"Give our lads a paintbrush and they will go to work on the back fence. Give one to a Brazilian and he will make a Leonardo da Vinci."
- Scotland manager Andy Roxburgh after his team lost to Brazil in the 1982 football World Cup.
Gundappa Viswanath and Mohammad Azharuddin were to cricket what the Brazilians are to football. In the midst of modern cricket's power-play, their touch-artistry seemed to be from another era. They were, according to Kapil Dev, "magicians, not cricketers."
Their moods and methods created nightmares for rival captains who had to set fields for them. A ball pitching outside the leg stump would be hit with geometrical precision to the cover boundary; one that pitched outside the off stump would be flicked imperiously to the midwicket fence. They could make run-scoring look as easy as snatching candy from a kid even when the wicket was vicious, the bowling potent, and all the odds were stacked against them. Equally, they could exasperate by letting the opposition off the hook just when it seemed they were pinned to the mat.
Neither could be forced into changing their natural game by situation or reputation because of their rare talent and self-confidence. Therein lay their genius: heady to watch, difficult to emulate.
But the difference between them was simple: Vishy's was beauty with a purpose, to borrow a cliche from the pageants. Azhar enjoyed a better run-aggregate - even a better average - despite having played eight fewer Test innings than Vishy. He also out-centuried Vishy, 22 to 14. In fact, Azhar's conversion of fifties into hundreds ranks him sixth in Test history among batsmen with 2000 runs or more. Personal milestones didn't mean much to Vishy who finished with ten 70s, four 80s and three 90s compared to Azhar's two 70s, three 80s and one 90.
Vishy was one of the most accomplished bad-wicket players of all time. Take the 1974-75 series against the West Indies, where he helped India win the third and fourth Tests after routs in the first two.
At 192 for 6 in the second innings at Calcutta, India looked in danger of losing the Test and series, but he battled on with the lower order to score 139 and India reached 316 to set the West Indies an unattainable target.
The next Test, at Chennai, was Vishy's Brandenburg Concerto. Minus Sunil Gavaskar, the Indian innings was in tatters at 118 for 8 against the pace of Andy Roberts. Vishy produced a classic. He added 73 with Bishan Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and the final total was a respectable 190. Vishy remained unbeaten on 97 - an innings which ranks 38 on the Wisden 100, one of only two non-centuries to make the list. He followed it with 46 in the second, as India won a low-scoring Test by a thumping 100 runs. Sadly, his 95 in the deciding Test at Bombay couldn't win India the series.
He scripted several other monumental works: 83 and 79 on a green top at Christchurch in 1975-76; 79 not out in the second innings on a Bangalore turner against Derek Underwood in 1976-77; 124 (next highest score: 33) and 31 against the West Indies in 1978-79 on a Madras track that Alvin Kallicharran said was faster than Perth. These were great performances in the stickiest of situations.
Azhar's favourite opposition, by contrast, was England, who never had the sort of firepower that Vishy came up against. Of course, there were those unparalleled three hundreds in his first three Tests in 1984-85. Then, at Lord's in 1990, his 121 off 111 balls in response to Graham Gooch's 333 prompted the billionaire-philanthropist Paul Getty to remark: "I thought after watching that I could have died happily."
In the next Test at Manchester, Azhar whipped up 179 off 243 balls and, in the process, became the first Indian to score a hundred runs in a single session. Significantly, none of the centuries won India the match.
Indeed, a comparative study of overseas Test victories in which the two figured is revealing. In 43 appearances, Vishy starred in three winning Tests in Australia, and one each in the West Indies, England and New Zealand. He contributed two hundreds and three fifties in these and averaged over 53. By comparison, Azhar played in 53 Tests abroad but in just three wins - two in England and one in Sri Lanka. His average in the three victories: 18.50.
Of Vishy's four overseas hundreds - in West Indies, Pakistan, England and Australia - two were match-winning, and one match-saving. At Port of Spain in 1975-76, he and Gavaskar scored hundreds as India hunted down 406, the highest chase in Test history; in 1980-81, at Melbourne, his century came in an innings where the next highest was 25. India won that Test by 25 runs. In 1979 at Lord's, Vishy's hundred, along with one by Dilip Vengsarkar, pulled India out of trouble and saved the Test.
Azhar got nine centuries abroad, none of which resulted in a victory. Of his 13 hundreds at home, five resulted in wins, three in losses and five in draws. Ranged against this is the stat that tells the story: India never lost when Vishy scored a century - home or away.
Most of Azhar's fabulous centuries came in hopelessly lost causes: the 106 at Adelaide in 1991-92, the sixth-gear hundreds at Calcutta and Cape Town against South Africa in 1996-97, and the 108 on a seaming, first-day Wellington pitch in 1998.
Azhar's best Test-saving performance came at Faisalabad in 1989. Trailing by 135 and reduced to 91 for 2, India were rescued by a stand of 158 between Azhar (109) and Sanjay Manjrekar. And in 1997-98, against Sri Lanka at Colombo, India were 138 for 4, after being set a target of 373 when Azhar (108 not out) and Sourav Ganguly saved the match. Good efforts, but not great.
While Vishy was outstanding against pace - or spin - Azhar was uncomfortable against the genuine quicks. His overall record illustrates that: an average of 19.55 in the West Indies, 23.33 in South Africa, 27.72 in Australia.
Yet Azhar did enough as a batsman - not to mention as an all-time great fielder and as the most successful Indian captain - to gain his place in history. His Test average at its lowest was 43.96 - only seven batsmen, among those who have played 30 innings or more, have surpassed that.
Till the lure of Mammon corrupted Azhar, he was God's gift to Indian cricket, as Sunil Gavaskar once hailed him. But Vishy, he was God himself.
How they rate 'em
I would rate Vishy much higher than Azhar. He was brilliant against pace and took the attack to the opposition. He played in an era which boasted some of the finest pacemen.
Azhar was a good batsman in his own right, and an artist, but not in the same class as Vishy. He didn't have to play the kind of quality pace Vishy had to.
Vishy: 9, Azhar: 7
Vishy was a fluent, aggressive and wristy strokeplayer who loved going for his shots. On his day, he was a class act. Overall, I would rate him as good, but not exceptional.
Azhar, too, was wristy. And he could play all around the wicket. He was more polished and his performances were better against all sorts of attacks. He was strong on the cut, drive, and pull, and good against spinners.
Vishy: 6, Azhar: 7
They were both very wristy players who played very well square of the wicket.
I place Vishy well above Azhar for the simple reason that I have seen Vishy score heavily and with ease against the best pace attacks. Azhar struggled against the quicks for most of his career.
Vishy: 9, Azhar: 6
Both were wristy players who played the cut and glide very well, though Vishy had a more organised technique. He was very good against fast bowling well which is saying a lot considering that a major part of his career was in the era before helmets. Azhar was a better improviser, which probably was due to one-day cricket. He used the cross-batted and lofted shots to good effect.
Vishy: 9, Azhar: 8