He is a genius. And his humility is what has defined him. On the occasion of his 75th birthday yesterday, February 12, here is a conversation with Gundappa Viswanath that helps us understand the man and his philosophy.
Happy 75th birthday, chief.
India’s win at The Oval was a miracle. Much like the 2001 victory against Australia at the Eden Gardens where India won after following on, India came from behind at The Oval on August 24, 1971 to hand England their first series loss in years. While the victory will forever be analysed as a spectacular underdog success story, there are other side stories that aren’t often spoken about.
With just three runs to get for the win, Farokh Engineer, who was batting with Viswanath, had walked up to the little master to caution him against playing a rash shot. He said with just three runs remaining to get, all they needed to do was take singles and not try anything adventurous. A rather inane statement veering on the side of caution triggered a very strange reaction in Viswanath. A calm and composed man had a horrible rush of blood and played what he calls the worst shot of his cricketing life.
While recounting the victory, Viswanath still regrets playing that shot!
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Viswanath: I have got out to poor shots but this was something different. It was a horrible shot and I still regret it. It was perhaps the worst shot I have played in my entire cricketing career. I still don’t know why I played that shot with victory round the corner. It was when Abid Ali passed me on my way back to the pavilion that I realised what I had done.
Boria: Why did you play it? Why would someone who had not played a single aggressive shot in an innings of 33 all of a sudden attempt to hit the ball big and get out?
Viswanath: The moment Farokh said to me, ‘Vishy, there is no need to do anything rash and all we need to do is take three singles’, I thought to myself this was his way to ensure he hit the winning runs. We were on the cusp of history, and Farokh was eyeing his moment of glory and wanted me to give him the strike at the start of the over. I thought to myself: why not seize the opportunity and be the one to score the winning runs? This was history being made. We were about to beat England in England, and I was fortunate to be out there and script the miracle for my country. It was a strange feeling. While I wanted to win the game for India, I also wanted to do it myself and not leave it to anyone else. I wanted to be the hero, if you know what I mean. No question, it was wrong of me or rather foolish of me to do so, but that’s what I did. I wanted to finish the match and score the winning runs, and that’s what resulted in me playing that awful shot, which I still regret.
Was Viswanath wrong in trying to do what he did? Was the act of trying to finish the game inherently opposed to the spirit of team sport, or is it fair to expect an elite performer to do so when he is sure of his team winning the contest? To try and get into Viswanath’s mind and understand what he was going through at that exact moment is an impossible task. Suffice to say, however, that for a 24-year-old man, it was a moment of reckoning. He was on the cusp of making history for his country and it was fair that he would want to do it himself. Though he was out with three runs remaining, the fact remained that Viswanath had done the job for his team.
Boria: I am told it was the only time in your career that captain Wadekar spoke to you and asked you to curb your natural strokeplay, and make sure you stayed put till the end of the game?
Viswanath: Ajit called me Vishy Ba, and this was the only time in my career that he said to me what he did at The Oval. At lunch, when we were within striking distance, Ajit came up to me and said he did not want me to get out. There was something in his voice that had a rather strange effect. I thought to myself if my captain is saying something to me that he never has, it was important I stood up and did what he was asking of me. I scored all my runs in singles and took very few twos in the innings of 33. I did not play a single risky shot in the entire innings.
Boria: So what did it all mean to you?
Viswanath: You may have scored hundreds in games that you lost [Vishy never did in Tests]. Such hundreds hold little significance for a player. While it might give you a sense of personal satisfaction, when you are playing team sport, it is how the team fares that eventually makes a difference. I may not have scored too many, but the 33 at The Oval was one of the most important knocks of my career. It played a part in India winning the series, and I wouldn’t be wrong in saying it changed Indian cricket forever.
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