Today on February 7thH we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Gundappa Vishwanath’s epic 114 at Melbourne in 1981. This knock virtually took India out of the doldrums or despair to effect one of cricket’s great turnarounds to win a test and draw a rubber on Australian soil for the first time. The memories of his strokes on this day are always embedded in my memories .His late cutting of a Dennis Lillee Yorker to the fence was touch art at its most majestic plane.Vishy was the architect of a miraculous Indian win .Ironically Vishy was on the verge of being dropped, after undergoing a loss of form.Ressurecting after being written off with a Muhammad Ali style comeback, was a glittering feature of Vishwanath’s batting career. It was not only on this 40th anniversary but in his whole career such Knocks like his Melbourne innings s were like a theme in his entire career.
I never ever saw a batsman execute a cut shot with such remorseless ease .Vishy possessed a stroke that looked like a flick, pull and hook combined, which no one else executed. . I never saw a batsman who could manipulate a cricket bal with his wrists to the degree of Vishwanath,who took touch art to areas of the sublime. With the remotest power Vishwanath could bisect the most impregnable fields in the manner of a sculptor carving .Vishy also could execute the most exquisite drives, particularly through the covers.
Vishwanath could execute strokes that were surreal. Often he reminded one of a magician or a sculptor His strokeplay was sheer poetry in motion, like the touches of a painter’s brush. Creativity or wizardry was taken to regions of divinity reminiscent of a musical composition. His repertoire of strokes in an innings were like the many verses that constituted a poem . I could name very few batsman in the game who were the equivalent of a Michelangelo, Rembrandt or Beethoven to the game of cricket as Vishwanath. The Art of batting was virtually given a new definition by the little master, who traversed regions not explored. When witnessing Vishwanath bat one got vibration s of a lotus blooming. In the history of cricket Vishy gave the game it’s poetry like very few. In full flow such was his domination that he resembled a conductor leading a symphony. Technically Vishy was very correct possessing most rhythmic footwork and immaculate defence.
In his very debut at Kanpur in 1969-70 he scored a scintillating 137 against Australia giving a most illustrative indication of his supreme cricketing gift. Above all it was executed in a crisis, which was predominant feature of Vishy’s entire career.
Vishy played an important hand in India’s first test win at the Oval in 1971 scoring an immaculate 33 in a run chase. He also compiled a classical 113 at Brabourne stadium against England in 1972-73.In England in 1974 he gave glimpses of his talent with some sparkling batting.
However it was against West Indies in 1974-75 at home that Vishwanath really came into his own when scoring 568 run sat an average of 56.8.Vishy ressurected India from the grave after being 2-0 down to levelling the series at 2-2 with his classic 139 at Kolkata and unbeaten 97 at Madras. The strokes that he executed in most difficult conditions proved his mastery to adapt to any wickets. Very rarely has a batsmen bisected the gaps with such prowess. Reminiscent of the propeller of a fighter plane Vishy steered India to winning positions. He cut, drove and hooked the great West Indian fast bowler Andy Roberts with a surety or conviction few ever did. His knock at Madras was rated by Wisden as the the 6th bets test innings ever at that time.Vishy blended the imagination of a musical composer with the skill of a surgeon. In that knock cricketing art was revealed in regions of the divine. I have rarely ever seen such a batsman single-handedly launching a counter attack against sustained pace on a fast track.
In 1975-76 in West Indies Vishwanath was the architect of India achieving the highest then 4th innings total to win a game at Trinidad .Hs 112 made India rise like a Phoenix from the Ashes. After Gavaskar had set the bas scoring 102 Vishy wrote the next chapter in an epic taking the bowling attack by the sword. One can never forget how he would rise up on his toes to dispatch short balls against the Express pace bowler Michael Holding. Though he was run out but he made an Indian win mere formality then.
In 1975-76 at Dunedin versus New Zealand Vishy scored 79 and 78 in conditions where the ball was moving all around the place. Facing the likes of Richard Hadlee he resembled a surgeon performing an operation on patient considered incurable. With great judgment he left deliveries. Few Indian batsman ever displayed such skill negotiating the moving ball.
