Vishwanath in action aganist the English attack: ‘Cricket is a funny game’The little master of Indian cricket, Gundappa Vishwanath made a remarkable comeback last month after almost slipping from the pinnacle of fame into a has been.After a bad patch lasting nearly two years, the five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch vice-captain of the Indian,Vishwanath in action aganist the English attack: ‘Cricket is a funny game’The little master of Indian cricket, Gundappa Vishwanath made a remarkable comeback last month after almost slipping from the pinnacle of fame into a has been.After a bad patch lasting nearly two years, the five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch vice-captain of the Indian team bounced rich harvest of runs in the Test matches held at New Delhi and Madras, silencing his critics who were making strident calls for bis removal from the Indian Test squad. A glorious knock of 107 in New Delhi last December squashed all doubts about his flagging form. Although he followed this knock with a duck in the Calcutta Test, the 32-year-old Vishwanath came into his own with a ferocious double century in Madras last fortnight, the highest ever made by any Indian player against England and also his highest score in Test cricket. Mused a contented Vishwanath: “Cricket is a funny game. Even if you are on top, if you don’t make runs, you come down.”Vishwanath’s cricketing career stretching through 80 Tests, the highest ever by an Indian, has always been one of constant fluctuations. When he made his Test debut on November 15. 1969 at the Kanpur Test against Australia, he was out for a shameful zero in the first innings: “Though it was my first Test, all I had was a zero when I went into bat in the second innings. After a couple of runs I went on playing and in no time I saw 100 on the board,” reminisced Vishwanath modestly. advertisementVishwanath with his wife, Kavitha: ‘He is basically shy and quiet’But for many cricket lovers it was one of the greatest innings ever played by an Indian batsman. “It was simply out of this world,” remarked a sports correspondent. Vishwanath tore apart a genuine Australian pace attack to join the select of Indian cricketers who have scored centuries on their maiden appearance in Test cricket.Undaunted: But in the same manner as he blazed into Indian Test cricket, he was almost snuffed out by Iris own glory. After his marvellous debut, Vishwanath failed miserably when India toured the West Indies and England in 1971. It was only when England toured India, the next year, that Vishwanath regained his true form, ironically in Kanpur again. In the first innings of that Test, after he scored a measly 25 runs, a selector told him that he was being dropped from the team for the next Test. Undaunted Vishwanath went on to make a classic 75 not out. He was immediately reinstated at the next Test in Bombay where he carved out a scintillating century. Vishwanath had. at last, broken the. myth that those who score a century in their debut in Test cricket do not shine again. It had happened to Kripal Singh and Abbas Ali Baig.At the start of the current series against England, the Lilliputian from Karnataka knew that he had to score well in order to salvage his reputation and a place on the team. “The century in New Delhi against England was the greatest innings I have played so far,” he told India Today, “it was my most fluent innings especially at a time when 1 needed runs and was extremely tense in the beginning.”Vishwanath’s rise to cricket’s hall of fame began in humble surroundings. His father, Gundappa Ranganath, was a stenographer at the State Electricity Board in Bangalore. Vishwanath got his inspiration to play cricket from Jagannath, his elder brother, who represented the state’s junior team. Initially, Vishwanath learnt the rudiments of the game in the corridors of his house playing with his neighbour.The ‘little master’ Rankcd by his parents, Ranganath and SavithrarnmaRamakrishna. Imaginary wickets were drawn on the wall and Vishwanath invariably asked Ramakrishna to bat first because his own batting would usually last for hours. Even at such an early age he was already being nicknamed ‘tennis-cricket’s’ Bradman. Vishwanath considers this period of his cricket training as a vital part of his learning process. Says he: “Tennis-cricket played a big role because it had a lot of bounce off the field. I always had to play down as even getting caught on the first ball was out.It taught me to play all along the ground, something which I do till now.” It also helped him perfect the stroke for which Vishwanath is now famous – the square cut. Because of his low stature, he also learnt to play off the backfoot which is the hallmark of most great batsmen because it gives them a split second more to play their strokes.advertisementDisguised Blessing: From here Vishwanath graduated to his school team, where he not only kept wickets but also became the captain. Perhaps his greatest disappointment in life was that he never played tor the state school team, generally considered a prestigious stint for any aspiring cricketer. Vishwanath was not selected for the strangest of reasons: a selector felt he was too short. Six years later Vishwanath had not grown any taller but he had made it to Test cricket.His failure to secure a place in the state school squad would in fact prove to be a blessing in disguise. For he