Tom Alter's article on ex-Indian cricketer Gundappa Viswanath

Updated: Oct 01, 2017, 16:05 IST | A Correspondent |

Actor Tom Alter, who passed away on Friday night, was a romantic sports writer. We reproduce an article he wrote on Gundappa Viswanath when the great Indian batsman retired in 1988

What will we say, then, when our grandchildren ask us, bats in small hands, as we sit, leafing through Wisden, settled before the fire - "Grandpa, did you really see Viswanath play? Was his square cut really such a wonderful shot? Was he as good as Gavaskar?" What will we say, looking down into those excited faces, just as our grandfathers looked down when we asked of Mushtaq Ali and Lala? What we will we say of GR Viswanath, of "young Viswanath", of a man and a player whom Wisden could never capture with a thousand pages of statistics?

Will we pause for a moment, then clear our throats, then pause again, searching for words? Will we close our eyes, and possibly check a tear or two, and remember warmly and well? And then say, quietly. "Yes, I saw him play. And, yes his square-cut was a wonderful shot. And, yes, again, he was as good as Gavaskar." And then the children will scamper off into the garden, or down the lane or onto the ground to get in a few more minutes of play before the light goes out of the day.

India's Gundappa Viswanath cuts an English bowler during his 222  in the Chennai Test of the 1981-82 series. Pic/getty images
India's Gundappa Viswanath cuts an English bowler during his 222  in the Chennai Test of the 1981-82 series. Pic/getty images

What a batsman!
But what will we have said, then, of Viswanath? We would have spoken a few words, all quite true and made our grandchildren happy. But after they have gone running off, and we are alone again, we will close Wisden, and ask for another cup of tea, and, to ourselves really speak of Viswanath.

"Yes, we saw him play. We saw him square-cutting (Geoff) Arnold and (Bob) Cottam again and again on a December day in Delhi and Barry Wood dived and sprawled left and right at point, until finally Vishy got one by, and it was a battle well won. And we saw him coming out to field, short and almost rolly-polly, and then he would always run briskly from one wicket to another, whereupon he would settle down at slip next to Gavaskar, his day's exertions done. And people always talk of his square cut. But the flick to leg or the on-drive to the over-pitched ball and wrists and timing with the minimum of movement of the feet, was so clean and precise and sure, defying even (Lance) Gibbs' leg-trap, that the shot seemed to be charted by some instinctive compass in Vishy's mind.

And at the crease, having just flicked (Andy) Roberts for four. Vishy would walk quietly a few steps down the pitch, pat gently some offending spot, and then return to his position, never raising his head, as if to suggest that those four runs were part of a natural process in which pride or swagger played no part. And then he would touch the peak of his cap, give a tug at the top of each pad, mark his guard for the hundredth time, and then, almost shyly, look up at the bowler.

Tom Alter
Tom Alter

He used the bat as a rapier with which he would thrust and parry, and the stroke was always quick and sure and deadly, and yet it never seemed to draw blood or hack and saw cruelly. And because he enjoyed so much the thrust of blade, he often let the pleasure overcome the science of the game. And thus his number of centuries and batting average, although still very impressive as statistics, could never bring into a painting of Viswanath's batting all the hues and colours of his art.

And how he could play in a crisis especially against fast bowling! The 1974-75 series against (Clive) Lloyd's West Indians, and Roberts on the rampage, and Vishy slicing him away. And one very early morning in '76, with the Indian team in the West Indies and needing 404 to win, and all of us sitting out on the balcony with our transistors on, and Holding bowling to Viswanath, and across the thousands of miles comes the clean, hard sound of bat square-cutting ball to the cover fence. We knew then, hearing that perfect sound, that India would win. And, then, can you compare Gavaskar and Viswanath? Can you compare Rafi and Talat Mahmood? Laurence Olivier and Peter O'Toole? Greatness can be measured by runs and records, and Gavaskar was great, like Viswanath, in more ways than facts and figures can tell. But facts and figures do tell the major story of SM Gavaskar, and it is a magnificent story. Viswanath is more like Graham Greene; pages of lyrical prose, with a hint of introspection and an air of slight fragility.

The grandchildren are back
It is dark now outside and the grandchildren are back, and the TV is on, and a very modern brand of cricket is being played with electronic umpires and special machines which automatically light up if the ball has touched the bat. Yet, two players are shouting in protest, and the grandchildren leap about in delight at the altercation.

We call one of them aside, one of the quieter ones, and tell him. "Did you know that Viswanath, captaining India, once called a batsman back after an umpire gave him out? And that batsman went on to win the Test match for his team? And that Viswanath, when asked about the incident many years later, said he had absolutely no regrets?" And the child is puzzled, and yet impressed, by such strange behaviour. "And Viswanath always walked when he knew he was out, and never argued with an umpire, Once, just once, when in Pakistan he was given out lbw to Sarfraz Nawaz to a ball going well down the leg side, did Vishy look at the umpire for one very meaningful second. And then he was gone.

"And how sad it was that nobody took up his cause, that nobody clamoured for Vishy to come back, even when players with half of his talent and none of his art batted for India. How his heart must have ached and broken. But he never spoke a word.

He played on for his state, Karnataka, until the sadness in his heart became too heavy to bear, and he moved aside for younger men.

"He left, so gently and humbly and shyly that we hardly knew he was gone. And then we, the cricket lovers of India and the world, spoke and wrote, too late, of his greatness. But you know, what we really wanted to tell Vishy way back then, and probably couldn't, is that he meant more to us, and we loved him more than all the players who strutted and strode and swung and swore. We wanted to tell him that in our hearts he had the highest average of all."

And now the grandchildren are asleep, tired from their games. We, too will sleep, and in our dreams we will be young again, and Viswanath, forever young, will be batting on and on, the perfect echoes of his shots drifting away across the timeless years.

Courtesy: Sportsweek & Lifestyle Feb 28-March 5, 1988

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