At Kanpur in 1976-77 he conquered the great Richard Hadlee like few batsman ever did ,playing in bad light. His unbeaten 103 was an exhibition of batting mastery at it’s highest zenith ,blending every component for a perfect innings. Domination was revelad in areas of the sublime.
On the 1977-78 tour of Australia Vishwanath did not score a century but still was the most prolific batsman ,with an aggregate of 473 runs. He scored five fifties in succession which played major role in India making a spectacular resurrection to square the series after being 2-0 down. On fast tracks he demonstrated his greatness against pace when taking apart Jeff Thomson.
In Pakistan he scored 145 at Faisalabad to become the 1st Indian batsman to score a century against every test playing nation. However he was inconsistent for the rest of the series apart from affine 83 at Karachi. Inconsistency was a trademark of Vishy’s career.
At home in 1978-79 against West Indies Vishy’s 124 at Madras in the fourth test , on one of the fastest pitches ever won India the series. India would virtually have been tottering but for his spectacular counterattack to enable India to reach 255 in the 1st innings .Significantly the great Sunil Gavaskar had scores of 0 and 4.Vishy was virtually a re-incarnation of what he wa sin 1974-75 at Madras. He tackled the fiery pace of Sylvester Clarke with prowess rarely seen by any Asian batsman. He went on to score 179 at Kanpur in the fifth , his then highest score.
In the 1979 Prudential world Cup Vishy scored a blistering 75 out of a score of 190 against West Indies.He took on the greatest pace bowling attack by the sword ,playing them better than perhaps any batsman ever did .There is hardly an adjective to do justice to Vishy’s exhilarating strokeplay when hooking, cutting and driving the likes of Holding, Roberts and Garner all over the place.
In England in 1979 Vishy was major architect in India’s heroic defiance to draw the test at Lords after India was 310 run s behind in the 1st innings. In a 210 run stand with Dilip Vengsarkar India were lifted from the depths of despair. Ironically Vengsarkar thanked Vishy for the great encouragement he received for scoring his 1st century at Lords.I can’t forget Vishwanath so often boosting his partner. He was a model of consistency in that series .Sadly a dubious umpiring decision being given out of a bump ball at the Oval,robbed Vishy of giving the finishing touches to a glorious Indian victory, with India falling 9 runs adrift of a record 438 run target.
Very successful with a record aggregate of 521 runs and average of over 73 versus Australia in 1979.However he completely lost form against Pakistan in 1979-80 although India was triumphant.
On the 1979-80 tour of Australia and New Zealand apart from flash in the pan at Melbourne Vishy did not make a single notable score.
In 1981-92 in a home series against England he made a spectacular Muhamad Ali style comeback when scoring 107 at Delhi. It was truly one of cricket’s classis if you assess the nature of Vishy’s strokeplay. English captain Keith Fletcher ranked it amongst the bets innings he ever saw. India were tottering before Vishy did the repair job.On the verge of being dropped Vishy ressurected his past glory. At Madras he compiled his highest ever score of 222 ,participating in a 281 run stand with Yashpal Sharma.Simply batting finesse at its absolute best.
In England in 1981-82 Vishy gave glimpses of his great virtues when scoring 3 successive match-saving fifties at Old Trafford and Oval. Even if overshadowed by the likes of Vengsarakar,Sandeep Patil and Kapil dev he played a great supportive role.
Sadly Vishy was a complete anti-thesis of his self on the 1982-83 tour of Pakistan, consistently becoming a victim to the fiery pace and guile of Imran Khan. I don’t have words to express show sorry I felt he was dropped for West Indies tour of 1983.Thus the saga of his career ended in Pakistan. It was most unbefitting that Vishy had to seal his career in this fashion.
However above all this was Vishwanath’s glorious exhibition of sportsmanship in the Jubilee test against England at Mumbai. Bob Taylor had been wrongly been adjudged caught and England were tottering at 85-6 before Vishy called back Taylor. This move cost India the game but won the spirit of the glory of the game. Ironically it was performed against England, the very founders of the game. No other than Vishwanath brought back the Gentleman spirit of the game.
