Gundappa Viswanath has turned 70. And I have been his fan for nearly 50 years!
Now, who is Gundappa Viswanath? This may seem a strange question, but it is a pertinent one because the latest generation of sports journalists wouldn’t even have been born when Viswanath (Vishy) played his last international match for India, the Karachi Test of January 1983!
Well, Vishy was a stylish middle-order batsman who appeared for India in 91 Test matches and 25 ODIs between 1969 and 1983. He scored 14 Test hundreds, including one on debut and aggregated 6080 runs. His ODI returns were more modest, the tally being 493 runs with two fifties.
I am essentially a Madras guy, so how did Vishy of Bangalore become my favourite cricketer? It all began in 1969 when my dad was transferred to Bangalore and I lived in the Garden City for three years.
I was 12 years old and was just about getting to understand cricket when this migration happened. I was pretty conversant with the names of the Madras Ranji cricketers such as Belliappa, Rajagopal, Venkataraghavan, Dalvi, Kalyanasundaram etc., but knew only Subramanya, Prasanna and Chandrasekhar, as they had played Test cricket, in the Mysore ranks.
Then, my new-found friends brought up the name of Vishy. He had made a double century on Ranji debut in the season before and his breathtaking strokes were expected to carry him far.
As destiny would have it, Vishy was named in the Indian team to face the touring Aussies in the Kanpur Test of 1969 and my friends were agog with excitement. They weren’t expecting anything less than a century from him on debut and our History teacher, Mr. Rangaswamy, even predicted it.
But Vishy was dismissed for a duck in the first innings and we were all crestfallen. But Mr. Rangaswamy was unperturbed. “Cheer up, boys, there is a second innings,” he said. And his optimism bore fruit as Vishy cracked 137 in the second innings. As Mr. Rangaswamy distributed Pedas, what made one sit up and take notice was that there were 25 fours in the knock, a full hundred runs in boundaries!
I finally saw Vishy in action in the fifth Test of the same series in Chennai, where he scored a half-century and shared a century stand with Ajit Wadekar in the second innings. The way he handled the pace of Graham McKenzie was a sight to behold.
Vishy had scored a century on debut, but there was a jinx in that no Indian batsman who had achieved this feat had been able to score a second hundred. Vishy set things right when he cracked a hundred in the Bombay Test of 1973 against Tony Lewis’ Englishmen. The super tall Tony Greig, who had parked himself at silly point throughout the series was so overwhelmed by Vishy’s strokes that he lifted the pint-sized Indian and cradled him in appreciation the moment the hundred was registered.
Sunil Gavaskar’s exploits in his debut series in the Caribbean had made him very popular and almost inevitably there arose a debate as to who was the better of the two, Vishy or Sunil (Sunny). The Bombay man put a full stop to the arguments straightaway by declaring that Vishy was indeed the superior player as he had more than one stroke to every ball! Their friendship became kinship when Vishy married Sunny’s sister Kavitha and the brothers-in-law set the cricket world alight with their exploits.
There is this regret that the two little men were not involved in many big partnerships, but the century stand that they forged in Faisalabad in 1978, in the revival series in Pakistan, made Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi wax eloquent. Pataudi was the Editor of Sportsworld then and he dissected the technique of each little man and showed how they complemented each other! A superb analysis it was!
Vishy was unbeaten with 145 in that innings and there was an over from the Pakistan left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim in which he hit five boundaries, somehow finding the gaps with dexterous wristwork through a seven-man offside field!
The square cut and the square drive were Vishy’s trademark shots, but he was equally fluent on the on side. His flicks through midwicket were as crisp as fresh linen!
Vishy had three-figure knocks at all the iconic venues like the Eden Gardens, Lord’s and the MCG, but he more than made up for a blank at Bridgetown with a pulsating hundred at the Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad as India successfully chased a 400 plus target.
Vishy played 10 Tests in Chennai and I have had the good fortune of watching him in action in each and every one of them. His lone double hundred in Tests also came here, against Keith Fletcher’s England in 1982. Frank Keating, who was covering the match for The Guardian, wrote that Vishy had the “forearms of a blacksmith” and that his eyes were “kestrel-fierce.” This pretty much sums up the reason for Vishy’s success. He had a keen eye to judge the length of a ball and powerful arms to whack it wherever he liked!
