Viswanath — the hero and role model — is now 70

India never lost a Test where Vishy made a century, and he made 14 of them

February 12, 2019 11:45 pm | Updated 11:45 pm IST

Wizard at work: It was an absolute delight to watch Gundappa Viswanath.

Wizard at work: It was an absolute delight to watch Gundappa Viswanath.

Sometimes you choose your heroes; at other times, proximity, convenience or back story mean that heroes choose you. Mike Brearley has written about how Jack Robertson became his boyhood hero above the claims of Dennis Compton who played in the same Middlesex team.

For writer Simon Barnes, the choice fell on Mike Smith, not the greatest of batsmen, but done — he rationalised later — “in order to know pain.” We choose our heroes as much to glory in their successes as to empathise with their failures, and thereby to understand those two Kiplingesque imposters when they visit us.

Choosing heroes

I must have been eight when I first became aware of Gundappa Viswanath. Boys of that age are flexible in choosing heroes. Accomplished performers, fictional characters, comic book eccentrics, imaginary beings that exist only in their heads — they can all make the grade.

My heroes turned out in whites, wore boots with studs, and could either hit a stump from 22 yards or prevent that happening with a bat in hand. Asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “Viswanath”.

Yesterday (Tuesday), Vishy (familiarity breeds contraction) turned 70; and just as a later generation used Sachin Tendulkar as a marker to its growing years, mine used Vishy. His international career lasted just over a dozen years, the time it takes for a boy to grow into a man, to understand hero-worship better, and to acknowledge the complexities of heroism. The latter can be a lifetime pursuit.

Perhaps you see a bit of yourself in your hero, perhaps you hope that there is a lot of your hero in you. Perhaps — and this realisation takes time — it doesn’t really matter. If the game mirrors society as a whole, perhaps the individual players mirror something uniquely personal.

The hero-as-role-model is not a concept many are comfortable with. Heroes are heroes and role models are role models (one set does not have an obligation to be the other too), but occasionally they overlap, as they did with Vishy.

Forever heroes

It meant one did not have to readjust the sights as one grew older; few heroes are heroes forever and those of innocent boyhood often turn out to be disappointing in adulthood. Not Vishy.

The genial nature, and the will to answer to a higher calling might have meant that India lost a Test match against England when Vishy as captain recalled Bob Taylor who had been given out. But these were important elements.

Occasionally sport throws up a performer who embodies its spirit and its link with the best in us, reminding us that there is more to it than winning and losing. It is a necessary counter to the partisanship and cynicism inherent in supporting a team.

I first shook hands with Vishy when I was 12 and he had just reached a half-century in a Ranji game against Tamil Nadu. It was the only time I ever ran on to the field in the middle of a match.

I had been ushered into an exclusive club, and I began following Vishy wherever he played — league matches, friendly tennis ball knockabouts, the lot. The YMCA ground once witnessed a wonderful battle between Vishy’s State Bank of India and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar’s Syndicate Bank.

The grass was thick all around, and some of the finest drives seldom made it to the boundary. Vishy driving Chandra was a treat — he seemed to have calculated the precise height he needed to drive at so the ball would just skim the tops of the clumps of grass. Vishy’s technical mastery was enhanced by his innovative ability.

When he was making his classic 97 not out in Chennai, West Indies captain Clive Lloyd paid him the compliment of placing a man at cover-point for Andy Roberts, the world’s fastest bowler then.

Vishy says that wasn’t the fastest he had faced. Sylvester Clarke at the same venue four years later was. Vishy made 124 (next highest score was Kirmani’s 33).

“I played beside the line of the ball,” he said.

The rationalisation came later; the move was instinctive. And then, Vishy being Vishy, he ended with a self-deprecatory follow-up. “Next Test on a slower wicket, I said, ‘Play beside the line’, and was caught behind for nine.” But three others made centuries as the match was drawn. India never lost a Test where Vishy made a century, and he made 14 of them.

When Vishy and Sunil Gavaskar (who also turns 70 this year) batted together, it was as if Dionysius and Apollo were in action. The thrill of a Vishy square-cut was heightened by the element of danger that seemed ever present. Gavaskar was solidity personified, Vishy had a vulnerability that is the companion of those who operate at the edge of the possible.

Vishy is a uniquely Indian hero, with modesty, simplicity and a feel for appropriateness in conduct. It was a mature choice for an eight-year-old to make all those years ago. You came for the square-cut and stayed for the charm.

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