I would recommend all cricket lovers to read the writings of Rajan Bala, Ramchandra Guha and Partab Ramchand , the interviews of Anshuman Geakwad and Krishnamchari Shrikanth and he view s Dennis Lillee,Andy Roberts ,Jeff Thomson and our very own Sunil Gavaskar.Syed Kirmani and Sandeep Patil rank Vishy at the very top .
It is unfortunate that Vishwanath never did full justice to his great talent, but for which he could have permanently sat with the all-time greats like Sachin Tendulkar or Viv Richards.A record of 14 centuries, and 6080 runs at an average of 41.93 is outstanding, but still not in the league of the all-time great batsmen.Lack of temperament and consistency perhaps cost him a place amongst the very best. At his best Vishy bestowed the batting qualities of the very greatest. He was equally at home on the fastest Australian wickets, to the seaming English conditions and the turning pitches on the subcontinent.
In test cricket arguably even Sachin Tendulkar or Sunil Gavaskar have not surpassed Vishy’s best batting. Arguably he was a better batsman on bad wickets than Tendulkar or Gavaskar .The great West Indian paceman Andy Roberts and Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee rated Vishy a better batsman than Gavaskar, on fast wickets. It is significant that Vishwanath averaged 49 ,which is 6 more runs than Gavaskar did in test matches won and India never lost a game when he scored a century.Vishy shaped more test wins than bother-in law Gavaskar.What I rever about him was that he was most unselfish and never played for personal records. In that light Rahul Dravid in recent times was very similar, who championed a crisis better than Sachin Tendulkar.Gavaskar and Tendulkar may be immortals, but still it was batsman like Vishy and Dravid who may have played innings ,more in tune with the given situation. I can’t name the number of occasions Vishy held fort to prevent a batting carnage. A fifty or a hundred by Vishy may have been more impactful than one of Gavaskar.Unlike Rahul Dravid,Vishwanath lacked temperament and consistency or as much concentration.
Arguably in the 1970’s Vishwanath may have made the world test xi at his best ,competing for a place with Zaheer Abbas.Even a whisker did not separate the merits of these two batsmen.Zaheer was the better batsman on slow wickets and against spin.Vishy was the better player on bouncy tracks and pace. It is not for nothing that the great Sunil Gavaskar ranks Vishwanath as the best batsman of his time and even a better player than him. Ironically like Gavaskar,Vishy faced the best pace bowling without the aid of a helmet. The best dozen innings of Vishwanath were like chapters of a classic epic.
To me for sheer talent or natural ability Vishwanath is on the top of the tree amongst Asian batsman..For sheer style and grace only Zaheer Abbas surpassed Vishy in his era. Overall for pure batting genius only Viv Richards was ahead of Vishwanath in his time. For pure batting grace or style overall I would rank him only below Denis Compton, Ranjitsinghji, Frank Worrell, David Gower and Zaheer Abbas .
Amongst Indian batsman Tendulkar,Gavaskar, Kohli and Dravid would rank ahead but still not match the poetic artistry of Vishwanath.For pure creative genius his rival is Virendra Sehwag while in term s of artistic flair or style only Mohammad Azharudin and VVS Laxman can bracket with him.
Very hard to visualise a character like Vishwanath being reborn today who would revive a golden era of batting. His memories are embedded in cricket lovers today when sportsmanship and grace have virtually been flung into the dustbin and the game of cricket turned into a commercial commodity. Today agro and unsporting behaviour is a predominant feature. Overall I feel he is a most underestimated cricketer who gave the game it’s soul. Few cricketers ever contributed so much towards upholding the grace and spirit of sportsmanship.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist.Toured India,particularly Punjab .Written on Mass movements ,,Massline,Maoism on blogs like Democracy and Class Struggle and frontierweekly .An avid cricket lover too who has posted writings on blogs like Pakpassion Indian Cricket Fans and Sulekha.com