Heads turn, jaws drop, hands go to the chest in reverence and respect. Whispers are exchanged, and when someone, finally, musters the courage to wish him, he gets a hearty ‘Hello, how are you doing?’ in reply. It is impossible not to feel the love in the air, not to bask in the borrowed afterglow of the aura that surrounds the little genius.
The M Chinnaswamy Stadium is Gundappa Viswanath’s spiritual home, the scene of many of his trysts with the mean and the nasty, the wily and the crafty. Several inches immediately attach themselves to his otherwise not-so-towering frame – five feet, five and three-quarter inches. But as he makes his way through the slightly damp walkway, there is neither affected swagger nor the arrogance that can easily come to those that are special, and know that they are special.
Even if you don’t know him, there is something eminently likeable about Viswanath. And when you get to know him enough for him to open up and allow a peek into the mind of a genius, it is impossible not to be swept away by the tidal wave of simplicity and warmth, of humility and self-deprecation. ‘Vishy’ was the people’s champion when he was an active cricketer; in retirement, he continues to remain so, a treasure trove of stories and laughs, but also a veritable locker of wisdom and knowledge that he is more than happy to throw open.
November 11, 2017 will mark 50 years to the day since he made his first-class debut, for formidable Mysore against Andhra in unglamorous Vijayawada. It was the start of a journey that was to culminate in 91 Test matches, 6080 awe-inspiring runs, 14 gems that doubled up as hundreds, and an average of 41.93 that probably doesn’t worry him as much as his supporters – of whom there are millions.
That first evening in Vijayawada, Vishy was unbeaten on 209. The following morning, he breezed to 230, in under six hours, with 33 fours. It was the highest score on first-class debut, a record that lasted 26 and a half years until Amol Muzumdar went past in February 1994.
On being cradled by Tony Greig in Bombay in 1973 after reaching his hundred
“It was all pre-planned, Sunil told me later. It so happened that he (Greig) also got a hundred, and both Sunil and I tried to lift him. Both of us grabbed one leg each, but with not much success.”
“Fifty years, you say?” he looks at you, a little wonderstruck, “I am very fortunate to still be around, I am now looking forward to this 50th year. It is a great feeling.”
His recollection of November 11-13, 1967 is fairly uncomplicated. “That was the last match of the season and players like (V) Subramanya, Chandra (BS Chandrasekhar), Pras (Erapalli Prasanna) and Budhi (Kunderan) were in Australia playing for India. Four of us —VS Vijay Kumar, V Anatharam, V Ramadas and me — we made our debut for Mysore. In those days, only one team (from each zone) went to the knockout stage, and we were not in the running. The selectors probably thought it was the best time to check out youngsters, and I made the best use of that opportunity.
“It was a very satisfying innings because that really gave me the confidence, the boost to my career. I could see that I could play big cricket, I could play some fast bowling. Alright, so it wasn’t the (quality of) fast bowling I played later, that was different. Andhra at that time had two bowlers (N Venkat Rao and RP Gupta) who were feared, not pace-wise but face-wise!” he roars in laughter. “They were big and huge. Just before that, in 1966-67, West Indies had toured India, they had (Wes) Hall and (Charlie) Griffith. The locals at the ground (in Vijayawada) would say Hall and Griffith are back again.
“Those days, as batsmen, you would look into the opposition nets to see how they bowled— they looked very ferocious. The story goes that one of the fast bowlers told the other, ‘This boy looks very small, let him get 10 runs’. The other also agreed, and they decided to allow me to get 10 runs but in no time, I had 25 on the board. Then they said let him enjoy and this went on the whole day.” The boy who looked small was then only 18, but had overnight turned into a man.
“That (debut game) was my first visit to Vijayawada. When I went back after a long time, I thought to myself, ‘No wonder I scored 200!’ It was a pretty small ground. The outfield was bad, with plenty pebbles, and it was muddy. Except the pitch— the mat made the pitch look good!— not too many other things were in good shape.”
Understandably, the protagonist had no idea that he had batted into the record books. “Until that evening (of the second day), I didn’t know it was a record,” he chuckles. “C Nagaraj (the former BCCI and KSCA secretary) was the manager, and he came to my room and told me that I had broken the old record of 210, set in 1933-34. I was very happy about that. Nagraj took a new bat and got it signed by players from both teams. That was very nice of him. I kept it with me for a long time but I finally gave it away for a charity auction.
