January 29, 2014

A wizard called Vishy

Remembering a magician who invariably rose to the occasion when conditions favoured the bowlers, especially the fast men

Gundappa Viswanath played beside the ball rather than behind it on bouncy tracks © Getty Images

I had just finished reading a glowing reference to GR Viswanath in James Astill's recent book The Great Tamasha, by cricket journalist Haresh Pandya - lamenting the relative lack of recognition outside India of the little Karnataka bastman's greatness - when I serendipitously opened a cricket anthology by Andhra author Prasanna Kumar at a page devoted to describing GRV's double-century on his Ranji Trophy debut.

It struck me how similar my own - and I'm sure thousands of other Indians' - thinking on the subject had been, for I have always believed GRV belonged to the highest class of batsmen, though western writers have rarely accorded him the same status as they have other Indian greats, past and present.

I vividly remember the physical director of my college laughing at me after Vishy's first Test innings, in Kanpur in November 1969. "Your man scored a duck!" he cackled, because he knew I had been a diehard fan of the young batsman ever since I saw a couple of his brief but classy innings in the Duleep Trophy. Vishy had been the last of the rash of youngsters whom the chairman of selectors, Vijay Merchant, had blooded that season - at the insistence, I learnt, of the captain, MAK Pataudi.

"Wait for the second innings," I challenged Mr Subramaniam, who was a lovely man otherwise, very supportive of the college cricket team I was leading then. The rest was history, we all know. Viswanath hit 25 fours on his way to a delightful 137 against an Australian attack that included Graham McKenzie, Alan Connolly, Johnny Gleeson and Ashley Mallett. He was barely 20 then.

By the time I came face to face with Vishy as his State Bank of India team-mate in 1974, he had already scored his second Test hundred, at the Brabourne Stadium (the first Indian batsman to score another century after a debut hundred), against England, even though his contribution on the triumphant West Indies and England tours under Ajit Wadekar had been relatively modest. Not only was he a friendly senior in the team, he was also a gentle communicator with the rest of humanity, I discovered. He very politely requested a spectator who had strayed into the players' enclosure not to block his view. "Match nahin dekha to humko bahut dukh hota bhai [It makes me sad if I can't watch the match]!"

His brilliant 52 at Lord's that year was the forerunner of many splendid knocks against the touring West Indies that season. His 139 in Calcutta and 97 not out in Madras were quite the highlights of India's fightback against the marauding visitors. Though his Chepauk innings became the toast of the nation as he started farming the strike at 117 for 7 to take the total to 190 in the face of some fiery fast bowling by Andy Roberts (7 for 64), Vishy himself rated his Calcutta innings as by far his best Test knock until then.

A few years later, he was to play an even more courageous hand in India's hard-fought win against the same opponent, again at Chepauk, when on a nasty surface he made 124 and 31, taking several body blows from the hostile trio of Sylvester Clarke, Norbert Philip and Vanburn Holder. He had weathered the pace of Jeff Thomson to score consistently on the 1977-78 tour of Australia, and his 114 in Melbourne, against Dennis Lillee and Len Pascoe, was to prove decisive for India on the next tour of that country.

It was a characteristic of Viswanath's batting that he invariably rose to the occasion when conditions favoured the bowlers, especially the fast men. His double-hundred in Madras in January 1982 was scored on a wicket that offered pace and bounce on the first morning for the four-pronged attack of Bob Willis, Ian Botham, Graham Dilley and Paul Allott, before first Dilip Vengsarkar and later Vishy blunted the attack with an exciting counter-attack.

The little man was arguably the inventor of the technique of playing from beside the ball, rather than behind it, on bouncy tracks, and his square-cutting has scarcely been equalled. In domestic cricket he was known to be capable of playing at least two shots to any single delivery, perhaps three on occasion, as my Hyderabad team-mates and I sometimes discovered to our dismay. During one memorable gem he played in Bangalore, he kept playing outswingers with disdain past midwicket and mid-on, only to start forcing identical deliveries to point and the cover boundary once the three slips had moved one by one to the on side.

Viswanath rarely scored when his team did not need a contribution from him. He also found it difficult to concentrate against less-than-challenging bowling, as can be seen from his higher average in Test matches than in first-class cricket.

A lovely man with his own firm views on what constitutes fairplay in cricket, he never regretted his decision as captain to recall Bob Taylor after he was given out with England tottering at 58 for 5 in the Golden Jubilee Test in February 1980, a match India eventually lost. He has perhaps been the only Test cricketer to pull out of tour games at the eleventh hour to make way for young players in the reserves who he believed stood a chance of Test selection if they performed in those matches. South Zone's TE Srinivasan and V Sivaramakrishnan both got into the playing XI this way on different occasions.

Gundappa Viswanath was indeed a very special cricketer.

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on February 2, 2014, 14:45 GMT

    Vishy was dropped for failing in only One series against Pakistan. That is the time when ball is swing swinging in reverse because Pakistani bowlers used screw driver. He did not understand what was happening. He never got chance again.

  • sid on January 31, 2014, 20:49 GMT

    Great article. Thanks. Too bad players who are not from Bombay/Delhi were not getting due recognition in the past due to lack of publicity in the press. To some extent it is still true in India.

