His 75 not out against England at Kanpur in 1973 is not often remembered but Gundappa Vishwanath rates it high. India had conceded a lead of 40 on the first innings and was struggling at 39 for four - Chetan Chauhan, Sunil Gavaskar, Ajjit Wadekar and Farokh Engineer back in the pavilion. It was the final day but Vishwanath had to draw on his resilience and batting skills to ensure there were no alarms. The same venue had seen Vishwanath make a sensational debut against Australia in 1969 - a knock of 137 laced with 25 fours. That innings is very close to his heart since he was out for a zero in the first innings.
Vishwanath is a rare gem in Indian cricket. Just can’t fault him on and off the field. When he hit a century India did not lose. His centuries were priceless and constructed on difficult pitches. In fact, it was Vishwanath’s speciality. To score when the rest failed. To score when the surface and the opposition made batting a nightmare. He was not the one to go out and ponder over the possible ways the pitch would behave. He studied the bowlers in the middle and played them to his self-belief. The faster they bowled the calmer he appeared. The vicious spin was dealt with an amazing ability to `murder’ the line and length, and of course the turn. “My hero,” claims Kapil Dev.
Gundappa Vishwanath to talk about his batting was tough. “Impossible” said Sunil Gavaskar, who also was not known to discuss his own batting, just as Kapil Dev. It was a poolside dinner hosted by an Indian fan in Nairobi in 2000. I went because we were told ex-film star Mumtaz would be attending. “So, you have come to see Mumtaz,” Vishwanath smiled. “No Sir, I have come to pick your brains,” I mumbled. And then, for the next three hours, it was an insightful journey into the world of batting. Little of it was about his own skills. I too did not relent. The secret of his mastery over the square cut? “Wrists,” he extended his hand. I felt the wrists. They were steely. “People talk about my square cut. What about my square drive? No one talked about my ondrive.” Young cricketers over the last thirty years or so have come to experience Vishwanath’s humility. Here is an anecdote.
A day after the Mohali Test against Australia in 2013, where Shikhar Dhawan produced a scintillating 187 on debut, I got a call from Vishwanath. “Can you please give me Shikhar’s mobile number. I want to congratulate him for his fabulous debut.” I called Shikhar whose initial response was “Don’t give him my number.” I was shocked. “Give me his number please. I will call him. It will be a sin to wait for Vishy sir to call me.” I told Shikhar to text me once he spoke to Vishwanath.
Meanwhile Vishwanath called again. I told him I was driving and would soon share Shikhar’s number. By the time I reached home, Shikhar texted me “baat ho gayi.” I texted his number to Vishwanath, who promptly called me. “I know your driving. Too slow,” he was laughing at the other end as he realized I had shared his number with Shikhar.
Vishwanath is polite to a fault and an epitome of humility. Knowing him has been a huge privilege. Today, as he celebrates his unbeaten 75 in life, let us join in wishing him a healthy future.
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