Column | Lesser known facts about Gundappa Viswanath

Gundappa Viswanath
Gundappa Viswanath has been one of the finest batsmen produced by India. File photo: IANS

Wikipedia informs us that till date 303 players have represented India in Test cricket while 243 have donned the national colours in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). This list includes all time greats such as Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, members of royalty like Ifthikar Ali Khan Pataudi and his son Mansur Ali Khan and some who turned out for the country on only one occasion. Invariably all of them have been popular with one of them - Sachin Tendulkar-  being elevated to the status of a living God by the cricket crazy millions of this country. The best of the present  generation cricketers as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli even found mention in the Forbes list of richest sportspersons on the planet. 


In this short list of cricketers fortunate to have been selected to represent the country, one individual stands out despite his short stature. If the question is asked as to who is the most loved among all the players who have worn the national cap, the answer will unfailingly be Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath, the soft spoken unassuming genius who set the stadia alight by his performances with the willow during the 1970s. After making his debut in Tests against Australia at Kanpur in 1969, Viswanath played 91 matches, 87 of them without break, till he was dropped from the playing eleven after the fourth Test against Pakistan in 1982-83. He also led India in two Tests and was a good fielder with a safe pair of hands.


Viswanath’s exploits with the bat are too well known to be recounted in detail. The unbeaten knock of 97 against West Indies at Chennai in January, 1975, is remembered as the second best innings played by an Indian batman in Tests, after V V S Laxman’s epic 281 against Australia at Kolkata. Viswanath single-handedly took on the fearsome pace battery consisting of Andy Roberts, Vanburn Holder and Keith Boyce with an amazing display of strokes that sent the ball thudding to boundaries in all parts of the ground. Incidentally the next highest contribution to the Indian innings on that instance came from Ashok Mankad with 19, followed by “extras” which totalled 16!! India never lost a Test match whenever Viswanath scored a century and he could be counted to come good when the side faced a crisis. He had shown his prowess in ODIs during the few chances he got and Clive Lloyd had gone on record that the best innings against his champion side during the 1979 ICC World Cup was the masterly knock of 75 struck by Viswanath.


What made Viswanath a favourite of followers of the game the world over was not the quantum of runs he made with the bat or the manner in which he made them but the way he conducted himself on and off the field. He was a gentleman in the true sense in that he never said or did anything that hurt any person. He never questioned the decision of the umpire and was known to walk when he thought he was ‘out’. In fact, on one occasion when he was declared “out” by the umpire before he started walking, crowd erupted and a mini riot ensued. He had also famously recalled Bob Taylor of England when he felt that the batsman was given out incorrectly by the umpire. Though this led to India losing the Test, Viswanath did not express any remorse over this action nor did he change his attitude. He always acknowledged the cheers of the crowd, shook hands with whosoever greeted him and remained a picture of grace and poise, both inside the playing field and outside. 


However, very little was known about Viswanath, the person, as he remained reticent to talk about himself. Followers of the game remained in the dark about his early life, his initiation into cricket, the persons who coached him, his methods of training and pre-match preparation and his life outside the game. As Viswanath’s playing days coincided with a critical phase in the growth of cricket in our country when its popularity surged on account of the national side starting to win matches overseas, this self imposed reserve on his part presented a significant difficulty for those interested in knowing more about the history of the game in India during this period. 


This lacuna has been made good by senior cricket writer R Kaushik who has helped Viswanath to pen his memoirs titled “Wrist Assured: An Autobiography”. This book, the work on which commenced two years ago when the batsman attained the age of 70, details the path traversed by  Viswanath from the bylane of Bangalore where he started playing the game using a tennis ball, to become one of the best batsmen in the world. This work is peppered with various  anecdotes, beginning with the incident where he was denied selection to the state schools side on account of being too short and frail.”What will I tell the boy’s parents if he suffers a serious injury on being struck by a cricket ball?” was the reply given by the chief selector to the query posed about his exclusion!


Viswanath sent notice about his prodigious talent with a double hundred on his debut in Ranji Trophy, which took place against Andhra Pradesh during the 1967-68 season. There is an interesting story about this game as well. Karnataka (then known as Mysore) were a side weakened by the absence of four of their top players who were away on duty for the national side. Batting first on a matting wicket, Mysore had lost two quick wickets to the pace bowling duo of Venkat Rao and R P Gupta when Viswanath walked out to bat. Seeing the slight frame of the tiny batsman marking his guard, the bowlers felt sympathy and decided to let him score a “few runs”, before they dismissed him. The easy runs at the start of the innings were just what Viswanath needed as he started playing his strokes all around the wicket and returned to the pavilion only after he had scored 230 runs.


The support and affection that he received from Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was critical in shaping the early phase of Viswanath’s career. It was well known even during those days that it was on Pataudi ’s insistence that Viswanath was make a member of the playing eleven for the second Test against Australia at Kanpur in 1969. Similarly, it was Pataudi’s words “relax boy, don’t worry, you will get a hundred” that helped him to relax after he was dismissed for a “duck” in his first appearance in Test cricket. Viswanath did not let down his skipper as he went on to hit a century in the second innings. Incidentally, Pataudi had observed the extraordinary talent in Viswanath much earlier. After seeing him bat in a Ranji Trophy match, Pataudi advised him to do the exercise of lifting bucket filled with water so as to develop and strengthen the muscles of his wrist and forearm. Viswanath followed this advice religiously and the ball started reaching the boundaries faster from his bat as his wrists developed tremendous power.


Viswanath also talks about his habit of “walking” when he thought he was out, without waiting for the decision of the umpire. In only his second Test, an Aussie player called him ‘a cheat’ and even kicked his bat after a strong appeal against him was turned down. This incident upset Viswanath so badly that he decided he would never allow himself to be called a cheat again. He has also recalled the only occasion when he did not walk though he knew he was out, which happened in a Ranji Trophy match against Tamil Nadu. He was so disgusted for staying at the crease that he deliberately played a bad shot a couple of balls later and got back to the pavilion!


The only aspect that this book does not cover in detail is the personal life of Viswanath. His marriage to Kavita, sister of Sunil Gavaskar, in March, 1978, was celebrated by cricket enthusiasts with such vigour that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) even changed the dates of the finals of Ranji Trophy where Karnataka was to take on Uttar Pradesh, to allow Viswanath to play this game. Viswanath landed at  Mohan Nagar, the venue of the match, almost straight off the wedding ‘pandal’ and scored a brilliant 247 to steer his side to a win. However, this book does not make any mention either about the wedding or this game nor on his family life, apart form occasional references about his son Daivik. Viswanath’s close friendship with and admiration for Gavaskar stands out and the former has poignantly written about the latter talking him out of a habit that almost took his life.


Kaushik has done justice to task of bringing to fore the lesser known elements that went into the making of Viswanath, the cricketer. The book is written in easy to read prose and covers all major international matches played by him. This work will be a worthwhile addition to the collection not only of followers of the game who love this “Little Master”, but also all bibliophiles who are interested in the history of cricket in India during the 1970s.  

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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