“You can’t forget that 230. It gave me a lot of confidence, it was the backbone of my career. It so happened that I got a hundred in the second innings after scoring a duck on debut in Test cricket. It was another boost for my career, but I got the confidence of playing Test cricket from that double-hundred.”
Very little gear from his playing days are in his possession now, but Vishy says like records, the bats and the pads are also merely temporary accessories. “Most of them, I gave away for charity auctions. I just have a few, like the bat with which I scored a 100 at Melbourne (1980-81). I also have a few blazers,” he offers, then dives ahead. “But I do believe records are meant to be broken. I wanted to see my record broken. Although I didn’t watch the match, I tracked it closely. I was very happy when Muzumdar broke the record.”
Muzumdar was 19 when he eased to 260 for Mumbai, against Haryana in the pre-quarterfinal in February 1994. Eerily coincidentally, he was born on November 11, exactly seven years to the day after Vishy made his first-class debut.
It took Vishy a little over two years since that dramatic Ranji debut to break into the Indian team, for the second Test against Australia in Kanpur in November 1969. By then, though, he had furthered his cricketing education largely through his interactions with a host of stalwarts from the south of India, not least the charismatic and giving ML Jaisimha.
“The impact of players from South Zone was beautiful, especially Jai’s. Most of the time, we played Moin-ud-Dowlah, South Zone together. Immediately after the match at the Fateh Maidan Club (in Hyderabad), we would all be seated and Jai would speak about the game. Subramanya would chip in along with big players like Abbas Ali Baig, Abid Ali. Everybody would talk cricket; for us youngsters, it was a priceless gift. People would say Tiger (MAK Pataudi) didn’t talk, that was rubbish. He was very young when he became the Test captain, there were quite a few seniors in the side. But he didn’t ask for it, they made him captain. He came from a different tier, but that did not mean he acted differently. He’s done tremendous things for Indian cricket. He would only say, you have come here because you have some talent, so you have to work on it. He never said, ‘I’m the boss’.”
The biggest influence on his career, he reveals, was the arresting Jaisimha. “Playing against Jaisimha and with Jaisimha was a tremendous help,” Vishy delves into nostalgia. “One thing about Jai was that he talked the same way, whether you had played 100 Tests or were just coming into the Ranji team. The knowledge he had was unbelievable – he and Hanumant Singh. For me, Jai was the ultimate as an influence. But helping-wise, it was Tiger. He told the then chairman, Vijay Merchant, that if you are picking this boy, he has to play in the XI (in Test cricket). ‘I am not forcing you to take him in the squad, but I don’t want him to sit in the reserves’, is what Tiger told the chairman. When Tiger started playing for Hyderabad, he saw me bat in a few games, I was just a thin lad. I didn’t have much power, that’s why I used to play horizontal bat shots, I was very weak and thin. He told me to take a bucket full of water in each hand – those days, there were no gym and who was going to go looking for dumbbells?— and lift them 20 times in one go, three-four times a day. And I sincerely did that. It made a big difference, it helped a lot.”
“(Andy) Roberts had two bouncers – one was too short, the other one skids through and just passes through around nose height — both of them bowled from the same action, more or less same delivery. He had a fairly good run-up. And nothing to beat (Michael) Holding, beautiful run-up. Both are always in your sight. But (Colin) Croft was dangerous, comes behind the umpire and the peels away at the end. His head falls to the left, so the ball comes in sharply. Huge he was, and quick. And (Joel) Garner was up there (pointing to the sky), just looking at him would give me neck pain!”
Long before his Test debut, Vishy had wowed the connoisseurs and those that went to watch domestic games —in their thousands, in that day and age— with his wristy, square-on-the-offside magnificence. “Look, basically, if you are a back-foot player, you are a stroke player,” he explains patiently, like a Nobel Laureate to awed schoolkids. “So most of us in the south are stroke players. Everywhere in south India, to start with, a lot of cricket is played with tennis ball, on matting pitches. Obviously, it is a back-foot game. You try to play square; it is very difficult to go on the back-foot and then play forward. Rahul (Dravid) is also not a front-foot player. Azhar, Laxman… are all because of this. They always say, players from the west are khadoos players. That’s because right from the word, go they play on turf wickets. It is easy for them to come on to the front foot. For us, it is not easy. Those days, most of the bowlers tried to hit the deck.”
