Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
Hanuma Vihari is at the summit of a very elite list. Among all current cricketers - from anywhere on the planet - Vihari's first-class average of 59.45 is the world's best. Steven Smith, the next best, is at 57.27 while Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara are in the 54s.
After 62 games, it's no mean feat, and while smacking 148 against South Africa A in the second unofficial Test, Vihari swiftly went past 5000 first-class runs as well. Speaking before the third day in Alur, the right-handed batsman said that the 2016 switch in teams - from Hyderabad to Andhra Pradesh - and the subsequent appointment as captain, propelled his performances with the bat mostly due to the added responsibility as a leader.
"Last couple of years, changing states was a big change for me," Vihari said. "It made me more mature, since I knew I was taking a big risk in changing sides. Because if I didn't do well then people will start talking about things. I knew I had to step up, had to do double the hard work and double the runs from before, and it let me come out of my comfort zone.
"I've been playing regularly for Hyderabad since I was 16, but I had a different challenge coming to Andhra. They gave me captaincy straightaway, so they had trust in me and I felt responsible for the trust they had shown. In the Andhra dressing room, we talk about winning, so that has made me more committed to the team, and therefore I've been batting longer. Once you get to a hundred, most batsmen tend to get satisfied, but for me, the team's situation is more important than my personal goal, which is why I keep batting long."
Batting long has been a trademark of Vihari's career so far. He has struck a double-century in each of his last five Ranji Trophy seasons, including a career-high 302 not out in 2017 while facing the Odisha bowlers. According to Vihari, this ability to score, what is colloquially called 'daddy hundreds', is down to his trust in his own skills - both with the bat and in the head.
"It's more to do with my mind than with my skills," Vihari says. "At this level, it's about what mindset we're carrying on the ground. So I try to think about the game and be one step ahead of the opposition. If I can play according to the situation, and adapt to the conditions, then I feel I can be confident."
Vihari first found fame as an 18-year-old, when India won the U-19 World Cup under Unmukt Chand's captaincy in 2012 but he has never been called up to the national team. He's seen his U-19 team-mates leapfrog into the national side, and yet, Vihari had to wait until the end of 2017 for his maiden India-A call-up. In his first six innings - against South Africa A away and then against New Zealand A and West Indies A at home - the highest Vihari made was 37.
However, during the ongoing series against South Africa A, Vihari's 148 was his third fifty-plus innings in a row, finally paying back the trust shown by India A coach Rahul Dravid. Vihari said the team's policy of giving players an extended run after being selected has been one of the reasons behind India A's overall success.
"When I first went to South Africa, I was pretty nervous," Vihari said without any hesitation. "I knew I was up for a challenge, because it's just one step below international level. It was a big step from Ranji Trophy, so I was pretty nervous not knowing what to expect, how the bowlers would be like, but the good thing about the set-up now is you get a consistent go. It's not like you get one or two games. If you have the right attitude and a decent domestic run, then you tend to get six-seven games for India A.
We've been playing together for the last four tours. Rahul sir says there is no best XI, no settled XI. He says every player in the 15 can be part of the XI, and that learning is the most important part at the A-level. So we tend to have different XIs in different games; no matter if you get a hundred in the previous game, you can still get rested for the next game. So in this system, we all back each other and it helps us individually. We are all contributing in different games, if you see."
Still only 24 and ignored in the IPL auctions since 2013 - when he played briefly for Sunrisers Hyderabad - Vihari firmly believes he's a multi-format player, and not just a red-ball specialist. But the disappointment of not being picked up for the IPL is clear on his face, especially after averaging of over 58 in List-A games in 2017 and 2018. A lack of intent in the shorter format may be one of the reasons behind not being selected, but as Vihari himself says, he does possess the ability to hit big, and more importantly, to score fast.
"It is tough, because you want to be part of the IPL. I want to get exposure and experience, but some things are not in your control," Vihari adds. "For a couple of years, I've been doing well in the shorter format. I got a quick hundred in Vijay Hazare Trophy (a 118-ball 169 against Mumbai), been working on my strike-rates and done consistently well in T20s and one-dayers as well. But I don't know how franchises work. That's not in my control, but I would definitely love to be part of the IPL. If not, I will look at other things that will help me up my game."
These "other things" that Vihari talks about are stints with Gazi Group in the Dhaka Premier League and club cricket for Essex in England, but Vihari's final aim remains the call-up for the national side. After batting at No. 5 for India A so far, Vihari was promoted to No. 3 in the ongoing match and he earned his maiden A-team century. A familiar spot in the line-up together with a comfortable surrounding under the team's seniors has allowed him to transit more easily into the A-team set-up.
"It's very exciting since previously I was part of only one dressing room," Vihari said. "But here, mixing with players from different states, and to be playing for the country is a different feeling altogether. Although it's an India A game, playing for the country - with the second-best players in the country - it feels like quite the honour.
"Shreyas Iyer and Yuzvendra Chahal (the senior-team players in the A squad) lift the spirit of the dressing room, and it's inspiring to come and see them do their job. Right now, we're playing against one of the best bowling teams in the world. Last month, we played against some international players in England, so it's a different challenge to cope with uncomfortable situations.
"It has made me a better player, and playing against better players will make you a better batsman."