Essays, reflections and more

Playing hookey for Shorty

If you were a cricket fan born and raised in Bangalore in the '70s and '80s, chances are you did everything in your power to watch Gundappa Viswanath bat

Sriram Dayanand

February 12, 2014

Comments: 38 | Text size: A | A

Gundappa Viswanath delighted even in the briefest of cameos © Getty Images

The call always arrived after dinner. Located in the living room, the telephone offered little privacy. Pesky and nosy busybodies (siblings and parents) were always hovering and any spilling of the beans now that half the school day had been kissed goodbye would create mayhem. Poker face and minimalist was the way to go.

The voice never wasted time on pleasantries; straight to the point:

"Did you go?"

"Mmm…"

"How much?"

"27"

"Brilliant?"

"Two flicks. One cover drive. A leg glance. Two back-foot cuts behind point. Later than God. Where were you rotting away?"

"Had a chemistry lab report to finish, dude. That son-of-Hitler professor would have killed me if I didn't."

"Sure. Rot in hell, will you?"

The details could wait, to extract maximum envy the next day. The mind was still preoccupied by the manic dash that morning. Plus the nagging prospect of Sanskrit or biology homework (depending on the classes that had been skipped) that still lay waiting. But an unscathed escape from the morning's clandestine mission was at hand. Soon it would be bedtime.

****

It required meticulous planning as you snuck out of school. The time of day mattered. If it was afternoon, you chose the Lal Bagh-JC Road route. Past the Victorian Town Hall, skirting Cubbon Park to arrive at the roundabout at Queen Victoria's statue. If it was morning, it was Ashoka Pillar, Double Road - past Syed Kirmani's house - to Richmond Circle and up St Mark's Road to what is now Anil Kumble Circle. Turning left to reach the statue of Gandhi.

The Gandhi and Queen Victoria statues still stare eye to eye in front of the KSCA (also known as Chinnaswamy) Stadium, Bangalore.

Slide the rickety bicycle to a stop at the makeshift parking lot housing a hundred-odd bicycles, scooters and motorcycles in the shadows of the cavernous stands - if the match was on inside. Or pull up at the boundary ropes if it was at the KSCA matting wickets outside.

Look around. Unnecessary, for the scattered crowd was the same. The same lot of elderly gentlemen, middle-aged businessmen with leather cases, anxious looking twentysomethings, and of course the throng of students with satchels and backpacks slung over their shoulders. Regulars.

A State Bank of India v Syndicate Bank match, perhaps.

 
 
To that entire generation of cricket newbies from Bangalore, he would always be the shy smile and exquisite late cut at the end of the bike ride. Best savoured alone, leaning over handlebars at the boundary ropes on a sunny afternoon
 

Formalities and etiquette are nothing in such situations. Fortunately, utterly redundant. The person next to you will do:

"Kulla"? ["Shorty?"]

"Not yet. Just one down"

Whew.

Kulla: "Shorty" in Kannada, the language of Bangalore. A small word. For a short person. A word used literally and casually in the language. As a term of endearment, too. An affectionate grandfather ruffling his grandson's hair, saying, "Yeno kulla?" ["What's up, little one?"]

Such an appropriate word for him.

****

No one called him Gundappa back then. Just Viswa. And in Bangalore, he was always kulla. If you were born there, you were automatically enrolled as a member in the Brotherhood of the Fellowship of Kulla. A membership you took for granted. Never missed meetings - over lunch boxes at school, or in office cafeterias. Over breakfast, lunch and dinner at home. Lounging around neighbourhood coffee houses and pubs. At parties, weddings and funerals. Always conducted dreamily and cheerfully. Like everything about him, nothing was screamed out. But it was everywhere. You just breathed it in.

And when it was a match at the KSCA…

No paltry physics lecture was going to be an impediment. Of course, you went. And they came from all corners of the city, young and old. Tracking the progress of the match in local newspapers, meticulously calculating odds on the timing of his arrival at the crease. Oh, six-down and Sudhakar Rao still batting for Syndicate Bank on 70? Skip the morning then; late afternoon looks promising. Lie to the boss. Lie to the wife. Hop on the bicycle and scoot the hell out of school and arrive at the stadium sweating. Desperately seeking out the scoreboard, heart in mouth.

For he never guaranteed a big window. Especially in matches with little on the line. Many were the days when you got there, out of breath, and glared at the scoreboard as it sheepishly conveyed the news: three-down, last batsman (No. 4) out for 32! Glance at the grey-haired gentleman smiling and still shaking his head. As you made eye contact: "Monkey mischief! He must have been bored. Tried to hit four boundaries in an over and got out caught and bowled. But the three fours…"

You could hop back on the bike and go off. Or try to get something for the effort: some piece of kulla. So you did. Sidled over to the stern-looking retiree and started up a conversation. Mentioned - well, let us see, Pataudi? And then leaned back and let it wash over.

The stories, oh the stories. Perhaps the one about Tiger concocting a fake kidnapping on a train in Viswa's first year for India. The gullible rookie falling for it, reduced to a hysterical wreck. It never got old. And the look of affection on the storyteller's face never faded. You rode back smiling. There was always next week - a Moin-ud-Dowlah Cup match, perhaps.

And the Ranji Trophy matches. Headaches galore: to go on Saturday or Sunday? Grab lunch packed by mom and gang up on the bus. Those matches were something else, you know: Sunny, Kapil, Bedi, Mohinder, Venkat, Shastri, Patil, Gaekwad, Vengsarkar, Srikkanth… everyone. Basking in the sun in packed stadiums. Getting lucky sometimes. A rapid-fire 30, studded with improbably delicious shots. Perhaps a 70 - all grace and panache. Or he and Brijesh Patel trying to one-up each other in audacity against a cowering Hyderabad attack. Bliss.


