Every sport has players loved across generations and countries – not just for their skill and artistry but for the spirit in which they played the game. Among cricketers, there is Victor Trumper, who even a hundred years after he passed on, is Australia’s most loved sportsman. The West Indies have Frank Worrell, who created an indelible identity for the Caribbean Islands. Among India’s cricketers, who are as much loved as they are admired, would be Gundappa Vishwanath.
Since Vishwanath played from the mid-sixties to the early eighties, there are but a few snippets on film of the classical stylist. But his mystique is such that the affection has been preserved and passed on from generation to generation. In the matter of runs and centuries scored, there are many who are above him but on charisma and admiration for all that is great and wonderful in sport, Vishwanath would be India’s flag bearer.
The shy and reticent Vishwanath must have needed much persuasion to share his story with us. To bring this book to life, credit must go to Vishwanath’s collaborator R Kaushik. It takes skill to help another person write his story. The cricket journalist’s gentle hand allows us to hear Vishwanath, in his own cadence. A simple but self-confident artist, narrating his story with natural humour.
Banter with Benaud
How Vishy packed humour with self-assurance can be understood from a hilarious incident narrated by him. On the 1979 tour to England, as the Indian team was boarding their bus, they ran into Richie Benaud, the former skipper of Australia and the unrivalled doyen of television commentators. That story in our hero’s words now:
Sunil (Gavaskar) knew him and introduced me, saying, ‘This is Vishy’. Benaud smiled sweetly and I returned the compliment, adding, ‘Nice to meet you Mr Bednau.’ ‘My name is not Bednau, it’s Benaud,’ he said, with feeling. ‘And I am Vishwanath, not Vishnawath,’ I countered in kind. I boarded the coach and sat in my seat when, within seconds, Benaud walked in and started scanning the faces. When he spotted me, he strode forward with a big smile and said, ‘Beauty, that was brilliant, I like you!’ Throughout that tour,Benaud had been calling him Vishnawath.
Vishwanath’s batting was all elegance and style and moved hardened journalists into lyrical prose even if he made just thirty. A very short man – and slim when he first exploded on the cricket firmament – he was arguably the finest exponent of the cut and square drive. The elan with which he rode bounce to cut or played over pitched deliveries with square drives on bended right knee was a sight for the Gods. But even as Vishwanath describes how he played these strokes that got him over four thousand of his 6,080 runs in Test cricket, he reminds us that he was very good with his wristy onside play. The clinching proof that the onside flick was as dear to him is that the cover on the book, is not the divine cut but the very assured flick to the onside.
The wrists on the cover, show how the man packed a punch in his shots. Vishwanath tells the fascinating story of how, from slim wrists with not enough power to score boundaries on the onside, he acquired those strong forearms and supple wrists. He had never seen the inside of a gym when he made his debut under Tiger Pataudi, who on noticing his slim wrists, tells the youngster that since he does not visit the gym, why not lift two full buckets of water a few times every day at home and build the wrists. Vishy initially thought this was another of Pataudi’s pranks but realised that his skipper was serious. He went ahead and did the ‘bucket-training’ so assiduously that the boundaries from thence are all dedicated by him to this unique regimen.
Batsmen who walk
Vishwanath belonged to that unique breed of batsmen who walk when they know they are out, even before the umpire can adjudicate. It set him on a pedestal that few have occupied. In an autobiography covering a glorious career over two decades and thousands of innings, Vishwanath, agonises over the one time he did not walk. In his pained description of this incident from a long-forgotten Ranji Trophy match against Madras, one can see that Vishwanath’s regret is sharp even fifty years later. What Yudhistra-like standards must this man have for fair-play that he feels his rath (chariot) like the Pandava King’s, had also descended those few inches because of that one incident.
As one submits to Vishwanath and Kaushik’s narration, Vishwanath’s unaffected charm and simplicity work on us. A stenographer’s son, who managed to clear Class X, who spoke English haltingly and barely knew any Hindi is pitchforked into international cricket amidst stalwarts and teammates from different social strata. And then grows as a cricketer and as a person, by his own efforts of course but also because of the guidance, mentorship and help from wonderful colleagues. None more so than Tiger Pataudi. Pataudi must have seen something special in 20-year-old Vishwanath – apart from his precious talent – for he took the young man for an exclusive two-week holiday during which he helped Vishwanath cross the bridge from social awkwardness to self-assurance.
Vishwanath describes intricate aspects of the game astutely. His reasoning for why a five-Test series is the best for players to demonstrate their true ability is eye-opening. As is his description of the planning and execution of captains in the games he played. But it is in his description of why first-class cricket is the backbone of the game, that Vishwanath is most compelling. He writes: “Not everyone who plays first-class cricket can represent the country; for the vast majority who play only at the first-class level, the Ranji Trophy is the greatest tournament.” I am not surprised that the most moving chapter is the one where he describes the exhilaration of being a member of the first ever team from Karnataka to lift the Ranji Trophy.
Among his Test innings, he is at his best, while describing his incandescent 97 not out against West Indies at Madras. That innings against fearsome Roberts and his pace colleagues, has been ranked by Wisden as Number 2 among all non-century innings. Vishwanath describes his heart-stopping last wicket partnership with Chandra and wryly tells the tale of how he finished without the ton.
This is a book told by a man at peace with himself. For only such a person would tell us that even today, he feels a surge of pleasure when people recognize or hail him; that as a young cricketer he would look out of the corner of his eye to see if people recognized him. This is the ingenuous charm that defines the book. A man whose pride in his batting is obvious, whose steel and desire to excel shines through but who wants to be remembered first as good human being and then as a good cricketer.
I know many of us already like G R Vishwanath. After reading the book we will like him more.
(S Giridhar is one of the earliest members of Azim Premji Foundation. He writes regularly on public education, has written a book on India’s extraordinary schoolteachers and co-authored cricket books)
About the book
Wrist Assured: An Autobiography
By: Gundappa Vishwanath with R Kaushik
Pages: 280 Price: ₹595
Publisher: Rupa Publications