Tiger’s memories will live on: Vishwanath
They say all relationships come with an expiry date. Sometimes, people pass away before the relationship does, leaving memories lingering in the hearts of those whose lives they touched. When Gundappa Vishwanath learnt about the BCCI’s decision to institute an annual Memorial Lecture to honour Late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, a vivid sequence of words and pictures ran through his mind.
One of India’s greatest Test batsmen, Vishwanath first represented the country under the leadership of Tiger Pataudi, in the 1969 home series against Australia.
With a week to go for the first MAK Pataudi Memorial Lecture – which is to be delivered by Sunil Gavaskar – Vishwanath took a trip down memory lane and graciously allowed bcci.tv to join him. The legend delighted us with the tale of how Tiger hand-picked him into the Indian team as a 20-year-old.
The diminutive Bangalore batsman played 91 Tests, scoring 6080 runs against the most lethal of fast bowling attacks the world over with grit, style and integrity. One of the most liked cricketers, Vishwanath spoke about his mentor, friend and his first India captain with unbridled joy and unabashed awe in a voice filled with gratitude.
The annual MAK Pataudi Memorial Lecture is the first such initiative from the BCCI. Given you shared a strong bond with Mr. Pataudi, how do you feel about this gesture?
It is a wonderful gesture to pay tribute to one of the great cricketers and captains produced by India. There can be no better man to be given this honour. It had to be him. He holds a special place in my career. I made my debut under his captaincy. This is a genuinely great feeling.
They say, Tiger Pataudi taught India how to win. What, according to you, made him stand apart as a leader?
It’s very easy to win as captain when you have great players in your ranks. But Tiger was a leader who built the team and inspired it to win. He never had any great fast bowlers to start with, but he made the most of the resources available to him. We had quality spinners in [Bishen Singh] Bedi, [BS] Chandrasekhar, [Erapalli] Prasanna and Venkat [R Venkataraghavan] then. Instead of ruing the lack of quality pacers as a weakness, Tiger created the strength of his own team by forming the spin quartet. He revolutionised Indian cricket in that regards. He was an inspirational captain.
What kind of personal relationship did you share with him?
I played against him in the Ranji Trophy when he played for Hyderabad and I represented Karnataka. I knew him since then, but it was when I got into the Indian dressing room that I became close to him. He always encouraged me. He often told the senior members of the team that I was the one to watch out for. That gave me a huge confidence boost.
What’s that one aspect of Tiger’s personality that not many people knew?
Since Tiger had come from a royal background, people always presumed him to be aloof and arrogant. Most members of the team didn’t take the initiative to go and speak to him thinking he’s different and superior. But that was the myth created by the ones around him. He wasn’t actually like that. Whoever took the first step and approached him, found out that Tiger was a very friendly and down-to-earth. He was humble, unlike what many made him out to be.
What role did he play in handing you your Test debut in the 1969 home series against Australia?
I was in the pre-series camp held in Mumbai ahead of the first Test. I hadn’t watched any live Test matches before that, so I decided to stay back in Mumbai to watch the first Test. I watched it; it was disappointing as India lost. And the next day, I was preparing to go back to Bangalore. Tiger asked me to stay back. He hinted that I could play the second Test. Sure enough I was making my Test debut at Kanpur. I was only 20 years old and wasn’t expecting to play for India anytime soon. The selectors were a bit sceptical, but Tiger convinced them that I had the talent and was ready for Test cricket. He was impressed after watching me bat in the Ranji Trophy. If it wasn’t for Tiger, I wouldn’t have played Test cricket so soon, and don’t know if and when I’d have played for India.
You scored a naught in your first Test innings and in the second, you made a masterful 137. Was there anything said in between that helped you play that knock?
I got a duck in my first Test innings and was very disappointed. I was very nervous waiting for my turn to bat in the second innings. I was sitting stiff in the dressing room and was watching every ball. Tiger came up to me and said, “Hey boy, just relax.” He advised me to move around and stay loose and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get a century.” I know he just said that to make me feel better, boost my confidence. But the words meant to lot to me; I was motivated and I scored my first Test century.
During the 1975-75 home Test series against the West Indies, Sunil Gavaskar was injured. You played two of your finest innings – 139 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and 97 not-out in Madras (now Chennai) against a rampaging Andy Roberts – to help India square the series. How did you handle the pressure?
I didn’t feel compelled to hold the team’s batting together in Gavaskar’s absence. I didn’t see myself as the team’s best batsman that could replace someone like Gavaskar. While I got constant encouragement from Tiger throughout the series, he didn’t put any pressure on me. I got my space and freedom to bat the way I wanted to, and the rest, as they say, is history.
How was your bond with Tiger after both of you stopped playing cricket? Did you keep in touch?
Oh, it was brilliant! Once you stop playing cricket, it’s not easy to keep in touch with your former teammates. You get busy in your own lives and hardly do you get the time to catch up. But Tiger was one man who always made an effort to reach out. More than me, it was he who would call up once in a while saying, “Hey, I am in Bangalore, so let’s meet,” or he would ask me if I was going to Mumbai anytime. We remained constantly in touch over the phone.
The last time I saw Tiger was at the wedding of Anshuman Gaikwad’s son. That was a long night – all of us caught up, talked for hours about the old days and shared so many stories. I told Tiger that he was the one who made my career. He said, “It was because of your own skill. I haven’t done anything.” Now, although he is not alive, he’ll always be in my memories.