February 12 is one of the more cherished days for true connoisseurs of quality batsmanship. It was on this day in 1949 that a sublime artist with the willow was born in Bhadravati, Karnataka. Yes, it is the birthday of Gundappa Viswanath, one of the most elegant and stylish batsmen to grace cricket fields across the globe.
The cognoscenti among sports aficionados find in artistic spectacles, as narcotic as they are delightful, escape from the pressures and exigencies of their daily drudgery. Whenever Viswanath was at his best, unfolding his genius as if possessed, the aesthetic observer used to forget their own world, nay soul, and find themselves transported to the realm of art and beauty.
‘Vishy’ to legions of his admirers and fans, the diminutive Viswanath elevated the art of batting to a new plane with his amazing wristwork and silken touch. It is not often that you see opponents applauding when a rival batsman plays a shot. But in Vishy’s case, such a sight had become quite common.
One has seen even a brutal fast bowler and hardened professional like Dennis Lillee clapping many of Vishy’s shots during his masterpiece at Melbourne – a magnificent, match-winning 114 in trying circumstances – in 1981.
It was one of those many innings that Vishy had played in adversity. He did not enjoy batting much when the situation was rosy, the wicket easy and the attack stingless. For instance, on the last day of the third and final Test against England at The Oval in 1982, he was batting on 75 (116 balls, 9 fours) when there was nothing left in the match. There were still a few overs to be bowled and he could easily have completed his 15th Test hundred, but he agreed to return to the pavilion when it was mutually decided to close the game.
This was an endearing trait in Vishy’s personality – he could never ever be selfish. He never cared for his personal records and achievements. The team, the country, was always of paramount import for him. He was endowed with such brilliant technique and footwork, as well as confidence and character, that he could have scored a plethora of runs and turned many of his 50s into 100s if he had tried to be a bit selfish. But he was a genuine artist, one who always aimed at perfection in his work; and a pure entertainer, who thought it a sin to bore the spectators with tedious batting.
It was this selfless approach and his ability to set the field ablaze with effortless brilliance that made Vishy such a darling of cricket enthusiasts. After Sunil Gavaskar – who appeared on the scene in a blaze of glory in 1971, the famed spin quartet, and Kapil Dev – who heralded a new era with his arrival in 1978, Vishy was the most admired and loved Indian sportsman throughout the 1970s, when there was no television in every nook and cranny of the country.
“Indeed, I cannot think of a more popular cricketer in India than Viswanath. The Bangalore and Madras crowds worship him, the Calcutta crowds go wild over him, the Delhi spectators love him and he is simply adored in Bombay,” admitted Gavaskar in 1976.
“He has given pleasure to thousands of cricket enthusiasts with his brilliant batting and stylish, wristy strokes.”
When you judge a batsman like Vishy, you do not do it purely on the basis of statistics. You have to take many other things into considerations. To understand why Vishy continues to be held in such high esteem more than thirty years after he last played for the country, you have to understand the state of Indian cricket in the 1970s.
If anything, there were only two world-class batsmen in the Indian team, Viswanath and Gavaskar, who shouldered the responsibility of lending respectability to the innings time and again. It also meant invariably batting under some sort of psychological pressure. When Gavaskar got out early, or cheaply, there was not only extra, heavy responsibility on Vishy’s tiny but capable shoulders, but also tremendous pressure.
It calls for a high amount of technique and temperament, as well as guts and gumption, to bat in such a situation, particularly when you consider that all Test-playing nations boasted of strong and varied bowling attacks. There were lethal fast bowlers – Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Sylvester Clarke, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Richard Hadlee, John Snow, Bob Willis, Mike Hendrick, Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Jeff Thomson, Rodney Hogg, Lillee, et al – and there were wily spinners – Derek Underwood, Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, Iqbal Qasim, Abdul Kadir and others.
And it had become quite routine for Vishy to bat in such circumstances. What was amazing was he would emerge triumphant, more often than not, batting against those giants, whether in India or abroad, on green-tops and turners, rarely in good situations and mostly in bad.
When Roberts was firing on all cylinders at Chepauk in Chennai in 1975, blowing away one Indian batsman after the other, it was Vishy who stood fearlessly against the demon and launched a spectacular counterattack, remaining unconquered on a superlative 97 out of his team’s total of 190.
When India were chasing a target of 400-plus at Port of Spain in Trinidad in 1976 against the rampaging Holding and company, it was Vishy who finished the job with a breathtaking century after Gavaskar, who also scored a splendid hundred, and Mohinder Amarnath had laid the foundation.
When the West Indies pace battery spearheaded by a hostile Clarke made life difficult for the Indian batsmen on a minefield of a wicket in Chennai in 1979, it was Vishy who salvaged some pride and authored a famous triumph by 3 wickets with two outstanding innings of 124 and 31 in grim adversity. This was the very Test in which Gavaskar made 4 and 1 and Dilip Vengsarkar bagged a pair. So destructive was the Caribbean attack.
Vishy was truly India’s savior and one can go on mentioning a number of Vishy’s great innings that helped India either draw the Tests against heavy odds or win them after overcoming many problems.
Though he did not play too many One-Day Internationals, his batting and approach were ideal for the shorter duration matches as well. “Vishy was perfectly suited to one-day cricket, too. He had everything – footwork, technique, temperament, shots, hand-eye coordination, timing, placement, confidence, ability to judge the ball early, and out and out positive approach – to succeed in the short game. And he did,” former India captain Ravi Shastri once told this writer.
Why, Gavaskar was heard saying, not long ago, that with his attacking batting and ability for improvisation Vishy would have been invaluable for any team in Twenty20 cricket. Gavaskar added that Vishy would have made the most of the shorter boundaries with his penchant for going for his exciting shots, which he executed with sweet timing and excellent placement.
Who will ever forget his 75 out of India’s 190 (next highest scorer Mr. Extras with 16) against the reigning champions West Indies in the inaugural match of the 1979 World Cup in England? Vishy’s pristine pure batting and artistry of his shots against the world’s most feared four-pronged pace attack featuring Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft had not just the spectators but also the diehard pundits gasping. Unsurprisingly, his 75 was rated as one of the tournament’s 10 most outstanding innings.
And he had not put on the helmet, mind well, while facing the fearsome foursome. In fact, throughout the 1970s, when there were no restrictions whatsoever on the number of bouncers per over, Vishy and Gavaskar never used the helmet while taking on the world’s most dangerous speedsters, home and away.
It was a tribute to Vishy’s genius that he got injured only once and that too when the West Indies pace bowlers were deliberately targeting the Indian batsmen’s bodies at Sabina Park in Jamaica in 1976. (Vishy, who broke his finger, was among several Indian batsmen injured in the bloodbath ordered by a desperate West Indian captain Clive Lloyd.)
It was only towards the fag end of his career that Vishy sometimes, not always, used the helmet, especially in ODIs.
Quite a few artistic batsmen, including Mohammed Azharuddin, Mark Waugh, Mahela Jayawardene and V.V.S. Laxman, came after Vishy. While they were exciting to watch when in full flow, especially Waugh and Laxman, none of them was even half as good as Vishy in purely aesthetic and stylistic terms. It shows that true artists of the willow come only rarely, if at all, in a century. And that is how it should be.
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