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Hanuma Vihari presents India with left-field choice for opener

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Published in Cricket
Friday, 14 February 2020 01:13

With Rohit Sharma out of the New Zealand tour with a calf injury, a place has opened up at the top of India's Test-match batting line-up. The warm-up game in Hamilton was supposed to help them resolve the question of who would open alongside Mayank Agarwal in the first Test in Wellington, but their first innings only complicated the issue. Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill were both out for ducks, to balls that bounced disconcertingly from short of a length, and Agarwal extended a run of lean form by edging behind for 1.

It's still unlikely, but a different, left-field option may have presented itself to India's team management. Hanuma Vihari has opened before, at the MCG, and while he only made 8 and 13, he spent 80 minutes at the crease in the first innings, and nearly an hour in the second, helping see off the new ball and earning the praise of his captain Virat Kohli.

Batting at No. 6, Vihari made 101 at Seddon Park on Friday, and while he didn't face the new ball, there was still seam and extra bounce for the fast bowlers when he came in, and his unhurried, close-to-the-body technique was just what the Indians needed at 38 for 4.

It would be harsh to judge the three regular openers for their failures in one innings, in difficult conditions, but with Agarwal struggling for form and with Shaw (two Tests) and the uncapped Gill low on experience, Vihari could be an option for India to consider. This, of course, leaves the question of who bats at No. 6.

ALSO READ: Shubman Gill wary of Neil Wagner's short-ball threat

All this is speculation, of course, and India might not even pause to consider the idea of Vihari opening. He certainly hasn't heard any such talk just yet.

"As a player, I am prepared to bat anywhere," Vihari said at the end of the day's play. "As of now, I've not been informed [of] anything. As I've said before as well, if the team requires me to bat wherever, I am ready to bat."

Whenever he bats, there's a sense of calmness about Vihari, a sense that he has a plan and won't be swayed from it too easily. Here, he found the extra bounce surprising, but along with Cheteshwar Pujara - with whom he would eventually put on 195 - formulated a plan to deal with it.

"The talk was to bat time and to see off the new ball," he said. "Obviously they were bowling in great areas and the wicket had good bounce, extra bounce, more than what I've experienced in New Zealand before. So I took some time to adjust and once I knew what shots I had to avoid early on this wicket, maybe horizontal [-bat] shots, I tried to avoid that."

Vihari said he was pleased to have worked out a way to adjust to testing conditions.

"At the international level, you have to be thinking on your feet," he said. "And I was quick enough to adjust my game according to the conditions, so whenever I bat next, New Zealand or Australia, wherever it is, it is up to me what I want to do with my game and how quickly I adjust and I'm happy that I could do it."

Once Pujara and Vihari settled in, the New Zealand XI briefly attempted to bounce both batsmen out, with Scott Kuggeleijn, who took the first three wickets, going around the wicket and peppering them with short balls. Neither batsman was unduly troubled with this tactic, but Vihari knows he might have to face more of it in the upcoming Test series, particularly from Neil Wagner.

"We experienced that [in India A's unofficial Test series] against New Zealand A as well," Vihari said. "When the wicket flattens out, they try to experiment with the short balls and I'm sure even Neil Wagner will come up with the same ploy.

"We've seen it before in the Australian series and the home series for them. We are prepared for it. We've got that good experience in India A as well. They did come up with short balls when we played against New Zealand A. Today as well they bowled quite a number of short balls. It's good exposure for us."

The bounce at Seddon Park may have been a surprise, but the grass cover was fairly typical of New Zealand pitches in red-ball cricket. Vihari expects more of the same in the Test series.

"Maybe we'll get pitches like these," he said. "Because their [New Zealand's] strength is fast bowling, so maybe they'll give this much grass or a little less. They have a very experienced bowling attack but it's good that we got some time in the middle and we experienced these conditions. They were tough and it's good to experience tough conditions before the series and we're happy with the way the day went."

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