Electric on the field and eloquent off it, Sadanand Viswanath was a charmer. However, a series of setbacks, personal and professional, meant that the gifted wicketkeeper-batsmen was lost to the game

Kapil Dev is his biggest fan. “What a waste of talent,” Kapil laments. “He was electric.” Sadanand Viswanath was indeed electric, athletic, enigmatic, and, to an extent erratic. He was only 26 when he made his last international appearance, against the West Indies in a One Day International, at Ahmedabad in 1988. He lasted a couple of seasons more on the domestic circuit and gave up.

A series of setbacks, personal and professional, meant that one of the most gifted wicketkeeper-batsmen was lost to the game. To drown his personal sorrows, Vishy, as he prefers to call himself, went off to Dubai, worked for less than a year, got disillusioned and returned to India. He quit his Syndicate Bank job, was devastated following the death of dear friend Ranjit Khanwilkar in a train accident and, for some years, struggled on all fronts but fought on. “I was a fighter, you know that,” he asserts, his voice firm as ever. Now he takes solace from spirituality.

When I remind him how Kapil still raves about his wicket-keeping, Viswanath becomes emotional. “It is heartening to know that. I always looked up to Kapil. It was Kapil’s Angels, and not Devils, who won the World Cup in 1983 and inspired a generation of cricketers. His 175 (not out) changed the face of Indian cricket. It revitalised the country as a whole. That was the starting point for me and it was a great experience when I played alongside some of my childhood heroes at the Benson and Hedges World Championship of Cricket (in 1985).”

Viswanath had visited Zimbabwe in 1984 as part of a team led by Ravi Shastri. “I learnt a lot on that trip from Ravi. It was nice to have Naren Tamhane as manager on that tour because he gave me some fantastic insight into the art of wicket-keeping. The Zimbabwe tour was great education. Apart from the cricket, I remember the Victoria Falls, the mist, the rainbow. I am a great lover of nature.”

The Zimbabwe tour was followed by the sad demise of his father. Viswanath was to lose his mother soon after he returned from the WCC triumph in Australia the next year. He was shattered and left alone literally. “The win in Australia helped me become an officer from a clerk but personally I lost so much.”

Viswanath has a lot of praise for Shastri. “It was Ravi who mentioned my name to Sunny (Sunil Gavaskar), who was a great influence on my cricket. His presence was magical. I liked the way Sunny took on the management for the sake of the players. I am a passionate cricket lover and I just loved Sunny’s flamboyance.”

There was a time when Viswanath was planning to shift to Mumbai to seek “better cricket opportunities in the Tatas cricket team.” But he decided to stay back in Bangalore and went to Syndicate Bank where he kept wickets to (BS) Chandresekhar as an 18-year-old. “He was a mysterious bowler and helped me learn early lessons in keeping to spinners.” Viswanath was adept in standing up to the seamers too. Once he stood up for Kapil and came to grief. “He bowled a bouncer,” laughed Viswanath.

He loved making friends and learning different cultures. On the 1981 tour to England as part of the India under-25 squad, he stood among a huge crowd outside London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. “There was a lot of pushing and jostling but I had to be there and I did not miss it. It was indeed a fairytale wedding.” He also remembers a dinner when manager Chandu Borde invited him to interact with Farokh Engineer.

Among his fond memories is the victory over Bombay in Bombay in the 1982-83 Ranji Trophy final. “Brijesh (Patel) led admirably and we became the first team to beat Bombay in its own backyard. I was proud to be a member of that fantastic Karnataka team.” Viswanath’s contribution was awesome, 92 and 77 apart from two catches in each innings. His first-class aggregate read 3158 runs in 74 matches with 145 catches and 34 stumpings.

His best, however, came at the WCC. Plucking incredible catches and making some stunning stumpings placed Viswanath in the category of top international wicketkeepers. The slanging match with Javed Miandad suited his personality because he loved challenges. “Javed called me a jaanwar (animal) and I gave it back to him when LS (Sivaramakrishnan) got him in the final. The ball is vivid. It looped and dropped short as Javed stepped out and stood flummoxed.”

The WCC propelled him to international stardom. He was also a popular man within the team. Gavaskar wrote in One Day Wonders, “Sadanand looked alert (in the team meeting) and it was obvious that in the few hours between our landing and the team meeting he had done some shopping. He had taken a tram to the city centre and walked to the shopping area, found out the various prices, found where the restaurants were, the grocery store and the Laundromat. Sadanand’s influence on our team was remarkable. He consistently boosted our spirits with his peppy style of keeping and speaking to bowlers and fielders.” Gavaskar also credited Viswanath with giving the “best speech” at a function hosted in Singapore for the Indian team. Viswanath, who played three Tests and 22 ODIs, was a champion behind the stumps. He rarely grassed catches and his anticipation gave him ample time to pull off those stumpings and read an impending run out. His instructions to the fielder to which end he had to throw the ball were often spot on. Also, Viswanath was a brilliant student of the game and spotted quickly a batsman’s discomfort against a particular bowler.

“These lessons were picked over a period of time. I did not pay much attention to defeats because the victories had to be savoured long. One has to follow the dreams and let the natural instincts take over. That’s why I revere Kapil and Sunny. They are great pillars of Indian cricket.”

The dashing wicketkeeper’s philosophy is simple. “You should be able to focus on the first ball of the day and be alert enough to pull off a stumping off the last ball of the day. Wicket-keeping is a mental job. As wicketkeeper, you are the centrifugal force of the team, the key figure. You have to be in the zone and you have to love the job.”

His association with the game continues. Viswanath, 50, is aiming to become an international umpire after spending years doing the job in the domestic cricket. “I am looking at umpiring because I believe I can make it big. Life is wonderful and I accept life as it is.”

(Part 9 of a 12-part series on forgotten heroes of Indian cricket)