Did he work really, really hard to perfect the square-cut? “It is all a myth,” he says, slightly dismissive but nothing if not gentle. “It is not perfect, nobody is perfect. I got out playing that shot quite a few times. Some people asked me not to play that shot. And I said if I don’t play that shot, where do I get runs from? If I score 60 runs, 35-40 runs come through that shot alone. And most of the bowlers, they don’t bowl up to you except when the ball is new and there is something in the atmosphere. Otherwise most of the time they hit the deck, which is pace, pace, pace. It is a little short, skidding, you have to play that shot. Because of my height, I couldn’t go back and pull from that height. Rajan Bala wrote— I didn’t even realise until afterwards— that I played beside the ball. It just so happened there in the middle. Someone like (Andy) Roberts had two bouncers— one was too short, the other one skids through and just passes through around nose height — both of them bowled from the same action, more or less same delivery. He had a fairly good run-up. And nothing to beat (Michael) Holding, beautiful run-up. Both are always in your sight. But (Colin) Croft was dangerous, comes behind the umpire and the peels away at the end. His head falls to the left, so the ball comes in sharply. Huge he was, and quick. And (Joel) Garner was up there (pointing to the sky), just looking at him would give me neck pain!”
Green Park was a cauldron of first despair, then delight, on Test debut for the 20-year-old Vishy. Alan Connolly, the right-arm fast-medium bowler, packed him off for a duck on the first afternoon as India lost three wickets for the addition of four runs. “It did shake my confidence, yes,” he concedes. “I couldn’t sleep for two nights in a row. We stayed at a place called Berkley House in Kanpur, a lot of people told us that house was haunted. Did I get a chance to find out? I didn’t sleep at all, so no nightmares, no experiences.
“(Eknath) Solkar was my roomie. He had made his debut two Tests back against Graham Dowling’s New Zealand in Hyderabad and I had been in the reserves then. Ekki got out for zero and I pacified him. I rattled off so many names including Don Bradman, any name that came to my mind. I told him, all great batters got zero on debut, so why are you worried? In Kanpur, Ekki rattled off the same names I had mentioned, and then added Solkar too to that list as he tried to comfort me!
“When I was out for zero and I was coming back… Those days, tea was sold in matkas at the ground, and the crowd was throwing the matkas at me. Naturally, they were disappointed. When I scored a hundred in the second innings and was returning to the pavilion, the same crowd stood up and clapped. That night I realised that yes, there is nothing like getting runs. If you want the crowd on your side, that’s it. And if you don’t get runs, then don’t look at them. Luckily, the matkas didn’t come too close to me – their throws were like my throws, not much power. Luckily, we batted first in the Test and that’s how I got to bat in the second innings. It was a tall-scoring draw, I might not even have got a chance to bat again if we had batted second in the Test.”
Probably mentally shuddering at the prospect of not having got a chance to make amends for the first-innings duck, he goes on, “There was pressure in the second innings, yes. First innings not much – there were butterflies, naturally. If anybody says no nerves, he is lying. It is like saying I like fast bowling! I had butterflies, of course. But second innings was much more. My habit was that if I was to come in next, I always stood in one place, watching, concentrating. Tiger came behind me and tapped me on my shoulder. ‘Just relax boy, you will get a hundred,’ he said. I am sure he didn’t mean that I would get a hundred, it was just to put me at ease. And that really gave me the confidence that I might get a hundred. It helped relax my body and my mind.”
“I knew I would be run out if I tried to go back for the second, so I sent back Chandra. And then I told him, ‘Two balls left, first ball he will bowl short, next one he will bowl up to you’. The first ball, however, was a leg-cutter and Chandra poked at it and it went straight to Lloyd at slip. Chandra was fuming. He said, ‘You told me he was going to bowl short. I was going back, that’s why I got out’. He almost cried that I couldn’t get to my hundred.”
