An innings was played at Chepauk, exactly 26 years ago today, that still has old timers remember it fondly and with a glint in their eye. I was one of those fortunate to have seen that knock.
Twenty six years is a long time. Your memory plays tricks with you. Was that shot after lunch or before lunch? Was the dismissal before tea or after tea? Was it the fast bowler who broke the stand or the spinner? Was the batsman caught at cover point or extra cover? Well, I may not remember much of what I have seen even two or three years ago but the impact of Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath's 97 not out against the West Indies on January 11, 1975 was such that I can recall right away many of the glorious facets of that immortal knock, surely one of the greatest played by an Indian in Test matches.
What makes an innings great? Well, to start with it should be "the boy stood on the burning deck" knock, with the batsman scoring runs while everyone else around him is floundering. Secondly the runs are still made artistically. The pitch can be another deciding factor, particularly if it is a green top, a turning track or one that is slow and not conducive to strokeplay. The strength of the bowling is another important factor. Viewed from any angle, Viswanath's innings, made out of a total of 190 with the next highest score being 19, qualifies for the pinnacle.
Let me try and recount that innings, particularly for today's generation who happily, even if they were not present, are, as I have joyfully discovered, fully aware of the epic knock. To start with, it was a bright and sunny day. India which had lost the first two Tests of the series at Bangalore and New Delhi had come back strongly to win the third game at Calcutta. They were still without Sunil Gavaskar who had been out of action since he sustained a finger injury in a Ranji Trophy game between the first and second Tests. So Viswanath would obviously carry more than his normal responsibility as the side's other leading batsman. India won the toss and batted first. But openers Farokh Engineer and Eknath Solkar departed with only 24 runs scored when Viswanath entered. The pitch was on the slow side but Andy Roberts, then at the peak of his form, was already bowling at considerable pace and he was well supported by Vanburn Holder, Bernard Julien and Keith Boyce. Forty-year-old Lance Gibbs, still a year away from becoming Test cricket's leading wicket taker, was the only spin bowler.
Viswanath had barely come in when he lost, in quick succession, Anshuman Gaekwad and MAK Pataudi. At 41 for four, the Indian innings was in disarray. Ashok Mankad entered but by now it was obvious that much would depend on Viswanath. Still a month short of his 26th birthday, the batting maestro from Karnataka was very much at the peak of his form, having hit 52 and 139 (top score in each innings) to star in India's victory at Calcutta. Even though he had not yet reached double digits, he had given indications of a long stay. But he still needed support at the other end.
Mankad, never really comfortable against the pace bowlers, nevertheless, managed to stay put and encouraged, Viswanath launched into a furious counter attack that surprised Clive Lloyd and his side. Viswanath's name had always been linked with grace, beauty, artistry, seldom with power and potent assaults. The 50,000 strong crowd at the partly constructed MAC stadium was privileged to witness one of the greatest innings in the history of Indian cricket and the ethereal entertainment was just about to unfold.
Indeed it was cricket fit enough for the gods. Roberts, who Gavaskar admits even today was the best fast bowler he faced, was at his most hostile. But two shots that Viswanath played off Roberts I have not been able to erase from memory even today. Roberts bowled a ball just short of a length on the leg stump. In a trice, Viswanath moved his feet into position and hooked it powerfully and fearlessly to the square leg boundary. The photograph of this shot which appeared in the newspapers the next day showed Viswanath standing on one foot, after having just completed the shot. It brought out the total classicism of the shot and indeed he resembled a ballet dancer. A little later, Roberts bowled a ball on the leg stump but this time well pitched up. Viswanath launched into a furious on drive. Roberts had not even finished his follow through; he stopped in his tracks and looked dumbfounded at the ball. Crestfallen, he saw the ball race to the long on boundary a few seconds later.
The furious assault took everyone by surprise. Viswanath had always been a gentle executioner. He would caress and glide the bowlers to frustration. But this power which belied his short, slight build was something new for cricket fans. There was no respite for the bowlers if they shifted the attack to the off stump for Viswanath would then immediately bring out his favourite square cuts and drives.
But Viswanath was fighting a lone battle. For, in successive overs, Roberts dismissed Mankad and Madan Lal. The score was now 76 for six. Roberts had cut the Indian innings asunder to a point from which there could be no real recovery. Viswanath had batted with utmost ease so far. He had also scored his runs at a good rate. But now with only Karsan Ghavri and the tailenders left, he knew that he would have to step up the scoring rate. This could also possibly cost him his wicket. But Viswanath had no other option. He had to play the role of Horatio on the tottering bridge.
