Of all the protagonists to have graced what has forever been regarded as the gentleman’s game, few have edified it as much as Gundappa Viswanath. The stylist from Bangalore didn’t just entertain and astonish with his magnificent strokeplay, he was also the perfect example of playing the sport in the right spirit.
Vishy may not have been eulogised as much as Adam Gilchrist was much, much later, but he was a ‘walker’, turning around and marching off towards the dressing room without so much as waiting for the umpire’s decision if he felt he was out.
Walking is a personal choice, that much is a given. Many players have argued that since they have been at the receiving end of umpiring errors, not walking evens things out in a way. The introduction of the DRS has to a large extent instantaneously redressed mistakes, but even though he received his fair share of unfair calls, Vishy never reconsidered his stance on walking.
“I don’t know, I have always walked from the time I can remember,” says the man who made his first-class debut exactly 50 years ago, on November 11, 1967.
Vishy has an interesting story to narrate from very early in his Test career, though long before that, he had carved out a reputation for himself as a ‘walker’ in domestic cricket. “My second Test match in New Delhi, against Australia. Just before lunch, there was an appeal for a bat-pad chance, Paul Redpath held the ball at short-leg,” Vishy recalls. “The umpire turned the appeal down. When I was walking back towards the dressing-room after lunch was called, Paul Sheehan (the bowler) came menacingly towards me and kicked my bat. Like always, I was dragging my bat behind me, and while I did feel some impact, I didn’t know exactly what had happened.
“Then, he kicked the bat again, and gave me a dirty look. I didn’t know if I had hit the ball or not, honestly. When I went back to the dressing room, Tiger (Pataudi, then the Indian captain) asked me if I had nicked the ball. I told him I was not sure, I didn’t know. ‘That’s fair enough,’ he said. For some reason, maybe because it happened early on my career, it remains fresh in memory.”
“Sometimes, when I have given myself out, halfway through to the pavilion or when I have come back to the dressing room, for a second I have asked myself, ‘Why did I walk?’ But the next time it happened, I walked. And then went back and thought, ‘Why did I do it?’ It is still a mystery to me, it amazes me why I reacted that way from the beginning.”
Vishy almost blushes when he talks about the one instance when he didn’t walk – when he couldn’t walk, he insists. “It was in a Ranji Trophy game later in my career, at Chepauk,” he reveals, almost as if to prick the balloon of walking that has floated around him all his life. “Venkat (S Venkataraghavan) was bowling; I played forward, and as soon as the catch was taken, I knew that I was out, I knew that I had been caught at short-leg. But I couldn’t walk, I just stood there. The ball ballooned up and P Mukund took the catch. I had gone down the track with the momentum of the stroke, then I turned back and returned to my crease to stand my ground.”
Since the dressing room was behind the batsman, the Tamil Nadu players thought Vishy was headed towards the pavilion when he turned and walked back. They were astonished when he went back and stood in his crease, Vishy chuckles. “The umpire turned the appeal down, and Mukund said plaintively, ‘Vishy, not you!’ I told him I know that I hit the ball, but I can’t move at all. I tried to hit out off the next ball and got out. But that is the only instance I recall when I knew I was out and I didn’t walk. It’s not as if I didn’t want to walk, I just couldn’t; it was amazing. Venkat only said, ‘poda!’ when I tried to explain to him that I had just frozen, that I couldn’t get myself to walk back to the pavilion. Such a thing never happened with me before, or since.”
Vishy is not sure why or how he started walking, though he is certain it is something he picked up on his own. “It is just the way I was,” he says, disarmingly. “During my tennis-ball days, I can’t remember that I walked. There probably was never the chance; when you play tennis-ball cricket, you generally don’t get out to bat-pads – you are either bowled or caught in the in-field or outfield.
“It (the walking) just started – on its own. People generally say that it all evens out, the bad decisions and the good ones, they all balance out. It never happened with me. In Test cricket, by my estimation, I was wrongly given out nine times, and not even once was I ruled not out when I might have been out. I never complained, it just happened that way in my career, that’s it. But I never gave a thought to not walking, nor did I tell anyone else to walk.
“Sometimes, when I have given myself out, halfway through to the pavilion or when I have come back to the dressing room, for a second I have asked myself, ‘Why did I walk?’ You know what I mean? But the next time it happened, I walked. And then went back and thought, ‘Why did I do it?’ It is still a mystery to me, it amazes me why I reacted that way from the beginning.”
Vishy was universally acclaimed for recalling Bob Taylor during the Golden Jubilee Test against England at the Wankhede Stadium in Bombay in 1980, a call that turned the match on its head. England had slumped to 58 for 5 in reply to India’s 242 when Taylor was given out, wrongly, by SN Hanumantha Rao. After much confabulation, Taylor was called back after the umpire’s nod by Vishy, who was leading India in that game, and he went on to orchestrate a wonderful fightback alongside Ian Botham as England went on to win by ten wickets.
While agreeing that it was eventually his decision to inform the umpire that he was withdrawing the appeal, Vishy reveals that it wasn’t his decision alone. “Everyone said, it is the Jubilee Test, call him back. I didn’t call him back personally, on my own,” he observes. “The close-in fielders asked me, ‘Do you think he was out?’ I said no, certainly not out. Then they said, why don’t you call him back? So I went up to Hanumantha Rao and said, sir, I am withdrawing the appeal. He said, no, I have already given him out. I said, OK sir, thank you, and went back towards first slip where I was fielding.
You think he is done with the Jubilee Test when he adds mischievously, “There was plenty of grass on the pitch, I think they knew I was going to captain the side! When I went for the toss, Mike Brearley (the England captain) asked me, ‘What’s happening with you people? During the entire tour of Australia, I never came across a pitch like this.’ I said, ‘This is India, this is Bombay.’ Maybe Mike was surprised, I sure wasn’t.”
Vishy has received extraordinary compliments from his peers but this one, narrated by Sunil Gavaskar, the other little master, will rank up there with the best. “Vishy’s genius was in conjuring up shots off unplayable deliveries and getting runs off them,” says Gavaskar of his brother-in-law. “The bowlers would tear their hair out in frustration. Derek Underwood told Vishy during his masterly double-century (222 against England in Chennai in 1982), ‘Genius, when you are satisfied, look kindly at me and give me your wicket.’ Underwood was one of the finest bowlers of the time and that is a great tribute to a batsman who was toying with his bowling.”