Until his Test debut, Vishy had played no more than reasonably fastish medium pace. He rates Kapil Dev, who came much later, and Javagal Srinath, against whom he played one competitive game, late in his own career, as the fastest Indian bowlers he encountered. But, he points out, it didn’t take him too long to get used to raw pace at the top level. “The best part of those days was that we played a lot of three-day games before the first Test, between Test matches we played the games in the early stages. That really helped us because after playing two-three early matches and we having local bowlers at nets, we would be a lot more comfortable,” he says. “If it was a five-Test series, two Tests were gone by the time we got used to the conditions. All the series those days, we always came back into the series, we never performed from the word go. That was because we were adjusting to the pace of the bowlers from the other team. People say English pitches were not quick. But they were quick, and the ball would swing throughout the day. You are not set even when you are batting on 60 or 70.”
Which leads to what we believe is a reasonably natural question in an era of nasty fast bowling and no helmets— were you ever afraid of fast bowling? “Not afraid,” he replies quickly, then pauses and says with a little twinkle, “but I got scared once. On the 1971 tour, (Vanburn) Holder was pretty quick that time, he was an upcoming paceman. We played a four-day game against Barbados. Late in the evening, I went to play off the back foot when he dug it in short. I thought the ball would go over my head, but it skidded on and was zeroing in on my temple. Luckily, I was watching the ball closely; there was no helmet, and if you take your eyes off the ball… I saw at the last minute and I went down, I touched the ground with both my hands. It was the last ball of the over. (Sir Garfield) Sobers walked past me and said ‘Almost Nari’.
“At first, I didn’t get what he said. Then I realised he was talking about Nari Contractor and that incident (when Contractor was hit on the head in 1962 by Griffith, an injury that ended his career). That night, I felt I was very lucky that I didn’t get hit. And I hoped I wouldn’t get hit the next day. More than scared, I didn’t want to get hurt — that itself was scary. Thommo (Jeff Thomson) bowled one spell on the 1977-78 tour of Australia, the quickest I have faced. That evening, (Bob) Simpson (the Australian captain) was in the same lift and he asked me, ‘How did you manage that? I kept two fielders there (short-leg) and there (silly-point), and Thommo got all the Pommies there— 28 of his 40 wickets, he had them caught there. But you dropping the ball down, beautiful. What control!’ That sort of compliment makes you feel good. You enjoy hearing those things— like (Dennis) Lillee. ‘Little giant man. I like your brother-in-law but I like you much more, you are made of steel’, he would tell me. These kind of compliments stay with you. They make you feel, ‘Thank God I played and I am still alive’.”
Synonymous with the original wrist-master is his epic unbeaten 97 at Chepauk, against a marauding West Indies pace attack in 1974. As you mention 97, he almost rolls his eyes. “I was in Chennai last week, at a wedding, and so many people came up to me and talked to me about that 97 that Daivik (his son) just got fed up and walked away,” he laughs. “He told me in mock indignation, ‘Papa, why didn’t you get a hundred?’
“Obviously, the wicket was fast — the quickest at that particular time in India. By the time we realised, we were already four down (on the first morning). When Karsan (Gharvi) came in, we were 70-odd for 6 and I had reached 30. (Andy) Roberts bowled about seven-eight overs at a stretch, he never tried to bowl slow or anything. He bowled with the same pace and run-up. I used to watch from the non-striker’s end to see if there was any change in his approach. I realised that when he was bowling to me he wasn’t aggressive. That’s the time I took a little chance against him also. It was one of those days, when you plan something and it works. It worked for me that day. Whatever I tried to play was coming off.”
“Sunil (Gavaskar) and I were roomies on the ’71 tour of the Caribbean. I would tell him, ‘Wake up at 6 am and make me coffee’. When he asked why he had to do it, I would say, ‘Because you are a junior’. And I would finally wake up at 9 and drink the coffee. ‘I like to drink cold coffee’, I would rub it in. He didn’t share a room with me ever again.”
Pretty simplistic explanation, even though the innings was anything but commonplace. “Andy was aggressive against Karsan. And (Keith) Boyce, Holder were also quick. After playing some good shots against him and with 30-40 runs on the board, I got the confidence. When Chandra came in as last man, we had a partnership of 20-odd and he faced only three balls. What was amazing was (Viv) Richards, (Alvin) Kalicharan, (Clive) Lloyd and (Roy) Fredericks used to be saving singles off the fifth and sixth balls because they didn’t want me to get strike. But we also didn’t miss singles against the world-class fielders. They were picking up the ball beautifully but nobody was hitting the stumps. About 20 times, if not me, then Chandra should have been run out.
