In April, while the IPL was on, Hanuma Vihari played three County Championship matches for Warwickshire, scoring 100 runs in six innings at an average of 16.66, with one half-century. But he still made headlines in India - for his efforts to help people affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Vihari talks about the work he did and how the county experience brought him clarity about his game ahead of an English summer where he could be in contention to play the World Test Championship final followed by the five-match Test series against England.
Since the first week of May, as soon as you finished your county stint, you have been focused on helping people affected by Covid-19 in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. How did that come about?
After the county stint I had a break. The situation in India was not great, so I thought if I could help out, I could have an influence on some other people's lives. It started by me using my contacts on social media. And fortunately, now there is a group of volunteers who have formed a WhatsApp group and they share the workload and reach out to as many people as possible.
We believe it was your wife Preethi who urged you to take this up?
Yes. I used to tell her that I have an interest in social service. One day while watching the news from India, she said why not start now? The next day I started on Instagram and then moved to Twitter.
Back when I started, plasma [from recovering Covid-19 patients] was a big requirement, so I thought about asking my followers on Instagram to help out. Later, I realised there were several other requirements people had, so I decided to form a team, which has around 120 volunteers now. They comprise a mix of working professionals, including doctors and even players from the Andhra Ranji Trophy team. Initially I spent around eight to nine hours daily facilitating requests from the public. Now that has come down to three-four hours because I have been training to get ready to be part of the Indian team.
What exactly do you and your volunteer group do?
The group solves most problems themselves, but in case of an emergency, say, they are unable to find a ventilator bed or medicines for someone, they ask me to post it on my social media to spread the word. At times, I speak to families of patients as well as doctors and coordinate. That is my role in the group.
I have also done a few fundraisers. Unfortunately one of the patients from Hyderabad for whom I did a fundraiser passed away recently. I told his daughter, who is 20, that we will support her. Her father and one of her two younger brothers tested positive. She was in a lot of debt and so had reached out in the first place. We have told her that we will be there to support her financially and emotionally. Similarly, I have reached out to a few other families personally, and it is pleasing to help.
All this must have had an impact on you emotionally too?
It does move you. What they are going through, listening to their stories, it is definitely emotional. But we try to help as much as we can. In case something unfortunate happens, you try to help them emotionally, and we try to help as many as we can.
Does it help being an elite sportsman because you are taught from a young age to keep your emotions separate from the task at hand?
It is not about getting out here. It is about life [at stake]. I have decided to help, so I need to deal with the situation. Not only me, I have to handle others in the group as well. They also feel emotional while trying to help a patient and when they get some bad news, they feel bad. They get more attached than me as they are in touch with the families of the patient and they know them more closely. But so far we have helped several people in Andhra and Telangana. We have done well. We have had some bad news as well, but it is part of the journey - we have to accept it.
Before arriving in England, the last competitive cricket you played was in January, in the Sydney Test. That was against the Kookaburra ball, while in county cricket you have played against the Dukes. Can you describe the difference between the two balls and how you change your technique depending on which one you're facing?
The Kookaburra gets soft in Australia after a while. But the Dukes does something all day - off the wicket or in the air. There's always something for the bowlers and that is the key challenge. When I came to England in April, it was quite cold. Even if you believe you are set, you can still be surprised by the movement. Like when I got out in my 30s against Essex, where I thought the wicket was quite good to bat on, but the odd ball was doing something because of the hard seam on the Dukes.
Jamie Porter [right-arm seamer] angled it in, so I was playing for the line and then the ball straightened off the wicket. It was a decent delivery, but it surprised me with the movement, because in the previous few overs it was doing nothing off the wicket, then suddenly the ball kicked off the wicket.
On your Test debut, at The Oval in 2018, your first batting partner was Virat Kohli. You later said Kohli had given you tips about facing the inswinger from James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Are those still valid now that you have had county cricket experience?
At that point my trigger movements were different compared to now. I was young and playing my first game. I was moving more than I would have liked to at that point. My trigger movements were so far across that what he said helped me deal with the straight delivery better. Those cues helped and I ended up scoring runs and batting comfortably. But now I feel I am setting up to face the outswinger and inswinger decently. Now my game is much more in control. I know what my trigger movements are.
You take a middle-stump guard in England now?
Yes, it depends on where we are playing. In Australia it was more towards leg stump because there is no lateral movement there, so you can play beside the line of the ball. Here, in England, you have to get more in line and judge the off stump more because of the movement of the ball. I start on the middle stump and because I do the trigger [back and across], I end up between off and middle. At the same time, you have to remember that if it is a stump-line ball, you have to play straight.
England is a tough place to bat in, in the sense that the Dukes is always in play.
Definitely, that's the challenge here. The overhead conditions play a part as well because when it is sunny, it gets a bit easier to bat, but when it is overcast, the ball moves all day. That was the challenge I faced early on in this season of county cricket - because it was quite cold and the ball was doing a lot off the wicket.
In that debut match, at Trent Bridge, you took a brilliant catch, bowled a forgettable over and then made a 23-ball duck. You faced close to three overs from Stuart Broad. Can you talk about that experience?
It [my innings] was towards the end of the day's play. We needed to bat about nine overs. My thought process was to bat out those overs and come back fresh the next morning. And I was almost there: there were about 1.1 overs remaining in the day when I got out. He [Broad] was bowling well. He was fresh, he had not played a game until then. The floodlights were on and he was steaming in. I was not really overthinking. I was just trying to compete with him. He bowled a good delivery and I did not play as well as I could have.
That is the type of delivery you know you will get consistently in the Test series. Can you talk about that ball and your response?
I thought it was full enough for me to drive, but again, in England you have to be really certain with your shot selection. In India, you can get away with a push, or even if it is not there to drive, you can still get away driving on the up. If I were to play that ball a second time, I would try to play as late possible.
Having said that, it was just my first innings in county cricket. I learned that I should play much later. In the second match, against Essex, I got 30 and 50. Essex are the defending champions and have a decent bowling attack with Peter Siddle and Simon Harmer. I thought I batted well, but I should have converted it into a bigger score.