? Or does he return later if India needed a late rearguard? Will India be able to last till tea from there?
He carried on. From that point on, he barely ran between the wickets. From one end to another, it was a walk in the park for him. Just not the way we are used to that term. But, with Ashwin for company to offer constant encouragement and an unknown solitary fan chanting his name at the SCG, Vihari showed a ton of grit to play an innings of 23 that will go down in the India-Australia folklore.
Away from the action in Sydney, two other names of Indian cricket superstars were also on the minds of many Indian cricket fans on Monday for different reasons: Virat Kohli and Rahul Dravid. And both of them have their roles to play in the Vihari story.
Kohli has singled out Vihari for praise multiple times since his debut in England. Most recently, in the pre-series interview with Steve Smith, he had earmarked Vihari to have a big impact on this series. After a 2-0 win in West Indies in 2019, he had said Vihari was the find of the series. In Australia two years ago, he had praised Vihari’s minor but vital contributions as a makeshift opener when India’s batting was under pressure.
“For me, the biggest marker is how a person approaches the game. The first opportunity we presented Vihari to open the batting with you [Mayank Agarwal], he said yes to it and that matters to me the most. A guy who wants to get into tough situations will come out either holding his head high or learning from his mistakes,” Kohli had said in an interview during the lockdown.
Indeed, Vihari was dropped earlier in that Australia series and has also not been seen as an option in home conditions, but Kohli recognised and acknowledged multiple times the kind of character he added to India’s batting: one that was evident as he ducked and weaved and defended everything that came his way from Pat Cummins and Co.
On his debut in England, Vihari had almost been out on zero, not once but twice. At that point in time too, he had to dig in and bounce back. He did so with a defiant half-century. And he credited the man he thought had a big role to play in it.
“I called him [Dravid] the day before I made my debut and told him I was making my debut. He spoke to me for a couple of minutes and gave his inputs and I thought it eased my nerves a little bit, because it is coming from a legend and you know that you belong here,” Vihari had said.
“He just told me that you have the skillset, you have the mindset and the temperament, just go out there and enjoy yourself. I would like to give him a lot of credit for that because my journey with India A was very important for me to come here, because not only that I performed there, but the way he gave us inputs, that made me a better player.”
And it was all these factors that combined together on Monday in Sydney, when he held fort. Once Pujara was dismissed, India might have feared the worst but they found heroes in Ashwin and Vihari. The gripping finale to the match is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon by those who witnessed it.
India were in trouble. Australia sensed an imminent win. Vihari was under pressure and in pain. But, he stood up and delivered.
In an essay that he had written for a book, Dravid had said: “The journeys and stories of all our nation’s sporting achievers fascinate me. I am humbled when I realize the obstacles and challenges that need to be overcome. (...) Isn’t it amazing that sport can have such an impact on our nation and its people? When we see sporting magic happen, it is exhilarating and inspiring.”
Dravid had written this many months before, but he might as well have been talking about the events of SCG on January 11, 2021. For someone who personified selflessness and took pride in the success of those around him (as a player first and then, as a mentor), Vihari’s act of defiance would have been the perfect birthday gift indeed. But he would not want his name to be the footnote in the appreciation of Vihari.
The last word, the finishing touch, must belong to Vihari — as it did at SCG. To his innings, to the 23 runs he scored, to the 161 deliveries he faced, to those final steps he took into the dressing room momentarily using his bat as a crutch, to his will. To a Test ton worth its weight.