Not long after Ghavri joined him, Roberts bowled Viswanath a ball well pitched up on the off stump. Viswanath moved his left foot forward and down came the bat in a perfect arc. The ball was met with the full face of the bat. And the next instant we heard the crack. It wasn't a gun shot, just the sound of willow against leather. I can wager that Lloyd at gully could scarcely have turned when the ball had already hit the fence. From the moment of impact to the moment the ball reached the boundary, it could not have been more than a few seconds; so perfect was the timing of that power packed and exquisitely timed cover drive.
That shot - and the others described earlier - must have convinced Lloyd that he might as well forget about taking Viswanath's wicket. He just wasn't going to get out that day. So he concentrated now on the other end. And Roberts, being used well in short stints, obliged his skipper. In one over he bowled Ghavri and had a hapless Prasanna caught by Murray behind the wickets.
So an hour after lunch India were 117 for eight. After three hours of batting, the Indian ship was sinking. The captain had gone, the first mate and the second made had followed. Only the midshipman and two ordinary sailors were left to man it. And in the most glorious manner the midshipman took charge.
Viswanath was on 43 when Prasanna left. Only Bedi and Chandrasekhar remained. To all the responsibility he had shouldered in trying to keep the Indian ship afloat, he now had further responsibilities. He had to protect the tailenders from the menace of Roberts who in the form that he was bowling would probably require just two deliveries to dismiss them. In addition to that, he had to score runs in double quick fashion for one never knew when the two spin bowlers would have their stumps knocked out.
Farming the strike intelligently, Viswanath managed to take on most of the bowling. While Bedi dutifully stood by him, Viswanath went past 50, then 60 and then 70. For all his hitting, his batting was no more mere slogging. The strokes were made with all the artistry at his command. Each stroke was properly chosen for the ball it had to meet. The urgency for runs did not mean that Viswanath was going to give up his impeccable timing. Inspired by Viswanath's brilliance, Bedi stood his ground to help add 52 runs for the ninth wicket. Bedi's share was 14 when Gibbs bowled him.
Chandrasekhar came out to join Viswanath who by now had moved to 77. He added six more and was 83 at tea with the score 175 for nine.
Every ball that Chandrasekhar negotiated after the interval was cheered by the crowd. But the chief interest centered around Viswanath. Would he get his hundred? Viswanath moved into the 90s. Then he was on 95, then 96. Chandrasekhar stayed for 33 minutes during which 21 runs were added. Viswanath's innings reached a frenzied climax during this period. Sustained aggression saw him score 20 of the runs. He was on 97 when he watched Roberts run in to bowl the fifth ball of his 21st over to Chandrasekhar. A very definite No 11, he had summoned up all his courage and ability to stay with his Karnataka colleague for about half an hour. But he had reached the limits of his endurance. This particular ball was an ultra fast delivery and Chandrasekhar's bat, held forward in a protective gesture, was no match for it. The ball flew off the edge to Lloyd at gully.
As Chandrasekhar turned for the pavilion after a hurried "sorry" to Viswanath, the crowd rose. Then they started applauding slowly. His every step towards to the pavilion was accompanied by cheers. And as he neared the pavilion, the cheering reached a crescendo. Lloyd held back the West Indian team to allow Viswanath to go through first. And as the little figure went up the final steps to the pavilion, the crowd's cheering turned to a loud buzz. Discussion about the merits of Viswanath's innings and its place in Indian cricket history had already started. And when Raj Singh Dungarpur, then one of the selectors told reporters that "all things considered, I don't think I have seen a better innings," he echoed the feelings of every one present on the ground. Viswanath had batted 228 minutes and hit 14 fours. But figures cannot convey the grandeur of the knock. For its grace and defiance, it had been a matchless innings. Even today, I am sure that by general consensus it would find a place among the ten greatest innings played by Indian batsmen in Tests. NS Ramaswami, a scholarly writer and a deep student of the aesthetic qualities of the game, gave an immortal description in the next day's Indian Express, a write up that was sheer poetry and caught the full impact of a truly great knock. But however apt any description, there is nothing like being there in person and around 50,000 cricket fans were indeed fortunate in seeing one of Indian cricket's greatest artists at the top of his form. I shall always count myself as doubly blessed for being one of them.