The loss of India in the first Test of the ongoing series dominated cricket headlines in the week that went by. The second match, also being played at Chennai, will prove critical to the hosts hopes of qualifying for the final of the inaugural ICC World Test Championship. Even as the attention of cricket world was focused on the pitch and other conditions that would play a vital role in determining the fate of the second Test, one came across the news snippet that Gundappa Viswanath, the legendary Indian middle order batsman, celebrated his 72nd birthday on February 12. Since the stadium at Chepauk in Chennai and the pitch there were witness to some of the brilliant innings that emanated form the willow of Viswanath, one could not but help remembering those gems that have embellished Indian cricket history.
After scoring century on his Test debut at Kanpur against Australia in November, 1969, Viswanath made his first appearance at Chennai in an international match in January, 1970, in the last game of that series. India, after being set a target of 249 had lost two wickets for 12 runs when Viswanath joined Ajit Wadekar at the crease. The duo took the score to 114, giving Indian fans the hope that a surprise win might be in the offing. However, the dismissal of Wadekar at this stage was followed by fall of quick wickets. Viswanath’s carefully crafted 55 could only delay the inevitable as the side lost the game by 78 runs. This was the first instance of the maestro’s long and productive association with the wicket and crowds at Chennai.
Chepauk was to witness one of the greatest innings ever played by an Indian batsman in January, 1975, when Viswanath held the Indian batting together after it was ripped open by the fearsome fast bowling of Andy Roberts. After losing the first two Tests of the series, India had come back strongly to win the third match at Kolkata riding on the back of a splendid century by Viswanath. This win, along with the glorious form of Viswanath, fuelled hopes in the minds of millions of cricket fans in the country that the side would best their opponents at Chennai as well.
However, Roberts had other ideas when started his spell at Chepauk on the morning of January 11, 1975. Generating tremendous pace, the type of which had never been seen in this country before, Roberts bowled with sustained hostility and venom to blow away the Indian top order. India were soon down to 117/8 when Bishan Singh Bedi joined Viswanath, who decided to open out at this juncture with an array of sparkling strokes all around the wicket. When Roberts bounced one, Viswanath hooked him to the fine leg fence and when he pitched one short of length on the off stump, the square cut, played with the meat of the bat, bisected the gap between two fielders placed solely for the purpose of stopping this shot.
Roberts decided to pitch one up outside the off stump, only to be met with by a powerful square drive that saw the ball strike the boundary before any of the fielders could even move. It appeared that the faster Roberts bowled, the quicker the ball traveled to the fence. Such was the mastery of Viswanath that skipper Clive Lloyd was forced to spread out the field and deploy fielders on the fence, thus changing the focus from taking wicket to preventing flow of runs through boundaries!
When Bedi was dismissed by the off spin of Lance Gibbs with the total on 169, the last man B S Chandrasekhar, a known “rabbit” who was not expected to last for more then one ball, came out to bat. But on this day, so inspired was Chandra by the batting of Viswanath that he hung on gamely while the master batsman continued with his batting pyrotechnics. The crowd too cheered Chandra as every ball that he blocked received the same thunderous applause that greeted the boundaries struck by Viswanath. But with the total on 190, Roberts managed to get Chandra to edge one to Lloyd, thus ending the Indian innings, with Viswanath remaining unbeaten at 97. The Chepauk crowd rose to a man to applaud the 'Little Master' for playing the innings of a lifetime that they were truly privileged to witness. Though the West Indies secured a nominal lead of two runs in the first innings, India went on to win the Test by 100 runs.
The next tour by a West Indies side to India took place in the winter of 1978-79 and the team was led by Alvin Kallicharan. After three drawn Tests, the two sides met at Chennai on a track that was surprisingly fast and bouncy. West Indies batted first and were dismissed for 228, with Kalicharan top scoring with a superb 98. In reply, India lost two wickets, including that of captain Sunil Gavaskar, when Viswanath walked out to bat. West Indian fast bowlers Sylvester Clarke and Norbert Philip were generating pace and bounce off the wicket, making batting really difficult. Wickets fell at regular intervals and it was again left to Viswanath to hold the Indian innings together. He did not let his guard down even after reaching his century and ensured that India managed to take lead in the first innings. He was the last batsman to be dismissed with 124 to his credit and the fact that the next highest score was 33 by wicket keeper Syed Kirmani would indicate how completely India was dependaet on Viswanath for reaching a respectable total. India managed to win the Test by three wickets, with Viswanath again playing a short, yet crucial, knock in the second innings.
The last of the great innings by Viswanath at Chennai was against England in January, 1982. The side led by Keith Fletcher had in their ranks such great bowlers as Bob Willis, Ian Botham and Derek Underwood. England had lost the first Test of the series at Mumbai and the two sides reached Chennai after three drawn Tests. India batted first on a track that helped the fast bowlers and found themselves at 50/2, when Viswanath arrived at the crease following the dismissal of Gavaskar. Viswanath had been in indifferent form when the series began and there were talks about dropping him when he failed in the first two Tests. However, he had hit a century at Delhi to convey the message that it was too early to think in such terms.
At Chepauk he batted as if determined to prove a point that he could also play a long innings and build tall scores. He batted for 10 hours and 43 minutes, faced 374 balls while grinding the England attack to the ground with a knock of 222, which contained 31 boundaries. This innings was vastly different from the stroke-filled knocks described earlier as Viswanath eschewed risks, controlled his strokeplay and made his way to his first and only double century in Test cricket.
Little would the spectators at Chennai have imagined that they would not be seeing their favourite batsman scoring tall scores again in international cricket. Viswanath played only one more Test at Chennai - against Sri Lanka in 1982, which was also the first ever one played by this island nation. He was dropped from the national side after the disastrous tour of Pakistan in 1982-83 and could not work his way back to the squad after that. The slowing down of reflexes and the slackening of the immaculate hand eye coordination that helped him see the ball that fraction of second early so as to play his shots with perfection resulted to perceptible drop in his ability with the bat.
At his peak Viswanath was among the best batsmen of his generation. Sheer statistics would never convey his greatness as Viswanath’s genius was beyond mere numbers. On the occasion of his 72nd birthday, let us raise a toast to all the great knocks that he played at Chepauk.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)