“So ultimately, I got to 96 and when Roberts bowled outside off, I cracked it. It was a beautiful shot, I enjoyed it. Chandra wanted me to come back for the second run but I thought it was a four, I was already relaxing. Boyce from third-man had pounced on the ball and effected an excellent throw. I knew I would be run out if I tried to go back for the second, so I sent back Chandra. And then I told him, ‘Two balls left, first ball he will bowl short, next one he will bowl up to you’. The first ball, however, was a leg-cutter and Chandra poked at it and it went straight to Lloyd at slip. Chandra was fuming. He said, ‘You told me he was going to bowl short. I was going back, that’s why I got out’. He almost cried that I couldn’t get to my hundred.”
But surprise, surprise, it isn’t that knock that Vishy regards as his best. “I always prefer the 139 in Calcutta (in 1974 against West Indies),” he says of his six-hour marathon. India had conceded a slender lead of seven on the first innings, and were 46 for 2 in the second when Vishy walked out to join Farokh Engineer. The two put on 74 to steady the ship. “There, you had to stay and get runs. Madan Lal and I had a partnership (40 for the sixth), Karsan and I had a partnership (81 for the seventh). It wasn’t like I was playing my shots all the time. I had to stay there. 52 in the first innings and 139 in the second, I rate them highly, and more so because we won the Test.”
We veer back to his domestic career, and how he continued to play for Karnataka for four seasons after his last Test appearance, in Karachi in February 1983. “To this day, I am not retired from Test cricket, I was dropped,” he bristles, play-acting quite beautifully. “But till 1987, I played for the state. In 1983-84, I did try to come back to the Test side. There was a rumour that they were going to play me in the Ahmedabad Test against West Indies. They asked me to come to Ahmedabad. I went there, but I didn’t take my kit bag because I knew something fishy was happening. And sure enough, I wasn’t picked in the side. I tried for another year to make a comeback, I played for Rest of India (in the Irani Cup) but I didn’t get runs. After that I said, no more India aspirations.
On T20 cricket
“I don’t think it has helped the game, I’m not for it. What bothers me is that players are not bothered when they are out. What’s the big idea if they play and don’t feel when they get out? That hurts me. Also, players look somewhere and the ball goes elsewhere and they say, ‘What a shot! He’s got 360 degrees.’ I don’t know what it means. I do watch to see how they play this kind of cricket, it amazes me.”
“But I wanted to play two more years for the state because a couple of youngsters were coming through. If I retired, I could not go to the dressing room…. I could go, of course, I would be welcomed. But it is different going there as a player from going there as an ex-player, as an ex-captain. I wanted to play with these people because I wanted Karnataka to become more solid. That’s why I played till 1987. For me, whichever team I played for, I loved playing. For example, State Bank (of India). If I landed in Bangalore early in the morning from a tour, I would go home, take my kit for that day’s match and go straight to play for State Bank. That’s my philosophy. I only played for one team (in the KSCA league), Spartans. It was only because they closed that I played for City Cricketers. After I joined State Bank, I got offers from Tatas, Nirlons but I said one job – I will play only for that team. I loved that atmosphere, I enjoyed it.
“After 1987, I took a break for two years. I didn’t do anything, I just took it easy. After that, I was a selector for two years, then chairman for four years, and match referee for nine years. I later became vice-president of KSCA, tried to get in as president, no luck,” he says, no trace of hurt or bitterness. “I tried everything. Now, nothing. They say consultant, I ask consultant for what? There is no (KSCA) academy now, they shut it down.”
Suddenly looking a little emotional, he says, “I had not thought about most of these things for a long time, now you people have brought it back in my head.” But he is still game for one last story. “Sunil (Gavaskar, later to become his brother-in-law) and I were roomies on the ’71 tour of the Caribbean. I would tell him, ‘Wake up at 6 am and make me coffee’. When he asked why he had to do it, I would say, ‘Because you are a junior’. And I would finally wake up at 9 and drink the coffee. ‘I like to drink cold coffee’, I would rub it in. He didn’t share a room with me ever again.”
But the two little giants of Indian cricket share a bond strong, almost as strong as any bond forged by anyone who has met Gundappa Viswanath. They really don’t make ‘em like him anymore.