  • Harsh on January 31, 2014, 9:13 GMT

    One of the most debatable points is whether Vishy could be classed with the all-time great batsmen like Gavasakar or just be tagged as a 'very good 'batsmen.At his best he could be compared with the likes of Brian Lara but his career was plagued with patches of inconsistency.He lacked the temperament of team -mate Sunny Gavaskar.Although he averaged above 56 against West Indies and above 50 against Australia he was not sufficiently tested on Carribean or Australian wickets.He had the leading average of over 50 on the 1977-78 tour of Australia but that was against a 2nd string Aussie attack with only Jeff Thomson being a formidable bowler.

    However Vishy would often ressurect India from the grave like in Madras in both 1974-75 and 1978-79 against the West Indies and in 1980-81 at Melbourne v Australia.He almost always scored when India needed the runs .

    Overall I may club Vishy with stars like David Gower,Zaheer Abbas and Majid Khan.For sheer style only Denis Compton surpassed him.

  • Harsh on January 31, 2014, 8:57 GMT

    Vishwanath in terms of pure talent joined the club of greats like Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar.If he had done true justice to his natural ability would have joined the all-time greats like Viv Richards,Hobbs and Gavaskar.

    Vishy's batting combined the imagination of a poet with the grace of a pianist. Vishy simply brought a new dimension to the art of batting ,virtually inventing strokes of his own with his magical touch art.I can never forget his combination of a pull ,hook and flick stroke.His wrists would manipulate the best of deliveries like when he late -cut a Lillee yorker for a boundary in Melbourne in 1980-81.

    He played great pace better than any Indian batsmen and outscored Sunil Gavaskar on bouncy surfaces.His 97 n.o in 1974-75 and his 124 in 1978-79 versus West Indies were classic examples of this.He also mastered bad wickets like when scoring 79 and 83 at Wellington in 1976.Never forget his role in India's historic run chase in Trinidad in 1976.

  • Harsh on January 31, 2014, 8:46 GMT

    Gundappa Vishwanath was an equivalent of a composer like Beethoven or an artist like Rembrandt to the art of batting.Few batsmen ever posessed the inventive and artistic flair of 'Vishy'.Very few batsmen in cricket's history surpassed Vishwanath's creative genius.His strokes reminded you of a flower blooming,executed with the finesse of a sculptor.His square cut was simply majestic.

    Above all he was a great match-winner who surpassed Gavaskar in performances in games won by India.Never did India lose a game when Vishy scored a century.He mastered great fast bowlers like Andy Roberts and Richard Hadlee better than any Indian batsmen ever.His batting exhibitions on a bouncy track against the Calypsos in Madras in 1974 and his 79 and 83 in 1976 in a test in New Zealand were masterpieces of batting unequalled in testing conditions.Above all he championed a crisis.

    Figures simply did not do justice to this little master.

  • Yugandar on January 31, 2014, 5:37 GMT

    Reminiscences tinged with affection, joy and a hint of sadness! My cricket watching nigh obsession, began with 82-83 series in Pak. Vishy was a wreck in that series.....nevertheless I remember all my gullywallahs going oh, ahs over some 30 odd innings that included his most famous shot 'squarecut'. There were mythical stories about that 'squarecut...if some disappeared to the boundary in a sec' some others broke hands of point fielders....despite the childhood hyperbole Vishy was indeed a mighty batsmen and great, great gentleman.R Guha wrote a beautiful piece on this very pages where he recounted on how Vishy used to literally murder Bedi, Prasanna, venky in the nets....he concluded that Vishy's best was until about 76. Statistics and lack of footage may prevent the true appreciation of his genius until one has what Mukul calls'lived experience'. The same issue haunts to a lesser degree our own VVS....call it Vishy/VVS conundrum. But fans in unison will say they would rather have it

  • Dummy4 on January 31, 2014, 2:01 GMT

    I think you may have under rated the appreciation of Vishy by those of us outside of India. As I tell my Indian friends: Tendulkar is not even the best Indian batsman, that title belongs to Vishy and Gavaskar. I have realised that since a boy who started following cricket closely when I was in India in the late 1960's with my parents when my team - Australia - was touring. Vishy came to my attention, and all the wonderful Indian players of the time such as Engineer, Bedi et al. Elegant, and so sporting. Not sure that they would be big supporters of some of the recent Indian player characters....nor Australian for that matter !

  • madhavan on January 30, 2014, 14:10 GMT

    When one talks of Vishy, nobody can forget his 97 not out at Chepaulk against Andy Roberts & Co. The great cricket writer Rajan Bala flowered praises and I still rate this as the best I have ever witnessed. The pitch was condusive to pace bowlers and Vishy scored runs at will while the others hastened their walk towards the pavilion.

  • Sameer on January 30, 2014, 12:18 GMT

    Extraordinary cricketer and a great human being. It was a great privilege to have seen him play. At Christchurch 1976 he played two great knocks against Richard Hadlee and co in cold and fast bowling friendly conditions which are considered extraordinary

  • Rizwan on January 30, 2014, 11:19 GMT

    I agree with most comments here - The fact that NOT A SINGLE SACHIN TENDULKAR century was featured in the Wisden top 100 underscores the importance of players like Vishy ,Laxman and Gavaskar ( that 96 in his last was rated by Imran Khan as the best knock he has ever seen )

    Talking of other Bangolreans , Dravid , the man who has faced the most number of deliveries in test cricket , is also a gentleman and fine Ambassador of the state and country