Style and intent. Two words every top team these days wants to use to define themselves. In order to execute well-crafted plans, team combination becomes crucial and players with specific skillsets become the priority. Like any other sport, cricket has limitations on how much a team can plan and predict, which is where the utility player becomes necessary - someone whose job is to expect the unexpected. For an Indian Test side that wants to dominate the world, Hanuma Vihari perfectly fits the job description.
He was there for the tours to West Indies, England and Australia where Virat Kohli’s side was able to overcome hostile conditions to win the series. Vihari is not an aggressive stroke maker like his other teammates and his average of 32.84 from 21 Test innings is not flattering but his readiness to take up challenges came to the team’s rescue on multiple occasions.
When India was short of an opener in the Melbourne Test in 2018 he put his hand up. When virtually every ball appeared wicket-taking in Christchurch in 2020, India needed their batters to shed caution and go for broke. Vihari added 55 off 70 coming in at No 6. And in his last Test for the country, Vihari did the complete opposite. India were staring down the barrel at Sydney in January this year, he played an epic knock of 23* off 161 balls while suffering due to a torn hamstring to save the Test.
His match-saving effort alongside Ravichandran Ashwin laid the foundation for a historic 2-1 series. Vihari has not played a Test since despite being match fit and playing other games on the sidelines regularly. It is puzzling to see his name dropped from the 16-player squad for the upcoming New Zealand Test series at home.
It is a curious decision taken by the Chetan Sharma-led selection committee which has rested Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Rishabh Pant for the two Tests and skipper Virat Kohli for the first Test in Kanpur. The absence of Kohli at No.4 and Pant would've freed up a spot for Vihari who has batted across the middle order on difficult surfaces.
Instead, India have opted to go with three players all of whom are openers in Mayank Agarwal, KL Rahul and Shubman Gill. One of them, Gill most likely, will start the first Test filling in for Kohli in the middle-order.
Shreyas Iyer, who made a name for himself in the Ranji Trophy but is yet to play a Test for India, has been picked and is also a potential candidate, but given India's inclination to play five bowlers, his debut seems unlikely. Even then, the Mumbai batter hasn’t played red-ball cricket since February 2019 which furthers the question over Vihari’s non-selection, who should have ideally got his chance in the first Test.
In an attempt to put out the fire, the BCCI announced that the Hyderabad batter will be travelling with the India A side for the shadow tour of South Africa, a day after the original squad was announced. While it could be argued that the selectors are looking to get him acclimatized to the hostile bouncy tracks in South Africa, it is not certain whether Vihari will be picked for the three-match Test series beginning on December 17, unless there is an injury or if India ditch the five bowler strategy. And even then, his addition in the A squad, announced as an isolated event adds more mystery to the selector's plans about him.
The 28-year old was previously part of the pre-tour matches in New Zealand, Australia and had a stint with Warwickshire ahead of the World Test Championship final. With India choosing to go with five bowlers, he had to sit out of the WTC final and the four Tests against England over a period of four months. During this time, the selectors decided to fly in Suryakumar Yadav and Prithvi Shaw, in the middle of an ongoing limited-overs series against Sri Lanka, to replace injured Washington Sundar and Shubman Gill while Vihari was readily available for both roles.
By the time Kohli returns for the second Test, India will have two more options, Gill, Iyer or Mayank, for the one remaining middle-order spot which further pushes Vihari's case down the pecking order, in case the one who plays the first Test performs well. The players who have played in the England tour, IPL and the T20 World Cup got a well-deserved break, but the lack of game time for a proven Test specialist like Vihari remains a mystery. A BCCI official told PTI that his recent form playing for Warwickshire and in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy has been the reason behind his axing which is a basic numbers game for the selection committee who will need to find a better reason.
Some of the players had tweeted cryptic messages following their non-selection for the New Zealand series, while few others have been vocal about the lack of opportunities despite consistent performances. Vihari, meanwhile, has gone about posting messages about those in need of financial and medical aid through his foundation. It is a stretch to expect an explanation from anyone within the team management but we will have to wait for South Africa A tour for his reply on the field.