was immediately picked up by a local cricket club called the Spartans and made to play straightaway in the senior division league. Spartans’ Managar, B.N. Chandrashekar. encouraged Vishwanath right from the outset and even presented him with his first bat. Vishwanath fondly recalls how ‘”that was a great moment for me.’For the present, Vishwanath is right in the thick of it all, and withthe kind of panache he has displayed in the current series, he has along way to go before he can hang up his bat.’At last, I had a bat I could call my own and take home with me”. Another incident which left a deep impression on him was his visit to the Chepauk grounds in Madras to watch his first Test match. As he and his brother could afford only gallery seats, they had to go to the stadium at 2.30 in the morning to secure the best vantage point. Jagannath remembers how Vishwanath watched with rapt attention every ball that was bowled in that match. Says Vishwanath: “I don’t think I could get so involved in a Test match now as I did during that match. I thought to myself, I must be in the middle one day.” His premonitions proved right.But if Vishwanath’s ambition was to become a cricketer, his parents” dreams lay elsewhere. Says Ranganath. his father: “I was keen that he finish his degree at least, so that he could get a respectable job.” As if sensing the fame that would descend on him someday, Vishwanath told his mother, Savithramma: “Don’t worry about my studies. even without it, I will be respected one day.”Sure enough, as soon as he passed his intermediate examination. Vishwanath had thrown his books away, grabbed his bat, and played as much cricket as he could. In 1967 he made his memorable Ranji Trophy debut playing against Andhra Pradesh in Vijayawada where he hit a whopping 230, his highest ever. The ‘little master’ had arrived.Wrist-work: If his Test debut was even quicker, he owes it to Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the former Indian captain. It was Pataudi who first noticed Vishwanath’s talent when he scored 60-odd runs in a Ranji match against Hyderabad. Pataudi had advised him to exercise with dumb-bells. Vishwanath heeded it and today he hits the ball with apparent ease to the boundary with just a delicate flick of his wrist. Though Vishwanath was not selected for the first Test against Australia in 1969, Pataudi insisted on his inclusion for the second Test match.advertisement Vishwanath found himself making his debut when he was 20 years old. The rest is history. In retrospect, the duck in the first innings at Kanpur has had a profound impact on Vishwanath’s attitude to batting. “When I go out to bat, the first thing I think of is that I should not get out for zero. Only when I get it am I relaxed,” he confesses. Does that mean that he is tense when he is out in the middle all the time? “I am always tense before I go into bat for whatever type of match I am playing, but once I get there in the middle I leave my tension behind in the dressing room. I am calm. If you become tense while batting, you can’t move your feet well. For me it does not matter if we are zero for 32 or two for 32,1 just go there and play my cricket. I play my natural game. I don’t know what pressure is.”Vishwanath is considered to be one of the greatest stroke players in the world and even Gavaskar admits that Vishwanath is superior to him in this department. “He is a genius, an absolute genius,” raved well-known cricket critic Rajan Bala, sports editor of Decern Herald, “there has been no batsmen like Vishwanath earlier, he is one batsman who transcends technique. He is the most natural player I have seen in decades. He keeps the basics aside, that is his success. He varies and improvises. He plays blatantly across the line and hits fantastic shots. Even Kallicharan does not have his silent touch. When he gets set, it is a challenge for any captain to place a field for him. Vishy is always finding gaps with the most incredible shots.”It is the ability to improvise his shots and rip apart the best bowling that distinguishes Vishwanath from Gavaskar who is undoubtedly the most scientific player in India.Greatest Knock: One of his greatest innings was in Madras again, against the fiery West Indian pace attack spearheaded by Andy Roberts in 1974-75. While other Indian wickets fell like ninepins, Vishwanath rescued India out of trouble with an exhilarating 97 not out. He was so aggressive that the only way Roberts could prevent him from taking a run was to bowl a bouncer. Vishwanath does not use brute force when he plays but caresses the ball to the boundary. Wrote a sports critic: “Watching him in full flow is like listening to Bach: each note, each stroke part of an overall plan yet somehow distinct.” His childhood hero was that great Australian batsman. Neil Harvery whom Vishwanath only read about but never saw.It is perhaps ironical that the two little masters of Indian cricket, Vishwanath and Gavaskar, should constitute the backbone of the team, and even stranger, be related. It was in March 1978 that Vishwanath married Kavitha Gavaskar, the skipper’s younger sister. They met when Sunil once took Vishwanath to his home in Bombay.For Kavitha, love is not only keeping his cricket bat clean-as a poster drawn by her in their tastefully decorated living room in Bangalore indicates -it is providing the much-needed moral support that Vishwanath craves for, especially