Life Lived Pinsize

Sadanand Vishwanath and the curse of talent

"Nothing prepares you for when fame suddenly goes away", says Sadanand Vishwanath

was playing Pakistan — and back in the 1980s where this story is set, there was only one way such stories ended: in heartbreak for the Indian fan.

For once, India seemed to have the upper hand — batting first, Pakistan was losing wickets without much to show for it. And yet, hope was a bridge too far because out in the middle, wearing his signature combative attitude  and wielding a bat that was equal parts rapier and bludgeon, was the imposing Javed Miandad.

Laxman Sivaramakrishnan was on — and spin was the one form of bowling that held no terrors for a batsman who was a master of angles and a blur between wickets. The flighted, looping delivery on off was met by the characteristic two-step that took Miandad closer to the pitch, all twinkle toes and manipulative wrists. Only, this ball had been held back just that fraction; it landed ahead of the bat, it bit, it turned fractionally…

Cue magic.

The baby-faced wicket-keeper let the ball settle in his right glove even as his right forefinger reached out to flick the off bail in disdain; the body torqued at the waist, head and torso turned to square leg, left arm outstretched in an imperious gesture that was not so much an appeal as a demand that the umpire applaud supreme skill.

Miandad looked back in disbelief — it was one of only three times the batsman with balletic footwork against spin had been stumped in a one day career spanning 233 games. And my imagination was captivated, then, by a moment of magic vivid enough to remain fresh 27 years since its enactment.

Then captain Sunil Gavaskar said one of the main reasons India improbably won the Benson and Hedges World Series in Australia in 1985 was the presence of Sadananad Vishwanath behind the stumps. The complement almost damned with faint praise; those of us who watched at the time often felt ‘Sada’ was the real captain — setting fields for the bowlers, geeing up the side, forging a partnership with Siva that was a jolt of pure adrenalin into a side manned by tiring veterans.

BACK in 1985, Sadanand Vishwanath was 23, with limitless talent, ditto potential. And then it all disappeared, down a bottle and up his nose — he would only play 14 more one-dayers and three Tests after that magical day.

Now on the cusp of 50, Sada came visiting on the day earlier this week when Indonesia shook and India trembled; oblivious to it all, he looked back on his life with a certain calm resignation. “Fame is heady,” he said. “It is so sudden, it catches you unprepared. It is intoxicating, it gets to your head and messes with it.”

It is now 17 years, going on 18, since he finally accepted the inevitable and announced his official retirement from first class cricket — at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on the same day Kapil Dev equalled Sir Richard Hadlee’s 431 wicket-haul. He has had 17 years to brood about the past, and he does that with an odd  mixture of clarity and denial.

Sada speaks, always, in torrents. You cannot dam the flow, nor divert the conversation where you want it to go — he begins at the beginning, always, and meticulously walks you through every milestone of his life, occasionally pulling out documents, bank receipts, even utilities bills, to underline his points.

It is not as if Fate hadn’t dealt him an unfair share of low blows. Back when he was on the cusp of breaking into the national side, his father committed suicide (“He took potassium cyanide,” Sada chokes the words out). He had barely begun to establish himself when his mother was rushed into open heart surgery, and died in hospital. He had just tasted stardom when he broke his right index finger at precisely the time Syed Kirmani was making a desperate bid to stage a comeback.

He could be forgiven for thinking he was Fortune’s favorite Fool — and he clearly believes that, tending to gloss over his own role in his cricketing demise. “Come on,” he says, “how can you argue that cricketers should live like monks, not party in their spare time?”

The question ignores the proven effects of such ‘spare time partying’, when indulged to excess, on the next day’s performance, but that is a conversational cul de sac Sada prefers to avoid — it is dark and it is scary, and too many personal demons lurk there.

He prefers, instead, to talk of life after fame. Of the beloved girl who captured his heart and captivated his senses and then went off to Australia (“Marriage is necessary. I never got to marry, I never got that sense of stability”).

He talks of his initial struggle to try and earn a benefit game in Sharjah; of a brief foray to the Gulf to hold down a well-paying job only to give it all up and return to India, only to be dumped from his bank team and to resign in a fit of pique, only to find himself at a loose end professionally and financially, only to find a lifeline in the form of then KSCA president Brijesh Patel who named him for a benefit game, only to find that his share of the proceeds turned out to be worth much less than he had dreamt of, built castles in the clouds out of…

He talks of the house he built, funded at least in part on the proceeds of that benefit game, and of how an MNC snapped it up for a phenomenal rent and how, for a space of time, he went around “with several gold chains around my neck and gold rings on my fingers”, only for the MNC to scale down its operations and surrender the house which he hasn’t since been able to rent for anything like the previous sum; he glosses quickly over where those gold chains and gold rings went and talks instead of a more recent impasse with the city corporation, which continues to tax the property at commercial rates though it has reverted to residential use (he lives there now), and how he is struggling to pay those bills…

Life is eked out in painful installments. Having lost his ability and his place in the side, he still wished to have something to do with cricket — and so he passed all the tests and became an umpire. “I get Rs 7,500 for each day I stand — and a maximum of between 30-35 days in a playing year.”

