My idols

IN this column, I will talk to you about my idols. There are three of them - our own Gundappa Viswanath, Vivian Richards and Dennis Lillee. Three of the finest cricketers ever.

I was a schoolboy when I first saw Viswanath bat. It was against Bill Lawry's Australians in the 1969-70 season, and I, with several of my school friends, was sitting in the 'A' stand of the Chidambaram Stadium.

It did not take me long to become his fan. He was such a naturally gifted stroke-maker, who could lift batsmanship to a sublime level. The stylish square cuts, the delicate flicks, the rasping cover drives, Viswanath had them all.

The two striking aspects of his batting were: 1. he made it appear so easy; 2. he produced runs when India needed them the most. A small, short man, he handled bounce quite beautifully, keeping the rising balls down with soft hands, and it is easy to explain how he got so many runs on the bouncy wickets of Australia and the West Indies (then).

At home, I vividly remember his unbeaten 97 on the first day of the Test at Chepauk (1974-75), when Andy Roberts was breathing fire. When others were running for cover, unable to cope with Roberts' pace, bounce, and movement on a lively pitch, Viswanath, attacked the bowlers, Roberts included, and took India to 190, with only the tailenders for support.

It was an all-time great innings by an Indian. Every stroke that Viswanath essayed that day, had that stamp of class. He was a match-winner, and that was a match-winning knock.

There was another great innings of Viswanath in Chennai, that I can recall like it happened yesterday. His astonishing hundred against Alvin Kallicharran's West Indians in 1978-79. It was a surface of freakish bounce, where Srinivas Venkataraghavan was able to get the ball rise chest high!

Just imagine how it must have been to face a fearsome fast bowler like Sylvester Clarke on the same pitch! Viswanath batted as if there was nothing in the wicket, pulling off strokes of great quality.

To me, Viswanath represented all that was good and artistic about batting. In a crisis situation and on a difficult pitch, he was one of the best batsmen to have around, comfortable against both pace and spin.

And he is such a wonderful person. In fact, talking to him, it would be hard to believe that he was such a great cricketer. So modest and simple is he. Sadly, he was discarded by the selectors after just one ordinary series, against Pakistan in 1982-83. At that point, he had at least another two good years left in him. Yet, he never complained.

I had the good fortune of playing with Viswanath for India, and it was actually a schoolboy's dream come true for me. He had a great sense of humour in the dressing room, and always had a word of encouragement for me. What a cricketer and what a human being!

The greatest quality of Vivian Richards was that he never changed his style of play, from the time he played his first Test, to his last match. It was always attack, attack and attack for him.

He is the most destructive batsman of our times, and I have never seen a player decimate an attack like Richards did during his career. The reputation of the bowlers never mattered one bit to him. The faster they bowled, the harder he hit them. An intimidating sight to the bowlers.

Though purists might have complained when he picked the ball from the off-stump and whipped it through mid-wicket, his extraordinary eye and reflexes saw him pulling off the stroke time and again. He was truly gifted.

Richards never wore a helmet all his career, and his swagger and his arrogance, even during the most testing of situations, when lesser batsmen would have had a prayer on their lips, will always stay in my mind.

Few symbolised the spirit of West Indian cricket as well as Richards did. He provided entertainment to countless fans spread across the globe and there never was a dull moment when he was around.

The sheer magic of his batting meant his fielding was not given due credit. He was an outstanding fielder who could do the job brilliantly in any position: slip, mid-wicket, cover, square-leg, short-leg... In my book, he is as good a fielder as Jonty Rhodes. Richards could reach the ball in a flash, and he could hit the stumps with unerring accuracy...all in one quicksilver motion.

Now to Lillee. Like Sunil Gavaskar in batting, Lillee was the most complete, technically correct paceman. In full flow, he presented a classical sight. He was simply the Sultan among the fast bowlers.

Lillee could send the ball at a frightening speed, yet the control, consistency, and discipline in his bowling were exemplary. He seldom let the batsmen breathe easy.

The famous Aussie aggression was visible when Lillee operated. And he would test the batsmen with incisive leg-cutters - this was his trademark delivery - sharp outswingers, off-cutters, yorkers, and a well-directed short ball. To the man with the willow, he presented a fiery sight.

So tough was he mentally that he recovered from a major back injury, which would have left most fast bowlers crippled, and continued to hound the batsmen at the highest level.

In the later stages of his career, he wisely cut short his run-up and reduced his speed. Yet, the accuracy and the movement, in the air and off the seam, in his deliveries meant he continued to pose major problems to the batsmen.

His deadly pace partnership with Jeff Thomson early on is well known. Towards the end of his career, Lillee partnered a host of other bowlers like Geoff Lawson and Rodney Hogg and was, never once relegated to the role of a support bowler. He was always the No. 1, the principal strike bowler, irrespective of the number of steps he bowled from.

I recall the '83 World Cup, where India met Australia in the league games, and I had the opportunity to walk up to Lillee and tell him that I was a great fan of his. I shall always cherish the moment.

Then when India toured Australia in 1991-92, Lillee, bowling quite superbly, picked up a couple of wickets against us in an exhibition match. He was in his mid-40s then! Even now, I will always back him to get a couple of wickets at any level of cricket, due to the sheer discipline and consistency in his bowling. He can still put the ball at the right place more often than most and that is what bowling is all about.

Classy and timeless Viswanath, Richards and Lillee certainly are. They are indeed my idols.