when he fails to score. She also does his shopping which he hates to do himself. Vishwanath has this peculiar habit, Kavitha thinks, of buying all the available colours in shirts of a particular design he likes. Explained the Test star nonchalantly: “I find shopping tiring and if I like the design why should I go elsewhere to shop? 1 buy the whole lot.”Greatness, it is said, comes in a cloak of humility. It is the same mantle that drapes Vishwanath. for even to this day, he remains as humble as when he started: a trait he attributes to his upbringing. Says Kavitha: “He is basically shy and quiet. He opens out only when he is with friends. He is an extremelycool person, nothing ruffles him unless I try to get under his skin.” Exudes B.S. Chandrashekhar, India’s former spinning wizatd who has seen Vishwanath right from the start: “He is a fantastic man. In his heart, he is a genuine person.” Gavaskar once observed that Vishwanath was the only player both his team-mates and opponents liked. Asked what he thinks of himself, Vishwanath replied unassumingly: “I am Vishwanath. I play cricket,” and added with a twinkle, “I am an easy-going person.” It is his accommodating nature that makes him perhaps the best vice-captain India has had. But he would never make a good captain. As a sports critic remarked: “He is easier led than leading.”A day in the life of Vishwanath usually begins with a game of badminton. He plays in the same court where Prakash Padukone trained himself to be a champion. After a quick shower and breakfast he goes to the State Bank of India where he works as an officer, a far cry from the clerk’s post he was given 13 years ago. He works in the bank till 3.30 p.m. and then puts in at least two hours at the nets. He spends evenings either with Kavitha or simply visiting friends. Vishwanath hates films and books, likes music but has no favourites and loves watching cricket on video. His favourite food is steak but he is not fussy about his eating habits. Because of his aversion to shopping, he does not buy anything when he goes abroad except tooth brushes, says Kavitha. “I am not a fancy person,” he says with a shrug.Devotee: Religion plays a fairly important role in Vishwanath’s life. He is an ardent devotee of Sai Baba and worships the famous Lord Venkateshwara temple at Tirupati. He visits Tirupati before the start of every season. After his century at Delhi, he had vowed that if he did well in Madras he would pay his respects to the temple again. Immediately after his double century, he rushed to Tirupati to fulfil his vow. In fact he is so religious that he wears a ring having an image of Lord Venkateshwara carved on it and a necklace with two charms attached to it, one given by Sai Baba and the other by his mother-in-law. Before he plays every ball he peers down his shirt at the image of Sai Baba on his chain. Vishwanath’s philsophy of life is not to take success or failure too hard but to just carry on. It is the same with his cricket. If he gets out cheaply, he feels bad for the moment but is soon cheerful again by telling himself that all this is part of the game. Asked what it is he likes about cricket, he replied: “I like getting runs. There is nothing like getting runs in Test cricket.”Traits: Characteristic of a man who has started clear of all controversies in the game. another of Vishwanath’s traits is his sportsmanship. He walks back to the pavilion if he thinks he is out even before the umpire raises his lingers. Asked why he does this, Vishwanath’s surprising answer was: “I don’t know why I do it. It all happens on the spur of the moment. I don’t like to stay in the middle when I think I am out. But when I am halfway back to the pavilion I wonder why I walked out without waiting for the umpire’s decision. Now with so many unfair decisions. I am slowly learning. I don’t think I would be able to walk away like I used to do before.”Vishwanath is also learning to wear a protective helmet which he once scorned saying: “I only wear a helmet when I ride a scooter.” Now he says that if the bowling is really fierce then the helmet gives him confidence.Vishwanath’s recent return to form was preceded by his failure in two consecutive cricket seasons which he attributes to his faulty technique. Moreover, he felt he was slower than before. Last year he got himself toned up, losing eight kg of weight by playing badminton. He now weighs a decent 61 kg with the necessary changes in technique, the vintage Vishwanath with all his grace and aggression was back.But Vishwanath’s critics think he is a spent force. Says one of them: “He is on the decline: age has taken its toll. His reflexes have decreased. The quickness is gone. He can no more play a charismatic and dramatic innings.” But Vishwanath hotly denies that he is facing a downward trend. Said he candidly: “Age has definitely not slowed me down. I am just 32, I am fitter than what I used to be a year ago. I still feel I have a lot of cricket in me. Reaching the peak means getting going all the time and I should be doing this by next season.”At the end of the Madras Test, Vishwanath had. crossed the century mark 14 times in his career and hit 5,672 runs in Test cricket averaging an impressive 43.63 runs. No doubt, for the present Vishwanath is right in the thick of it all and with the kind of panache* he had displayed in the current series, he has a long way to go before he can hang up his bat.