Gundappa Viswanath

The best-loved player

The wristy little genius was also among the most universally adored of players

Ramachandra Guha

March 5, 2009

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Gundappa Viswanath batting, India v England, Madras, 1981-82
All squared away: Vishy plays his signature stroke, against England in 1982 © Getty Images
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If cricket, as the writer Geoffrey Moorhouse once put it, is the best-loved game, then GR Viswanath was surely the best-loved cricketer. I have loved him more than most, for what are intensely personal reasons. We share a hometown, and what's more, Viswanath was the first Test cricketer I ever shook hands with. In the summer of 1970 my uncle Durai and I were driving alongside Bangalore's Cubbon Park when on Nrupatunga Road, near the city's YMCA, he spied a diminutive but for him familiar figure hunched low over a motor scooter. A yell and a wave brought the man to a halt, and soon greetings and handshakes were being exchanged with the shy, smiling hero of the previous winter's Kanpur Test against the Australians.

Durai himself claims that he was in some small way responsible for the rise of Viswanath. A vocal member of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, with some other loud-shouting men he dismissed with derision a statement by a selector of the state junior team that Viswanath was "too short" to play representative cricket. The rebuke went home, for Vishy was finally selected, scored a hundred, and on his subsequent elevation to the Karnataka Ranji Trophy side, an unbeaten double-century on debut. The next season he was playing Test cricket.

Whatever the truth of Durai's claim, I have always felt somewhat proprietorial about Viswanath. And so, indeed, does everyone else in our hometown. The last time I saw him play was in late 1988, in the finals of a city tournament. His side, the State Bank of India, were playing their old enemy, the State Bank of Mysore. Vishy scored 20-odd when his team batted first, an innings that gave great joy to the small crowd. When the State Bank of India took the field, he very soon took a sharp catch at first slip off the bowling of Roger Binny. Binny raced down the length of the pitch, but was narrowly beaten in his attempt to hug Vishy by their team-mate for club, state and country, Syed Kirmani. Both bowler and wicketkeeper were delighted for the little man.

But of course, Viswanath does not belong to Bangalore alone. From Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi to Kapil Dev, Indian Test cricketers who played alongside him have claimed him as their favourite colleague. And he has also been the best-loved of opponents. I have written elsewhere of Greg Chappell's affectionate but wholly untypical acclaim as fielding captain when Vishy scored a hundred in a low-scoring Melbourne Test, and on a better-known occasion the England allrounder Tony Greig picked him up when he reached the same milestone, to the delight of a full house at the Brabourne Stadium. But it has not needed a long innings for foreign cricketers, or commentators, to express their appreciation of the man. I can hear as I write the warmth of Trevor Bailey's commendation, when he made a short, strokeful 15 in India's great, unavailing bid to win the 1979 Oval Test, of "little Vishy's cameo of an innings".

This universal love, in an age where international cricket is marked by bitter national rivalry and the clash of personalities, is truly remarkable. It has something to do with his character, which is quietly dignified, and above all true. It has also something to do with his stature, for as the giant Greig's cradling of Viswanath in the Bombay Test of 1973 so well symbolised, it was a wonder how such a little man could do so much. And it has something to do with the quality of his batsmanship, to which we must now briefly turn.

If one were to subject a cricket watcher of the 1970s to a stroke-association test, to "GR Viswanath" he would immediately reply: "Square cut!" That shot was indeed his peculiar glory, and he played it with rare power and ease of placement. In my admiration for the craft of Bishan Bedi, l once claimed that the slow left-arm bowler was never cut, to which a friend responded, "Yes, he was! Ranji quarter-final, Bangalore, 1974. By GR." It was a match we had both watched, and the reminder was salutary. In an innings of 65 (run out) Viswanath - a tiny, crouching figure moving quickly about the crease - repeatedly made room to square- and late-cut good-length spinning deliveries for four. (Backward point had a hell of a time, running yards one way and then the other, mostly in vain. It was an experience he was still talking about when I joined his college in Delhi the following year.)

Among other spin bowlers, Abdul Qadir and Derek Underwood both have good reason to remember the Viswanath square-cut. It was a stroke he played with relish against the quicker bowlers too. Whereas with spinners he caressed rather than forced the ball, usually playing it behind square, to the fast stuff he stood upright and hit the ball fiercely past point.

 
 
If one were to subject a cricket watcher of the 1970s to a stroke-association test, to "GR Viswanath" he would immediately reply: "Square-cut!" That shot was indeed Vishy's peculiar glory, and he played it with rare power and ease of placement
 

But Beethoven is much more than the Fifth Symphony, and great batsmen cannot, even in the popular imagination, be reduced to one stroke. Next on Vishy's own repertoire was the square-drive, a shot closely allied to the square-cut. This was played off the front foot, with knees bent, and usually off the pace bowlers. On the on side, Vishy played with facility that distinctively Indian stroke, the wristy flick off the toes, as well as a paddle sweep more lately associated with Mohammad Azharuddin. All these shots he was master of till the end of his playing days, but those fortunate to have watched him in his prime will remember too his majestic on-drive and the whip through midwicket - also played by Dilip Vengsarkar, albeit with more power.

Vishy was at his best as a batsman from about 1972 to 1975. Thereafter his fondness for beer and lack of physical discipline - here he was a sharp contrast to the abstemious Sunil Gavaskar - reduced his mobility and dimmed his reflexes. Towards the end of his career he came to rely very much on the square-cut and square-drive, and on the leg-side placement; a repertoire thin by his own exalted standards, but enough to get him successive hundreds against Keith Fletcher's England side of 1981-82.

Curiously, though, one stroke-making innovation he left till very late. Watching him at the nets in Bangalore, I often saw him clout his side's spin bowlers (Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, no less) onto the roof of the Chinnaswamy Stadium, but in first-class matches he virtually never lifted the ball. My first memory of him doing so on the field of play is in the 1976 series, during the second Port-of-Spain Test. At about two in the morning, a group of us were crowded round a radio in the college quadrangle, listening to the middle stages of India's heroic bid for victory against West Indies (they had been set more than 400 in the fourth innings). At a key moment Vishy hit the left-arm slow bowler Rafique Jumadeen over mid-off for four. We exchanged glances, for this was new. Clive Lloyd dropped mid-off further back, but Vishy cleared him again. He went on to get a hundred, and India won in a canter.

I also remember Vishy hitting two lofted straight drives off Phil Edmonds in that "little cameo" he played in the last hour of the 1979 Oval Test against England. Turning to a less well-known occasion, I once watched Vishy, at the Ferozeshah Kotla, in a Ranji Trophy match between Karnataka and Delhi, being beaten on the back foot by a delivery from the rising university star Praveen Oberoi. The ball had come in late with the arm instead of, as the batsman had anticipated, spinning away towards the off side. The ball was only narrowly missing leg stump, and the bowler, after pleading with the umpire to give the decision in his favour, sank to the ground in despair. At the end of the over Oberoi made a great show to his team-mates of what he felt was a case of justice denied. Vishy watched calmly but at the beginning of Oberoi's next over came dancing down the wicket to send the ball into the crowd over extra cover.

Even the gentlest of men are sometimes moved to show an upstart his place.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books

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