The Oval, September 2018. Hanuma Vihari was looking around nervously inside dressing room, trying to get his debutant's pre-match speech out of the way. This was a challenge for someone of few words but Vihari gathered himself enough to say, effectively, "I want to do well for India in Test cricket, especially overseas."
Be careful of what you wish for, they say. Vihari is now seen as an overseas specialist, with 11 of his 12 Tests so far at foreign venues, in conditions ranging from the soft turf at The Oval to the bounce of Perth, the swing of Wellington to the drop-ins of Melbourne. Along the way he's ground out 90 minutes on Boxing Day for eight runs, opening the batting after being told last minute; defied a fearsome attack of Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood at the new WACA ground; tried to prevent a top-order wobble at Basin Reserve against Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Trent Boult.
With him now ruled out of the Brisbane Test, Vihari might again have to wait for another six months for his next assignment, in England. Either the World Test Championship final, if India qualify, or the Tests against England that will follow.
It's unlikely, he'd make the XI, even if fit, for next month's home series against England, giving him the opportunity to reap batting rewards on the flat beds of Chennai or Ahmedabad, the venues for that series. At home, India prefer the exuberance of a Hardik Pandya and the five-bowlers insurance.
For this very reason, it'll be unfair to judge Vihari through the prism of his numbers alone: A Test average of 32 in 21 innings, with a solitary century, in Kingston.
The overseas specialist tag was almost written against his name when he flew to England at a day's notice in August 2018 as a middle-order batting reinforcement, even though India had Karun Nair as a reserve middle-order batsman on that tour. Two days into the Test, he was walking out to save India from a top-order collapse in overcast conditions, with the light fading.
Vihari was welcomed by a beaming James Anderson, who soon had him struggling. The brain asked Vihari move forward, but the feet just wouldn't. He played and missed, got rapped on the pads, survived a loud leg-before appeal that should have sent him back for a duck had it been reviewed, got hit on the body to rising deliveries. He also received a mouthful from Ben Stokes. He weathered all of that to grind his way to a half-century the next day.
That night, his mother sent him a message. It said, "My life's mission has been fulfilled." She had once spent a portion of her savings to buy her teenaged son a bowling machine and then fed balls into it tirelessly for three hours every evening on a small plot of land near their home in Hyderabad.
The current Australia tour is his second to the country; his first, in 2018-19, was when his willingness to accept new challenges in unfamiliar conditions - like opening after being pencilled in to the middle order - impressed the team management. He had already displayed maturity and, over his eight years in domestic cricket, a reputation for being someone who typified single-mindedness. Now there was the simple matter of moving up a level. For the first time since his India debut, he looked set to play four straight Tests - potentially eight innings.
Prior to the series, in a rare display of public backing for a player, Virat Kohli had said, "I expect Hanuma Vihari to be a key batsman for us this series." With Kohli away for three Tests, against quality seamers, this was to be an opportunity for Vihari to show his steel.
He started well with a century in the warm-up first-class fixture, but scores of 16, 8 and 21 in the first two Tests brought back those clouds of doubt even if, in his mind, he was doing most things right. That India won at the MCG meant the scrutiny wasn't as close as it might have been otherwise. In Sydney, whatever could go wrong went wrong. Vihari ran himself out in the first innings, having misjudged a single to mid-off, then put down a catch at square leg. In the second innings, he walked out with defeat looming on the final day, having to bat out the better part of two sessions with one injured batsman in R Ashwin and the tail.
Early into his innings, Vihari tweaked his right hamstring to the extent that he couldn't even walk. It's the kind of injury for which physios take you off the field, but there was no option but to carry on. He was batting on adrenaline, having popped painkillers.
You know what happened next: Vihari played out 161 deliveries to save, with Ashwin, India a Test - it was a rearguard for the ages. There would have been a lot on his mind - the implications of failure, for one. Sitting out the home series against England, and the IPL, wondering when he would get another game. But Vihari dug deep and batted for close to four hours. The 23*, his highest in five outings in the Test series, might be the most important runs he has made in his career, with the series, and his place, on the line.
The mental fortitude has been evident from the start of his cricketing life. As a 12-year-old, Vihari batted to make an unbeaten 82 for his school - St Andrew's - two days after his father had passed away. Years later, it was this very experience he recalled at the school's Sports Day Function, shortly before he received the Indian call-up.
Unlike many others, Vihari doesn't get easily affected by circumstances or what people make of him. He has been branded a one-format player; he doesn't get picked in the IPL. He is considered a hard-working grafter with limited skill sets. But it's the love for batting and cricket that keeps him going, any form, even box cricket in dressing rooms during rain breaks. If bowlers are ready to run in, Vihari is unlikely to pass up an opportunity to face them.
In 2015, he was ignored at the IPL despite working on changing his batting tempo. That day, he decided that he would make it to the IPL because teams would want him for the value he offered, rather than him changing the very foundation of his game for short-term gains. He took off to England and spent the next three summers playing in the Essex League. He forged new friendships, lived on his own in rooms that are like pigeonholes in comparison to the luxury of The Langham. He gave back to the club by coaching young kids during the week; the motive was to enhance his overall game by taking on additional responsibility.
Daniel Hagger, his team-mate at Hutton Cricket Club, remembers meeting a determined young professional seeking not merely to improve as a cricketer but also to soak up life lessons. "We were once chatting about his aspirations and goals when he left England and he spontaneously said: 'I want to play Test cricket'. I told him, 'You're amazing, but India has so many quality batsmen. How sure are you?' At the time, I thought it was a pipe dream, but it's a reality now. Obviously he's single-minded and had that determination about him, and it rubbed off on all of us. He liked people who set themselves goals and leave no stone unturned in achieving them."
When Vihari made his Test debut at The Oval three years ago, the club - then playing their final league game of the season - arranged for a TV set in their dressing room. Hutton were batting but those in the dressing room had their eyes on the TV, not at the middle, rooting for an Indian batsman, their mate, to overcome the swing of Anderson and Stuart Broad in the dark. "That's the first time ever we wanted an Indian batsman to get the better of our bowlers," Hagger laughs.
Such qualities make Vihari a likeable character, one who enjoys the respect of his team. Ajinkya Rahane echoed that at the press conference after the Sydney Test when he said they weren't ever worried about Vihari's lack of big runs because he had been batting well and doing the right things. The injury may have come at a terrible time, but Vihari is unlikely to be too perturbed by when he's going to play next.
It will probably be in England, the country where he made his debut, one that has given him friends, acclaim, and the steely resolve to be a top-drawer cricketer. If it happens, it could complete a full circle of sorts in Vihari's young career. And he'll have a chance to put into action his own words spoken at The Oval. "I want to win Tests for India, overseas."