November 20, 1969 saw the 33rd anniversary of Gundappa Viswanath’s century on debut against Bill Lawry’s Australians. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the gem of an innings that would be the first of many such in a splendid career.
His first foray on to the wicket had been inauspicious. In the first innings, Alan Connolly had given him a torrid time before getting him caught in the cordon for a duck. And now, on the fourth afternoon, the little fellow walked in again, at a critical juncture. Trailing by 28 in the first innings, India had reached 94 for 2, with Connolly looking threatening, having already accounted for Farokh Engineer and Ajit Wadekar.
The large crowd at Kanpur braced itself for another second innings collapse, similar to the one witnessed in the first Test. Paul Sheahan had scored a pleasing century for the visitors on the previous day, but the Indian batsmen had seemed more prone to throwing it away.
However, the diminutive young batsman from Karnataka stood tall on that day. Connolly’s burst was overcome, Graham McKenzie negotiated with confidence and then Gundappa Viswanath started dazzling the ground. A couple of delectable drives on both sides of the wicket set the tone. It was all crisp timing, and the Green Park was enthralled – this was definitely something special in the making.
It was when the ball pitched short outside the off-stump that the beauty was enhanced by power. Viswanath played every stroke as if painting a superlative masterpiece on green canvas. Even a defensive push was a sight for sore eyes. When he drove or flicked, he never hit the ball, but gently guided it on its way. It was while he essaying the square-cut that every ounce of his little frame want into the wallop, sending the ball screaming through the crowded point area.
Safety route painted like a masterpiece
McKenzie bowled the patient Ashok Mankad at 125, and at the same score had captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi leg before. The inexperienced Ashok Gandotra was caught off mystery spinner John Gleeson with the score on 147. The situation once again looked precarious for the Indians with little batting to follow.
However, as he would do so often in the late 60s and early 70s, Eknath Solkar held fort while the Viswanath innings flowered into full bloom. At the end of the day, India had reached 204 for 5, with the debutant still there on 69.
The sports pages of the next morning were dominated by a penalty-kick taken on a soccer field thousands of miles away. Against Vasco da Gama, the Brazilian genius Pele had scored his 1,000th goal on November 19.
Yet, to a nation deprived of sporting stars, their own horizon looked bright. Viswanath had not only charted India’s route to safety, he had done so by moulding the venomous offerings of the formidable Australian attack into an exquisite work of art. And November 20, 1969 was his, and his alone.
It was another 53 runs before McKenzie had Solkar edging for 35. At 257 for 6 Viswanath was joined by Srinivas Venkataraghavan, the man at the centre of the riot at Brabourne a few days earlier. The off-spinner was not prepared to give his wicket away, and at the other end, Viswanath carried on with aplomb. He stroked his way to become the sixth Indian to score a century on debut.
He was also the first man to score a duck and a hundred on debut. Andrew Hudson and Mohammad Wasim have achieved this mixed feat since then.
After his hundred, Viswanath carried on, batting in full flow, with those picturesque drives, neat deflection and furious cuts. He reached 137 in close to 6 hours with as many as 25 boundaries before Ashley Mallett trapped him leg before.
As he returned to a standing ovation from a full house of delighted spectators, the score read 306 for 7 and the last threat of defeat had been removed.
Pataudi declared soon after that, and the match ended in a tame draw.
However, a hero had emerged who would bat his way through crisis again and again, every time the artist, across the next decade and a bit, producing glittering gems in the bleakest of circumstances. Viswanath played 90 more times for India, scoring 6080 runs with 14 hundreds.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry.He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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