Seems he’s calling him back.
He’s lost it.
Then they would have buried their face in their hands.
What the crowd wouldn’t have known back then — maybe not even now — was that the real import of the moment lay in the future, in the irretrievable essence of something gone.
But we’ll come to that in a while. More pressing emotions were at play out there in the middle at the Wankhede that day; Robert William Taylor’s obvious annoyance, for instance.
Bob Taylor was angry. England were on their knees, their top order blown away; and now the umpire had got into the act. It galled him the most that there was nothing much he could do about it.
It was 1980 and the umpire’s human finger was still the infallible warrant for exit; decision reviews were unheard of in those days of black-and-white television.
As the crowd looked on, a man in a floppy hat walked up to Taylor.
Did you nick that, he appeared to ask the England wicketkeeper.
No, replied Taylor.
Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath nodded, then walked up to the umpire.
We are withdrawing our appeal, he said.
And so it came to pass that Taylor, doughty Englishman from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, hung on at one end as Ian Botham wrenched the one-off Jubilee Test Match away from India.
Generosity had seldom backfired so spectacularly.
England, five down at 58 and then let off over a hundred runs short of India’s total of 242, made 296, a 54-run first innings lead handy enough for an easy 10-wicket win.
Reprieve comes in many forms, sometimes as a game-changing second chance that redeems the reprieved and the repriever from the purported clockwork of providence. It takes something special to halt the clock.
“For me the spirit of the game is more important than winning or losing a Test,” Viswanath would tell journalists many years later, long after he had exited the ring of fond devotion. “Obviously, as captain, you play hard to win. But there are times when it’s your inner call that tells you what is right.”
Those who remember Viswanath’s gesture that February day would say it was as natural to him as his game. Here was a man who played by his conscience. Were he to nick one, he would walk on his own. Were he to be undone by an error of judgement, he would walk still, a gentleman exemplar of sportsmanship. Not for him ungainly dissent; the sullen precursor of modern-day referrals, cricket’s version of instant karma or absolution. Play was a slice of life, it all evened out in the end.
But why write about somebody largely forgotten these days?
The idea came from a much younger friend, or rather the casual disdain the young often look at with at a generation gone. “I don’t rate Viswanath very high,” the friend had said the other day as a discussion on the just-concluded World Cup 2019 turned inevitably to the game’s past masters. “He was inconsistent.”
Sport, exacting chronicler of genius and mediocrity, has its own gold standard. Greatness isn’t guaranteed even to the finest.
But the friend was right in a way. A batting average of 41.93 is hardly statistics of greatness. Anything in the early forties in cricket is a crowded corridor, like travel by the Tube. Nobody notices anyone.
But occasionally on the Tube, there are people who stand out. Viswanath did — an unobtrusively diminutive maestro among a motley chorus.
It began one winter day many years ago, though few would recollect. For one, many of those who might have remembered have moved on. Time doesn’t wait upon the living.
Then, greater things had taken place that year. Man landed on Moon; Woodstock happened, and half a million in America marched against the Vietnam war.
Into this momentous calendar one day in 1969, a young man, barely twenty, walked out bat in hand in Kanpur, the weight of a scoreless first innings heavy on his mind. By the time he was done, Viswanath had 137 runs to his name.
This November 20, it would be half a century since a young star had dazzled up on the collective consciousness of a nation.
More important than Viswanath’s debut hundred, India were out of the woods against Bill Lawry’s visiting Australians. That was a recurring statistic through the thirteen more hundreds he made, hardly a smorgasbord array of mind-boggling choice, but India never lost a Test match where Viswanath had scored a century.
Some of them were chef’s special — 124 against the West Indies at Chennai, Madras then, on a bouncy pitch (January 1979); 113 at Lord’s (August 1979); 114 against Dennis Lillee and Len Pascoe at Melbourne (February 1981); not to forget the 112 in the epic run chase a few years earlier in Trinidad (April 1976).
From star to idol was a short step, the adulation sealed in the transition from Viswanath to “Vishy”.
Another “Vishy”, master of the chessboard Viswanathan Anand, has since succeeded to the abbreviated mantle of adoration but, for the older generation, Vishy meant the man with the fabled wrists.
Old folks would remember how the bat had angled down that day long time ago, back foot bent in imperceptible courtesy. The square cut is to cricket what a moment is to a climax: a fraction before or after can be fatal.
Few have played the cut as Viswanath has done, cricket’s counter to what the arabesque brings to ballet. Those who have watched Viswanath bat would also remember another stroke he made his own — the square drive, knee and turf in fleeting touch as the ball bulleted away.
A ringing endorsement came from the other “Little Master”, Sunil Gavaskar, his friend, colleague, brother-in-law and partner-in-nomenclature. “I have seen situations when we all struggled, but Vishy would score off the good deliveries. The rest of us, we thought we could keep out the good balls and score off the bad ones. But Vishy, he had four-five strokes to the good balls that were bowled to him,” Gavaskar told the website ESPNcricinfo in 2007.
It’s a tribute that sits well on the unassuming little man from Karnataka, years after he has stepped out of white flannels and into virtual septuagenarian oblivion.
A riveting masterclass from his blade came in January 1975 against the West Indies. An unbeaten 97 in Chennai against an attack that included Andy Roberts.
Anyone who has faced the Antiguan in his prime in those helmetless days would tell you the line between risk and ruin was truly fine.
Wisden, cricket’s venerable Bible, ranked the innings the second finest non-century.
An intriguing thought springs to mind. Would three more runs have guaranteed similar commendation?
Irrelevant really. Records gather and tumble in the lengthening annals of sport, only a few stand out in their sheer magnitude. It’s the manner of play that remains in memory; a sliced drop shot, an insane dribble or a beguiling late cut.
It was Viswanath’s effortless cut that got a whole generation hooked. Boys, now well into tubby middle age, have grown up shadow-practising the square cut and the late cut in front of the privacy of bedroom mirrors. Some, including this writer, even thought they had become reasonably adept. Good the delusion ended early.
Yet, Viswanath could be maddeningly inconsistent. Often he has charmed to deceive, a strolled thirty terminated in the sudden clatter of stumps.
Example: G.R. Viswanath b Norbert Phillip 32 (Eden Gardens, 1978-79). Exasperation has sundry shapes.
Or, at Adelaide, 1981, bowled Pascoe 16, after three boundaries.
That was a fear that hung heavy on the minds of devotees of Vishwanath every time he went out to bat. The fear that it might be over too soon.
A wretched image harks back from the past. New Jersey, June 1988. Michael Spinks sprawled on the ground. It had taken Mike Tyson all of 91 seconds to knock Spinks out, enough time for a first-ball sendoff.
Only the truly devoted would have felt this kind of angst.
An involuntary prayer would form on the lips of his fans as Viswanath reached the crease. As the word Suzanne had formed, like an incantation, on the lips of Len Cohen many years ago.
Through riveted eyes you saw him take guard. Time paused. Time passed. Time unravelled. And then you thanked yourself for just being there, willing even to travel blind.
Fear had faded into the blur of an impeccable caress.