ESPN COMMENTATOR Harsha Bhogle has a keen recollection of his first encounter with Gundappa Ranganath Vishwanath — though it wasn’t in person. It was through the ether: it was in 1969 that Bhogle — a fourth grade student at St John’s School in Secunderabad – convinced the principal that the students needed to hear the radio commentary of a test match in Kanpur. The person they were interested in hearing about was a young batsman who was blazing all over the field in the second innings. In those days of All India Radio, none of the listeners could see the artistic batsman with the lumberjack-strong wrists that powered the late cutters that wreaked havoc among the Australian bowlers. Bill Lawry’s fearsome pacers — Mckenzie, Gleeson, Connolly and Mallet — stood and watched as Vishy smashed 25 boundaries all over the ground. And cemented his place in the national team. “It was sheer magic,” reminiscences Bhogle, whose former colleague, Sunil Gavaskar, would describe Vishwanath, also his brother-in-law, as the man with more than one shot to a ball.
Vishy always had a choice of shots — for whatever kind of ball was bowled to him. And the legend — 6080 test runs off 91 matches and a first class total of 17,970 runs — is testament to his ability. His unbeaten 97 silenced a fiery Andy Roberts at the Chepauk stadium in Chennai in 1975 (India levelled the series after being down 0-2); he’s also known for recalling England’s Bob Taylor, in the 1979 BCCI Golden Jubilee Test, after umpire SN Hanumnatha Rao had declared him out. “India’s second biggest match winner — after Gavaskar has finally been given his due,” says cricket historian Boria Majumdar, elated at the 60-year-old Vishwanath’s being given the CK Nayudu lifetime achievement award by the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI).
Bhogle and Majumdar are hardly alone in their praise for Vishy. He has millions of fans. Especially interesting is the story of Achar Hotel Ganapathi who would smash his Phillips radio set against the cash table of his hotel whenever Kapil, Azhar, Vengsarkar or Srikkanth played badly: “These are all waste bodies. If Vishwanath had been playing today, we would have won or at least enjoyed the match.”
Vishwanath laughs off such adulation. He would rather not talk much about his cricketing journey, which began on February 12, 1949. But when pressed, he does make some other additions to the best innings list: knocks of 83 and 79 at Christchurch during the 1976 New Zealand tour on seaming wickets and in the face of quality fast bowling by DR Hadlee and RO Collinge. “We managed a draw and retained a 1-0 lead in the three-test series,” Viswanath told TEHELKA.
Syed Kirmani, who kept wickets in that match, remembers the pressure: “Sunny was gone for 22, Colonel (Vengsarkar) for 16, Brajesh for 8 and Surinder Amarnath for 11. The pressure was on Vishy’s shoulders. I don’t know for how long he batted — it was 178 minutes, to be precise — but his 83 runs along with Mohinder’s 45 and 27 by me helped India score 270 runs. He’s brilliant, his strokes are amazing.”
It’s ironical that almost everyone associated with the game once blamed him for his height, despite glorious days in the BT Ramaiah inter-schools tournament. But the uninterrupted flow from his willow silenced all critics and helped him cement his position with the Karnataka state team and, eventually, the national squad. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, a national selector then, once quipped: “Karnataka can actually fill up the entire team.”
Those were the heady days of South Indian cricket and Karnataka had as many as six cricketers in the national team: Vishwanath, Brijesh Patel, R Sudhakara Rao, BS Chandrasekar, Syed Kirmani and EAS Prasanna. In many ways, the state had ended Mumbai’s dominance as India’s cricketing centre, especially after winning the Ranji Trophy for the first time in 1973-74. “We played some wonderful cricket,” is all Vishwanath would say about the state and its band of magnificent men.
HIS FORMER teammate and administrator friend, Brijesh Patel, goes a step further: “GR was the best among us, no one was bigger.” Such was the prowess of the players that the state government once commissioned HY Sharada Prasad and TS Satyan to pen a tome on the state and its most loved sons. “Allied with this distrust of fanaticism and flamboyance is a certain unsparing insistence of self-discipline and style.
It is expressed in the numerous stories about Visvesvaraya, in the fastidiousness of Generals Cariappa and Thimmayya, in the philosophical volumes of Professor Hiriyanna and in the dance of Shanta Rao.
In its gentler form, it can be detected in the lines and brush strokes of KK Hebbar, in the glances and drives of GR Vishwanath, in the meditative aalaap of Mallikarjun Mansoor and in the prose of RK Narayan,” is what they wrote.
The legend of Vishy is that nothing cowed him, not even the fearsome Caribbean bowlers whom he creamed for his poetic 112 in the historic Port-of- Spain test when India successfully chased 403 to win the match by six wickets. “Only raw courage works against them,” laughs Vishwanath, remembering how in one test, five Indians, including himself, did not bat after suffering injuries from short deliveries and lethal bouncers.
“He saw us through those nightmarish days,” recounts Gaekwad. “It is a pity that he played before television blossomed in India. Imagine seeing him with a 15-camera set up,” he says. Watching the elegant, wristy, Vishy play his favourite shot, the square cut, against fast bowlers would be sports coverage with explosive ratings — rather like the batsman himself.