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February 11, 1998


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A man with no enemies

send this story to a friend Hemant Kenkre recalls his encounters with the great man.

G R Viswanath I can never forget his last first-class innings. The memory is still crystal clear. His 5 ft 4 inch frame walking out to bat for the last time for Karnataka at the Wankhede stadium. Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath never pottered around. He always got straight down to business. A few delectable flicks, mystical cuts and magical drives later, the Karnataka warrior holed out to extra cover. He was trying to drive Padmakar Shivalkar, his old nemesis.

I watched, with misty eyes, his final walk back to the dressing room, the sparse crowd not realising that an era had ended. An era that had started in 1969 against Bill Lawry's Australians at Kanpur. He scored a duck in his first outing in Test cricket and followed it with a magnificent 137. An enthusiastic crowd at the Green Park stadium had seen the advent of a magician. One who, it is said, had five to six different shots for each kind of ball (I am being conservative).

As an 11 year old, I still remember that day. I was sailing along the Western coast to Vengurla, my maternal native place. The upper deck of the Konkan Sewak was full of mill hands and other assorted lower middle class May vacationers en route to their homes. The cacophony of excited voices and irritating children was broken by an equally excited voice on a transistor. 'And Viswanath has scored a hundred,' the voice came over the distant Konkan mainland. A cheer followed. After all, it was not commonplace for an unknown Kannadiga to score a century on his debut.

''He is a very good player,'' said D K (Baban) Gavaskar, my maternal uncle and co-traveller. Babanmama knew his cricket. He was one of the millions who had cut his cricketing teeth under Vinoo Mankad on Bombay's maidans.

I saw Vishy bat for the first time in a Test at the Brabourne stadium against Tony Lewis's Englishmen. It was Pataudi's comeback series. The little craftsman had carved a well made hundred and, in the process, broken the hoodoo that an Indian batsman who scores a hundred on debut never reaches the three figure mark again. The square cuts were there, so were the wristy flicks. But what took one's breath away was an instinctive hook off Chris Old which sailed between the pavilion and the west stand, landing into the swimming pool. Who said Vishy could not hook?

I was also fortunate to see -- live -- two of his best innings. The superb hundred he scored at Eden Gardens, against Clive Lloyd's mighty West Indies will forever be etched in my memory. It was a crucial innings and most of his runs had come with nine, ten and jack for company. As scribe Rajan Bala notes in his book All The Beautiful Boys, it was probably the first time the fearsome Andy Roberts resorted to negative tactics by bowling wide and steep bouncers.

Watching him that day, it was hard to believe this was the same genial Vishy in whose company one had devoured mudi at the Victoria. The other innings was in 1978 at Madras where on a wicket of unpredictable bounce and pace, Vishy had toyed with the likes of Sylvester Clarke, Nobert Philip and Vanburn Holder. I asked him, many years alter, how he managed to cut with such precision on a wicket which offered dangerous bounce (Chang, a West Indian batsman, was felled by a Ghavri delivery). "Nothing ba," he said, 'I failed to understand why Kalli (Alvin Kallicharan, the West Indies skipper) did not put a third man when I was batting." Modest man.

If there is one word to describe Vishy, the person, it is unflappable. Let me give you an example. Once on a visit to Bangalore, I was staying with him. Vishy was to catch the morning flight to Calcutta to select the Indian team for the Singer Cup in Lanka. The tranquility of the Viswanath household was shattered by the shrill ring of the phone.

It was 0100 hours. I answered the phone and told him it was a journalist from Calcutta who wanted advance information on Kapil Dev's selection (there was cloud on that particular issue then). Vishy politely told the journo that he could offer no comment and would be happy to speak to him after the selection committee meeting was over. ''How can you take this crap, it's one in the morning!'' I said. He smiled, ''He is only doing his job.'' No wonder the man has no enemies.

Any one who knows Vishy would vouch that the man has a unique sense of humour. Facing the Doordarshan camera after he narrowly missed scoring a hundred in each innings at Bombay against Lloyd's team in 1975, Vishy was asked whether the ball that got him was an inswinger, an out-swinger or a yorker, 'If I had seen it,' said a poker faced Vishy, 'I would still be batting.'

Vishy has completed 50 years. Knowing him, he would not like any fanfare but would look up and give a shy smile as he did when passed the half century mark on the field. The day will begin with a quick visit to the temple. A trip to the KSCA snooker room. A round of golf followed by some quality time spent with his wife Kavita and son Daivik and some friends over for dinner. And knowing his popularity, half of Bangalore would be their to wish their favourite citizen a very happy fiftieth birthday. Happy Birthday Vishy!

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