A few weeks ago this column had written about the seven unfortunate batsmen who were left stranded on 99 in Test cricket. This article had prompted many followers of the game to reminisce about the innings that the great Gundappa Viswanath had played at Chennai in January, 1975, when he ran out of partners when on 97. This was considered as the greatest innings played by an Indian batsman till V V S Laxman displayed “very, very, special” powers to turn the tables on Australia by scoring 281 at Kolkata in 2001. But the classic conjured by Viswanath retains a special place in the hearts of cricket lovers in India, despite the fact that close to five decades have passed since it was played.
It might be a mere coincidence that two years before, in January, 1973, a batsman from a visiting team had scored an undefeated 97 at Chennai. During the third Test between India under Ajit Wadekar and England led by Tony Lewis, Keith Fletcher had held the England innings together in the same manner that Viswanath was to do against the West Indies in 1975. However, for some odd reason, the knock played by Fletcher did not receive even half the quantum of appreciation and accolades that followed Viswanath’s innings. Neither the followers of cricket in India nor any members of the press contingent from England who followed their national team’s fortunes went gaga over the batting of Fletcher. Even Fletcher chose to underplay this innings when he once went on record about this series, instead choosing to talk more about the century he scored in the last Test of the series at Mumbai, where he was also involved in a huge partnership with Tony Grieg.
Let us discuss about Viswanath’s knock first. India had a miserable 1974, losing all the five Tests played during the year by huge margins - three against England and two against touring West Indians. The side managed to salvage some pride by winning the third match of the five-Test series against the West Indies at Kolkata. This victory was helped in no small measure by a masterly century from Viswanath when the chips were down in the second innings. This enabled the Indian spin bowlers - Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (Chandra), Bishan Singh Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna - to come into their own and weave webs of magic around the West Indian batsmen to squeeze out a win for the home side.
The Indian batting line-up, which was not very strong to begin with, was further depleted as Sunil Gavaskar was placed on the injured list on account of a fracture to his thumb. Incidentally, India went into each Test with a new set of opening batsmen, which invariably led to the loss of an early wicket. The middle order was no better with none other than Viswanath possessing neither the expertise or experience to confront the West Indian pace battery. Even skipper M A K Pataudi, at one point of time a champion batsman against fast bowling, was a pale shadow of his former self, with his slowing reflexes compounding the difficulties posed by vision in only one eye.
The West Indies, on the other hand, were a side, with a healthy mix of youth and experience. Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards, though playing only their first series, wasted no time in showcasing their potential, while Andy Roberts was acknowledged as the fastest bowler in the world. The side also boasted of top class performers such as skipper Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran and Roy Fredricks with the bat and Lance Gibbs, Vanburn Holder and Bernard Julien with the ball. Boyce and Julian could also contribute substantially with the bat, which could also be said about Derryck Murray, who donned the big gloves.
India’s win at Kolkata had injected life into the series and a capacity crowd greeted Pataudi and Lloyd when they went out for the toss at Chepauk in Chennai. The makeshift Indian opening pair of Farokh Engineer and Eknath Solkar did not survive long, nor did Anshuman Gaekwad who came after them. Pataudi also departed soon and only Ashok Mankad managed to stick around for some time. When he and Madan Lal fell in quick succession, scoreboard read 76/6. The only ray of hope for the hosts was that Viswanath was still at the wicket, looking serene and confident, despite the procession of batsmen to the pavilion from the other end. More importantly, he appeared at ease while facing Roberts, who was breathing fire, having bagged four out of the six wickets that had fallen.
Karsan Ghavri, who was playing only his second Test, gave company as Viswanath opened out, playing some audacious shots. The pitch at Chepauk offered pace and bounce and the West Indian fast bowlers had their tails up, sending down thunderbolts relentlessly. Lloyd packed the off side with fielders but Viswanath managed to find the gaps, effortlessly sending the ball to the ropes through a series of square drives and square cuts. When Roberts hurled a bouncer, he unleashed the hook shot, which he played rarely. A straight drive off Boyce reached the fence so fast that the bowler could only rub his eyes in disbelief. It was such unbelievable stuff that even West Indian fielders found themselves applauding these strokes.
Ghavri’s resistance ended when the score reached 117 and Prasanna also departed soon, with both wickets falling to Roberts. Bedi hung in gamely, while Viswanath went on the rampage. The pair was also helped by the fact that Lloyd was forced to introduce Gibbs and Fredricks into the attack as Roberts and other fast bowlers needed rest. They added 52 runs for the ninth wicket, with Bedi contributing 14 runs before Gibbs managed to castle him. This brought Chandra, the No. 11 batsman, to the crease with the scoreboard showing 77 runs against the name of Viswanath.
Viswanath wisely started farming the strike judging correctly that Chandra would find it difficult to survive more than one ball from the West Indian attack. The pair started taking singles off the fifth or last balls of the over, while Viswanath continued with his attacking strokeplay. When the total reached 189, Viswanath square cut a short delivery from Roberts, which was the fourth ball of that over. This shot was timed it so well that Viswanath was sure it would fetch him a boundary, which would take him to his 100. But Boyce, a brilliant fielder, managed to stop the ball and sent a superb return to the wicketkeeper. Viswanath, a trifle over confident that the ball would cross the fence, had run the first run slowly and hence could not return for the second, which meant that Chandra was forced to face the remaining two balls of the over from Roberts. But the bowler needed only one ball as Chandra had no answer to a beautiful leg cutter which took the outer edge of his bat and went to Lloyd at slip, who held the catch comfortably.
Viswanath left the field to a standing ovation from the 50,000 spectators who had watched the innings spellbound. Chandra was heartbroken but Viswanath consoled him saying “now you bowl us to victory and I will be delighted”. The crowd did not sit down after Viswanath disappeared into the dressing room. They continued to cheer as Roberts, who took 7/64, led the West Indian side off the field. It was a magnificent spell of fast bowling, likes of which Indian spectators seldom got to witness. Only a batsman of the genius of Viswanath could have tackled Roberts on that day at Chepauk. It was Test cricket at its best where the pace and hostility of Roberts was checkmated by the brilliance of Viswanath. India went on to win the match by 100 runs.
In contrast, Fletcher’s innings in 1973 came when confronted with the Indian spin bowlers, who had sliced through the England batting to leave them tottering at 110/7 on the first day of the Test, with the series tied 1-1. Though reputed as an excellent player of spin bowling, Fletcher had not found his feet during the first two Tests of the series. He took charge when the seventh wicket fell and started counterattacking with some blistering shots that threw the bowlers off balance. He danced down the pitch to tackle the flight and turn of Bedi and Prasanna while he pounced on any loose ball sent down by Chandra. He added 41 runs with Geoff Arnold and a further 83 with Norman Gifford. But Chandra had the last laugh dismissing Gifford and the last man Pat Pocock to leave Fletcher stranded on 97. For the record, Fletcher struck 10 boundaries and four sixes during this innings which lasted close to four hours. India won the match by four wickets.
One feels an obvious envy towards the cricket crazy fans of Chennai who were fortunate to watch these two superb performances with the bat - one against high quality spin and the other when confronted with a fearsome pace attack. Both these innings would remain etched in their minds forever, though the one closer to their heart came from the blade of Viswanath. It was some strange hand of destiny that chose to deny both these batsmen the century they so richly deserved.
It merits mention that the missing out on the three figure mark did not bring down the value of Viswanath’s innings but only served to add an extra embellishment, almost enveloping an aura of romanticism around it, and elevated it to the status of a classic.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)