Gundappa Viswanath poses for a photo during nets, Eastbourne, April 20, 1974
Kulla always gave his fans reasons to smile © PA Photos
Enlarge

Also hit and miss. Like the day the Karnataka openers dug in like armadillos, batting out two sessions. As the light turned golden and shadows lengthened, a bunch of us embarked on a salvage operation - a pitch invasion. Slipping through a gap in the fence near the BEML stand, hoofing it to the middle to congratulate Roger Binny on his fifty. Or you eschewed such theatrics and took the easy way. Looked around and picked the closest avuncular gent. Mentioned the 97.

Now, Chepauk at full capacity (like on that day) was at best close to 30,000. To date, two generations of south Indians who have lived within striking distance of Chennai have been lying through their teeth (and are still at it), claiming to have been at the stadium for that masterful knock against West Indies. As would this uncle in the row behind. That was always good for a half-hour.

The years passed. Not much changed other than the bicycles, traded in for Bajajs and Hero Hondas. The rituals and habits remained intact. We now bided time sitting at outdoor restaurant patios near the stadium, sipping endless coffees. Trying to time it and get there as the second wicket fell. Zipping home soon after, still grinning at the 20-minute recital he had put on.

Our failure rate too didn't change much. Like one Saturday, under blue skies and blazing sunshine, 25,000 of us sitting down with Tamil Nadu six down. Picture us five hours later: as L Sivaramakrishnan raised his bat on bringing up his century. Foiled by L Siva-friggin-Ramakrishnan, for god's sake!

Yes, there was Lord's, Melbourne, Port-of-Spain, Calcutta, Chennai and more. And moments like Bob Taylor in Mumbai. But to that entire generation of cricket newbies from Bangalore (none of whom were in Chennai for the 97, mind you), he would always be the shy smile and exquisite late cut at the end of the bike ride. Best savoured alone, leaning over handlebars at the boundary ropes on a sunny afternoon. Inhaling sharply as he leaned into a poetic front-foot cover drive to a ball on leg stump. Looking around and seeing others from the fellowship nodding heads and smiling. Lost in their own thoughts.

But always smiling.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (February 17, 2014, 0:47 GMT)

Vishy, the only one of his ilk, transcended all barriers! It was enough for us to hear Raju Barathan or Tony cozier describe his walk to the middle, taking guard and stance and wait for the bowler! If he gets out to the first ball itself, doesn't matter. We have lived our day! We did not have TV then. Still we could feel every second of the 'Little Master' on the field!

Posted by   on (February 14, 2014, 14:19 GMT)

Brilliant article, brings back some great memories of Vishy. I am from Madras and I loved watching Vishy. Many fans mentioned several great innings of Vishy, but the most endearing feat was when he recalled Taylor in the Jubilee Test (the only one which he captained). For fans now who don't know that event, and who cant understand batsmen walking, to recall an appeal which was given out by the ump is a grand gesture. Also India lost that game which could have been avoided if Taylor was out. But Vishy was a GENTLEMAN to the core and didn't mind the situation of the game, he stuck to his principles. I wish we all learn from that incident.

Posted by   on (February 14, 2014, 13:21 GMT)

I have yet another incident (Jan 1980)about another shorty of his time. Who else other than SUNIL M GAVASKAR.

It was open Campal stadium and Gavaskar, fresh after thrashing victory against Imran Khan's Pakistan at Chennai was on the way to Mumbai,was playing a match in Arlem trophy. I occupied compound pillar near sight screen to view master's batting.Bowler was Maharashtra's much hyped Panduranga Salgaonkar. First ball was a fierce bouncer which was avoided just moving his head by an inch or two. The ball brushed his cap which he adjusted. Next ball was damn on off stump which was sent to mid off boundary even before the well built Pandu could look back.There was thunderous applaud. Next ball, very similar, was stopped right under the tip of the bat and the crowd was mesmerised.

However there was an anti climax when the local umpire ruled him out LBW which was not there and an irritated master stared at umpire as if to tell "people are here to see my batting not your umpiring"

Posted by Witty_Cricketer on (February 14, 2014, 10:00 GMT)

Looks like a generation thing to me, Vishy was probably a great batsmen (because I didn't see him bat) but to belittle some of the modern day greats (Sachin/Dravid etc) just to show how good Vishy was, is just not on. But I also think we would be doing the same thing to Dravid/Sachin in about 20 years!!!!!!!

Posted by android_user on (February 14, 2014, 6:45 GMT)

viswanath played sterlier innings against faster bowlers under more difficult conditions than the other No4 batsman Tendulkar

Posted by   on (February 13, 2014, 13:02 GMT)

yes, Vishy was inconsistent...but he was a great player when the conditions were tough for batting..younger fans of cricket may not rate him since they see so many players with higher averages...but Vishy was never about averages and stats...he was about batting well under pressure and helping India win matches that we would have lost otherwise....

Posted by   on (February 13, 2014, 11:16 GMT)

He will always be in the all time best Indian Test XI as No3. Rahul Dravid played much more, scored much more but played with less pressure and had much more support. The 97 is the greatest knock ever played by an Indian. He always scored runs when the team needed them, always scored against the best teams and best bowlers. In 1974-75 when Andy Roberts was at his fastest, he was the only guy to tackle him head on. The rest of the batsmen either cowered or blocked. In the end, the selectors gave him a raw deal dropping him after Pakistan in 1982-83, a series when barring Gavaskar and Mohinder, every batsman flopped. He still had 4 years of cricket left in him. Above all, a fantastic human being. Was revered in Calcutta as the best, much much more than Gavaskar.

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