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'I stepped out of the whirlpool'

An account of the highs and lows in the life of former Indian wicketkeeper Sadanand Viswanath who now revels in his role as umpire in domestic Indian cricket

Sriram Veera

Back then: Sadanand Viswanath with a fan © Mid Day
Fame. Tragedy. A battle with the bottle. Hope. Dream. Faith. Sadanand Viswanath has been to hell and back. After 14 years as an umpire, the 'A' Test between Australia and India in Bangalore is his first major game - and, possibly, his redemption song.
"The angry young days of Vishy are over," he says as dusk descends on the Chinnaswamy Stadium. "It has been some rollercoaster ride but it's about finding peace now. I have made my share of mistakes (but) I managed to step out of the whirlpool."
Indian cricket's shooting star of the 1980s, Viswanath acquired a huge fan following with his sleight of hand behind the stumps, his boisterous camaraderie with seniors and his flamboyant personality. Sunil Gavaskar, in his book One-Day Wonders, says one of the main reasons for India winning the World Championship of Cricket in 1985 "was the presence of Sadanand Viswanath behind the stumps."
"Fame does funny things," Viswanath says. "The adoration from the fans is indescribable. You have to be there to understand it."
He had it all. Then, suddenly, the lights went out.
He'd already dealt with tragedy once, when his father committed suicide - following financial problems - in 1984, a few months before he made it to the Indian team. His cricketing achievements helped overcome that but an even bigger calamity awaited.
In 1985, just before he went on the tour of Sri Lanka, his mother underwent open-heart surgery. She never recovered. That was the beginning of the end for 'Sada'; a broken finger hampered his wicketkeeping and, though he picked up six dismissals to equal the Indian record in his last Test against Sri Lanka at Kandy, he was out of the reckoning next season.
Fame does funny things. The adoration from the fans is indescribable. You have to be there to understand it. One should go out on a high and leave the public lingering with a happy memory.
Syed Kirmani, whom he had startled as a teenager a few years earlier while hitching a scooter ride - "Kiri, one day I will take the gloves from you" - came back with a vengeance and waiting in the wings were Kiran More and Chandrakant Pandit. Sada, emotionally vulnerable and "trying to get his life in order", couldn't handle the competition.
There followed a failed relationship and a battle with alcohol, which resulted in his giving up cricket. "Yes, I went over the limit, attended great parties where I had lots of alcohol but, luckily, I never reached the point of no return. To fill that personal void people turn to alcohol but you don't make it the core of your existence. It was about looking for affection, a shoulder to cry on ... a cry in the wilderness."
He refuses to blame anyone for that period, calling it a cause-and-effect situation. "I knew then that if I get my thoughts right and go towards my target I will get back what I achieved."
Having quit the game, he left the country and moved to the Middle East on a 14-day visa. He advertised for a job in the local papers; offers came but he was hesitant to join. "With two days left for my visa to expire, the friend who'd brought me to the Middle East introduced me to an NRI, Raghuram Shetty, who offered me a job."
His salary was 4,000 dirhams; his first paycheque was celebrated over a bottle of Johnnie Walker. But - there is always a 'but' in Sada's life - he longed for India, for home. "They told me the first year is the most difficult in the Gulf. If you survive that, you are fine. But I couldn't stay after seven months. India was where I was adored, loved and the people I cared for lived there. I returned home and rejoined my bank job [in Bangalore] after a month."
This was in 1991, and for four years he lived a relatively anonymous life. But in 1995, determined to break out of the sedentary lifestyle, he quit the bank when they transferred him out of Bangalore. The finances dried up and he moved out of his rented house into a hotel where he lived for five years.

Now: Sadanand the umpire © Mid Day
"Hotel Kamadenu [now closed down] offered me a room at a monthly rent of 2500 rupees, which was cheaper than the house." Sada shared a room with a chef from a five-star hotel and began thinking his way out of the mess. "Friends suggested a benefit match for me; [the then state chief minister] Ramakrishna Hegde had given me a plot of land in Bangalore after the World Championship of Cricket and I wanted to develop that."
He spoke to Imran Khan and the Pakistanis and a couple of West Indians about an India v Rest of the World game but it never happened. A few years later, a match between "Hansie Cronje's Devils" and "Indian Angels" fell through when Cronje was found guilty of match-fixing.
In between, his second innings - in the game, in life itself - began. A letter arrived from the Indian board asking if he was interested in appearing for the umpiring examinations. "Ten of us, including Kirmani, Bishen Singh Bedi and Lalchand Rajput, landed up in Hyderabad. I did well in the viva...that made me dream of living a life with cricket."
Not long after, he met officials of the Karnataka State Cricket Association [KSCA] including the secretary, the former India player Brijesh Patel, and was informed of his benefit match. "It was 2003, 16 years after I last played the game."
To ensure the money wasn't frittered away, Patel put it in a joint account with the association. Soon an auto showroom opened on his plot of land and "finally", as he says, the financial worries eased.
However, the loneliness has remained as he looks to take a bigger step in his umpiring career. "I have a coaching camp and i am busy with that for three days in a week. I have been umpiring for the past 14 years. I just wait every year for the season to start. With a promotion, I will be officiating in 15 games, instead of six games currently, which means 60 days of umpiring."
Life is certainly looking up for Sada. "Thankfully, with the help of friends, the KSCA, Brijesh Patel and the BCCI, along with my sheer determination to keep fighting, I've kept to the right path. Tomorrow nobody should say here was an Indian keeper who went down the dark abyss. That's not a good thing to hear."
"You should go out on a high and leave the public lingering with a happy memory."
Fate denied Sadanand Viswanath that exit the first time around; now he has a chance to make amends.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo