'Gavaskar or Viswanath?,' this intense debate to who amongst the two was a better batsman had split the cricket-loving populace of the country, during the 1970s. The fact that the two gentlemen involved were close friends and later became brothers-in-law in real life did not diminish the ferocity of the arguments that raged across the country on this topic. While Sunil Gavaskar evolved into one of the all-time greats of the game and is presently a respected commentator and mediaperson, Gundappa Viswanath faded away from public memory.
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At this point of time, it would appear inconceivable to present day cricket fans that Viswanath was considered a better batsman than Gavaskar during the most part of the 1970s, when they held together the brittle Indian batting.
Claim to glory
Viswanath shot into limelight in December 1969 when he scored a century on his Test debut against Australia in Kanpur. The fact that he did so after being dismissed for a 'duck' in the first innings added to the charm of this knock. He had scored a double century on his debut in first-class cricket hardly an year-and-half ago against Andhra Pradesh. His consistent performances in the domestic circuit had impressed Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, then leading India, to press for his inclusion in the Test squad. Viswanath justified his skipper’s confidence by hitting a brilliant century against an attack that comprised of Garth McKenzie, John Gleeson, and Ashley Mallet.
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Viswanath performed creditably during the tours to West Indies and England in 1971 where India created history by winning both the series by identical 1-0 margins. He was not in top form when England side toured India in 1972-73 under Tony Lewis and was, at one point, on the verge of being dropped from the squad. However, a superb unbeaten 75 in the second innings of the fourth Test at Kanpur and a century in the last Test in Mumbai reestablished his credentials as a top-line batsman. In the disastrous tour to England in 1974, where India was whitewashed 3-0, he scored a couple of half centuries.
Before the start of the 1974-75 cricket season, during which the West Indies toured India, Viswanath was one of the few batsmen who was assured of a place in the national squad. However, the general impression about him was that he had not done full justice to his talent. He was seen as a batsman who would score a couple of half centuries in difficult situations but did not show any stomach for hard battles. He seemed to lack the determination and capacity to stay at the wicket for long hours to convert the good starts into big scores. He had already been on the international scene for six years and critics were unanimous in their assessment that it was high time he took upon himself the mantle of being the lead run-getter of the side.
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The West Indies side that reached the Indian shores in 1974 was led by Clive Lloyd and had in its ranks such performers as Andy Roberts, then the fastest bowler in the world; Lance Gibbs, who went on to become the highest wicket taker; and Roy Fredericks and Alvin Kallicharran besides two newcomers, namely, Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards, who would go on to become the top batsmen in the world. India lost the first two Tests tamely by large margins, giving the impression that yet another drubbing was on the cards. Viswanath did nothing much of note in these Tests, losing his wicket tamely after bright starts. It appeared that not just Indian cricket, but even Viswanath’s career, was at the crossroads, when the third Test started in Calcutta.
Viswanath held the Indian first innings together with a half century after a bad start. After good performances by Indian bowlers restricted West Indies to a first lead of seven runs, India faced collapse again in the second innings. However, Viswanath finally came to his element and, in the company of the lower order, completed a brilliant century to set West Indies a winning target of 310 runs in the last innings, which they fell short by 85 runs. Thus, India managed to hang on to the series and proceed to Madras, where the next Test was played.
The unbeaten 97 by Viswanath in the first innings of the fourth Test in Madras in January 1975 remained the best knock ever by an Indian in a Test match till V.V.S. Laxman scored his epic 281 against the Steve Waugh-led Australia in Kolkata in 2001. Walking in to bat after both openers had departed with the total at 24, Viswanath saw wickets fall at regular intervals at the other end. Roberts was bowling at his fastest on a track that offered bounce and movement and none of the Indian batsmen, except Viswanath, possessed the technique to tackle him. Viswanath unleashed the full repertoire of shots against Roberts, cutting and square driving him to the point fence, playing the on drive when ball was pitched on leg stump and hooking him to the square leg fence when the bowler attempted to unsettle him with a bouncer. He added 73 runs in the company of last two batsmen before running out of partners, a mere three runs short of his century. His batting so enervated the Indian side, particularly the bowlers, that they managed to restrict the strong West Indies batting line up to total scores less than 200 runs in either innings, to set up another win.
This series established Viswanath as one of the best contemporary middle-order batsmen in international cricket. He contributed to the Indian victory when chasing a mammoth fourth innings target of 404 runs at Port of Spain by scoring a century; he stood firm and tackled West Indies fast bowlers on a hard-and-fast Madras wicket to score a century and a half century in two innings to set up a win in January 1979; his knock of 75 in the 1979 World Cup against West Indies was hailed by Clive Lloyd himself as the best one played against them. In February 1981, he salvaged a dismal tour to Australia by scoring a century in the third Test in Sydney, which laid the foundation for a surprise Indian win in that match.
However, as the 1980s dawned, it became clear that Viswanath was fast losing the distinct ability to sight the ball early which had made him a champion performer. He started struggling for runs and though he scored a double century when England toured India in January 1982, it was evident that he was past his prime. The tour to Pakistan in 1982-83, where India suffered a humiliating 3-0 defeat, proved to be his swan song. He was unable to tackle the pace and swing bowling unleashed by Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz, who had developed the new art of 'reverse swing.' A couple of poor umpiring decisions added to his misery. He was dropped from Test matches for the first time ever during that tour. When the selectors sat down to pick the squad for the tour of West Indies that followed, the new skipper, Kapil Dev, was given the option to choose a batsman to fill the last slot in the touring party. He chose Dilip Vengsarkar, thus writing 'finis' to the international career of Viswanath.
Viswanath also led India in two Test matches, when Gavaskar stood down from captaincy in protest against a decision of the BCCI. In the second Test, which was also the 'Golden Jubilee Test' played against England, he created history by recalling Bob Taylor after the umpire had given him out. This decision, taken when England were reeling at 58 for 5 wickets, came under severe criticism as Taylor, in the company of Ian Botham, helped England recover and eventually took the match away from India. Viswanath reverted back to his role as vice-captain at the end of this Test and did not lead India again.
The contribution of Viswanath to Indian cricket cannot be measured from the 6,080 runs that he scored in Test matches. At his prime, he was a supreme artist in action with the willow. His technique at the crease was perfect; hence he could score runs with ease when others found it difficult to get the bat on the ball. His unique ability to sight the ball early coupled with the skill for playing it very late helped him tackle both spinners and fast bowlers with ease. He was absolutely fearless, playing without wearing the helmet for most part of his career and was seldom hit by the cricket ball. His patent shot was the square cut, which he could play very late and bisect any number of fielders deployed on the off side to stop it. He was one of the best players of fast bowling during an era when quick bowlers ruled the roost and most of his runs came on difficult tracks against them.
The perfect gentleman
Above everything else, Viswanath was a perfect gentleman on and off the field. He never questioned the decision of an umpire nor did he show dissent or appeal in excess. He was courteous and remained the epitome of good behavior, both with other players as well as with the fans. He remains one of the most popular cricketers ever on account of his humility, simple ways and friendly demeanor. For the cricket lovers of the 1970s, Viswanath was more than a player or an icon; he was an emotion placed close to their hearts.
India has produced many outstanding batsmen, but there would be none to beat Viswanath when it came to class and character. Viswanath would be adjudged as the greatest Indian cricketer of his generation if greatness is measured based on integrity and ability to influence others positively, and not in terms of runs scored or wealth acquired.