Vishy’s 124 against Kallicharran’s West Indians in 1979 also merits mention. The second string Caribbean team — the seniors were with Kerry Packer — showed a lot of pluck and on a Chennai wicket that was uncharacteristically bouncing like a trampoline its quicks Norbert Philip and Sylvester Clarke proved more than a handful. Vishy took quite some blows on his body but gave India a fighting score.
Gundappa Viswanath caresses the ball square of the wicket on the offside during the Madras Test against the West Indies in 1979. – The Hindu Archives
Whenever Vishy played in Chennai, I went through this ritual of praying that the first two wickets should fall soon and Vishy should come out to bat at his usual position of number four. And when he did a strange trepidation would come over me. What if he failed? Wouldn’t the pilgrimage to Chepauk be rendered pointless?
Vishy was also a regular for the Buchi Babu tournament in Chennai as his employer, State Bank of India, took part in it. We used to bunk classes to watch the matches and it would have been very easy to shake hands with Vishy and take his autograph then as the players mingled with the crowd, but my extreme shyness made me shy away!
There was no Decision Review System (DRS) in Vishy’s days, but there was an occasion when he became a DRS himself! This was in the Golden Jubilee Test against England in Bombay in 1980. Ian Botham and Bob Taylor were trying to put together a partnership when Taylor was declared out caught! But the batsman felt that he hadn’t nicked the ball and was hesitant to leave the crease. Vishy, the captain for that match, spoke to him and convinced by Taylor’s stand recalled the batsman by withdrawing the appeal! Vishy also ‘walked’ if he felt he had nicked the ball.
Such a gentleman cricketer was given a raw deal on the 1982-83 tour of Pakistan, which also proved to be his last series. The home umpires (no neutrality then) were partisan and left no-balls unchecked. And Vishy was out a couple of times to such deliveries. He had a poor series, was not picked again and as Hanumant Singh, the chairman of selectors said later, “Azharuddin had established himself and we couldn’t bring Vishy back in even at a later date.”
Vishy also had a very truncated one-day career. He could rotate the strike very well with deft placements, but somehow he was not favoured.
Well, have we come to the end of our tale? Have we? But, how about THAT knock? Yes, we have reserved the best for the last. THAT knock was the unbeaten 97 in the Pongal Test of 1975 when Vishy met fire with fire.
Clive Lloyd’s West Indians had won the first two Test matches and India had pulled back the third, thanks to a ton by Vishy in Calcutta.
Now, this was Madras and the Caribbean quick Andy Roberts was breathing fire. He was only in his fifth Test match but was bowling like a seasoned campaigner. The most potent West Indian attack under Lloyd was still three years away, but this was a handy attack nonetheless. Supporting Roberts were Vanburn Holder, a medium fast workhorse who could bowl a run-denying length the whole day, Keith Boyce, he of the raw pace, but not as fast as Roberts, Bernard Julien, lending variety with his left-arm swing and the wily off-spinner Lance Gibbs, the first slow bowler to take 300 Test wickets.
Wickets were falling like nine pins and suddenly Vishy found himself with Bedi with the scoreboard reading 117 for eight. He put on 52 with the Sardar and 21 with the last man, fellow-Mysorean Chandrasekhar.
Seeing Vishy in sublime form, Roberts even cut his pace while bowling to him, conserving his energy for the sitting ducks.
Vishy had begun cautiously, his first four being a backfoot punch through the covers off Holder. There was also a blistering straight drive off Andy Roberts and a resounding hook off the paceman. Boyce was treated to a whiplash square cut, while Julien was off-driven when he straightened one on the off-stump. But, to me the shot of the innings was an off-drive off Gibbs. The spinner flighted a ball as a bait outside the off stump. Vishy skipped out of his crease and let go an off-drive. The shot split Boyce at mid-off and Viv Richards at extra-cover and even before the fielders could turn around the ball had hit the fence and rebounded into the playing arena.
When Chandra got out, leaving Vishy on 97, it was Vishy who was consoling Chandra and not the other way around.
But the sad fact remained that not one of his 10 team-mates could stand with Vishy to see him through to his milestone.
For 26 years I had placed this knock as the best ever I had seen by an Indian batsman. Then, I had to bring in a joint-first… V. V. S. Laxman’s 281!
Vishy also had a great sense of humour. Once, someone in the dressing room asked Vishy for a bottle opener and Vishy went in search of Sunny!
Now, what is left? Just the fact that Vishy is 70 and I am 62. And I am still waiting for that HANDSHAKE and the AUTOGRAPH!