Four decades after he put away his bat, Gundappa Vishwanath goes down memory lane to relive and revive all that went into making him the wristy genius of world cricket. What emerges is an absorbing autobiography, Wrist Assured, that is as smooth as the square cut that mesmerised a generation of cricket lovers. Following on his first-innings zero and a resolute 137 in the second innings of his debut against Australia at Green Park in Kanpur in 1969, Vishwanath experienced the lowest depths and the highest peaks during his first outing in international test cricket. Those four days of anxiety and ecstasy proved formative for the genius, whose classic square cut helped him notch the majority of his 6,080 runs scored in the 91 test matches that he played for India.
One might wonder if these statistics by the five-feet-two yesteryear cricketer are significant enough to warrant attention? Among many, there are two stellar reasons for him to be counted among the all-time greats of the game. In an era when a draw was considered as good as a victory, India never lost a cricket test match in which Vishwanath scored a century. One of his 14 test centuries contributed to the then highest successful second-innings chase in cricket history against the mighty West Indies at Port of Spain in 1976. All this contributed to a subtle change in mindset: the Indian cricket team was no longer talking about not losing but had actually started discussing winning. Vishwanath’s wristy square cut contributed significantly to this strategic shift. By the time he retired in 1982, India had become a cricketing force to reckon with.
Co-written with veteran sports journalist R Kaushik, Wrist Assured takes the reader on a nostalgic journey to the formative years of Indian cricket when Vishwanath was one of the most adored and respected players. For the better part of his 13 years in test cricket, he was second only to Sunil Gavaskar in importance for the team. Many of his knocks had no parallel – such as the 97 he made out of India’s 190 against West Indies at Madras in 1975, the 114 out of the team’s 237 at Melbourne against Australia in 1981, and the unbeaten 112 against West Indies in Port of Spain in 1976. These scores earned India precious wins, but many of his 35 half centuries were game-saving scores no less.
Vishwanath was an instinctive player mindful of the situations and conditions that unleashed his natural talent. “What is the point of playing, if you are not better today than you were yesterday?” The dreaded zero on his debut became a life lesson in cricket and reason enough for him to play with such caution that he had only 10 zeroes in 155 test innings. There is no shame for a batsman to get zero, provided he knows why he got it and how to avoid its recurrence.
Wrist Assured is a brutally honest self-assessment of his cricketing career. It is interesting to read how he developed the steely wrists to excute a perfect square cut. That cut may have fascinated viewers across the world but it was a stroke born out of necessity. How else could a thin little boy make the ball reach the boundary? Early in his career, Vishwanath realised that, by using the pace of the ball, the square cut had greater potential to cross the boundary than any other stroke. He always used a light weight super-short handled bat to execute the square cut and the hook – this was ideal for his back-footed horizontal-blade square cuts. Such was the technical finesse of his signature stroke that captains of opposing teams would station extra fielders to check it.
Wrist Assured takes the reader back in time to those cricketing years when ball-by-ball commentary was the only means for lovers of the game to create a visual of the playing arena. Vishwanath helps the reader relive those momentous innings through his eyes. There is nothing more exquisite than the batsman sharing the twists and travails of facing some of the fastest bowlers in the game. It requires courage to hold onto your nerves as the entire opposing team guns for your wicket.
In his post-cricketing years, Vishwanath chaired the national selection committee, was appointed an ICC match referee, and offered expert advice as a television commentator. In his multifaceted roles in the world of cricket, he comes across as a modest and self-effacing person. “Cricket’s life lessons have made me the person I am,” he concludes.
Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.