It could be more — but for that, he needs to be upped to the grade of international umpire — passport to a year-round work, financial security, and an annual US $5000-a-day gig standing in the IPL. But for that, he needs the blessings of the S Venkatraghavan-helmed BCCI umpires committee, and he doesn’t have that; he needs a benevolent godfather within the BCCI system, and he doesn’t have that.

“I’ve been umpiring for 17 years — I am the only international player currently umpiring in India. But others, some of them with less than half my experience, get promoted while I wait endlessly, hoping.”

Hope, his Rs 7500-a-day gigs, and the Rs 25,000 monthly pension the BCCI pays him as a former international — that is the balance sheet of Sada’s life today.

Then there are the coaching camps: the first, started in the first flush of official retirement, which he handed over to a friend so he could go chasing after his Sharjah benefit; the next, which he had to stop when the government agency that owned the land reclaimed it for its own use; his brief stint last year in the town of Plano, Texas, where he ran a summer camp for the non-resident Indian population; his current efforts to get yet another coaching camp going, to maybe get another brief gig in the US of A…

 His life story resembles the trajectory of a kite without a controlling string — a continuous free-fall punctuated by the occasional unlooked-for draft that brings a momentary lift of hope before the next precipitous plunge. And yet, that is not how he wants to present himself — or be written about.

“Things haven’t gone my way, but don’t write of me as a failure,” he says. “I’m optimistic; I know if I get the breaks, I can turn everything around.”

Those hoped-for breaks include BCCI president N Srinivasan’s recent assurance that at the end of IPL 5, a sum of money will be paid to each former international (“I heard it is around Rs 7 lakh; do you have any idea when it will be paid out?”); there is the prospect of a zoning ordnance passing the scrutiny of the courts, which will raise the value of his property (“I can sell it for four, five crores; buy two apartments, rent one out, live in the other, bank the rest, do something productive with my time…”).

The irony of it does not escape him, or me — this plot of land on which he plants the hope of a comfortable future is the same land he was gifted by the Karnataka government for his part in winning the B&H World Championship of cricket. 'What might have been' is a question that hangs like a cloud over us as we talk of his future prospects.

As he breaks off to go meet a man about a dog, he says something that, 72 hours later, haunts me.

“You know what?” says Sada in parting, “it is not sudden fame that is the real problem. It is when it all suddenly goes away. Nothing prepares you for that, nothing helps you cope with that sudden plunge into a dark world you know nothing about. It is like hell.”

WHATEVER else that hell is, it is not a lonely place -- confined to it are the many, many precocious talents that failed to negotiate that first encounter with the heady rush of instant fame.

That thought prompted a search, and that search yielded a result: This story, circa February 2008, when NCA director and IPL board member (and commentator and columnist and… but let’s not count the many hats in his closet now) Ravi Shastri came up with one of those grand announcements BCCI honchos trot out from time to time. Quote:

‘Several experts have voiced their concern over junior cricketers like Ishant Sharma being paid so much money but Shastri, who is on the IPL governing council, said there was a plan in place.

'These guys will be at the National Cricket Academy (NCA) before the IPL and and we plan to have some kind of a financial counselling for them there,’ Shastri, the chairman of the NCA, said while commentating for ESPN-Star. ‘The NCA Director Dav Whatmore is on the same page, and is working on this. Maybe even the parents of these cricketers may be invited for the counseling.’

Nothing happened.

Fast forward two years, to when Anil Kumble was moved to write, in a signed column, this

“Someone’s got to look at handling both them and the things that come with playing for India, responsibly. There’s the pressure of performance, the pressure of expectations, pressure from a very intrusive media including former players.

These pressures can be overwhelming for a young man, more so perhaps, for a suddenly rich and famous young man coming to terms with his newfound status.

So I think it’s equally important to prepare him to manage life during and beyond cricket.

At the same time, without getting into which cricketer partied too much or drank too much or got into a brawl, or whether anyone did at all, there’s a need to educate young cricketers about their responsibilities. Not that they don’t know what these are but they need help on how to handle themselves with regard to these.”

Nothing happened.

Anil, later that year, produced a blueprint, a vision if you will, of next steps for the NCA, and it included a detailed brief on man-management.

This time, something happened: the BCCI shot it down, arguing that it was too expensive. Which is in keeping with that body’s mindset: never spend a bent nickel for anything you cannot hang an advertisement on, and sell the rights for.

That is why we have over the years continued to bleed precocious talent — and will continue to hemorrhage our potential.  Meanwhile, I continue to chew the cud of memory — like the one of Sadanand Vishwanath, in a moment of almost casual genius, sending back Javed Miandad — while mourning the many memories he, and many others like him, never got to make for me.

You can reach out to the author on Twitter with thoughts and feedback

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