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Abbas Ali Baig: From Oxford University to a Test debut hundred at age 20

Abbas Ali Baig: From Oxford University to a Test debut hundred at age 20

The Indian team at The Oval: Standing (from left) – Ramprakash Mehra (official), EAS Prasanna, D Govindraj, Bishan Singh Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar, Ashok Mankad, Pochiah Krishnamurthy, Kenia Jayantilal, Syed Abid Ali and Hemu Adhikari (Manager). Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, Gundappa Viswanath,. Sitting (from left) – Dilip Sardesai, Abbas Ali Baig, Ajit Wadekar (captain), S Venkataraghavan (vice-captain), Farokh Engineer. Kneeling (from left): Syed Kirmani, GR Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar and Eknath Solkar © Getty Images

Abbas Ali Baig, once the youngest Indian to score a Test hundred, was born on March 19, 1939. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of a charismatic batsman that was unfortunately limited to 12 Tests.

The debut

Indian cricket were in a state of woes in the late 1950s, having gone through a stretch of seven Tests with six different captains. They were 0-3 down in the series in England, and everyone had anticipated a whitewash. To add to their woes, their mainstay Vijay Manjrekar was injured just before the fourth Test at Old Trafford, and the 20-year old Abbas Ali Baig was drafted in from Oxford University to make his Test debut.

Once considered a child prodigy, Baig had made his First-Class debut at an age of 15. He had made a name playing for Hyderabad, and had been studying at Oxford University. Earlier that season he had gone past Derrick de Saram’s 283 (208 and 75) to score 308 (221 not out and —87) against Free Foresters — an Oxford record that still stands.

Colin Cowdrey had declared the innings closed at the stumps on the third day, asking the Indians to score 548 for an impossible victory. India lost Pankaj Roy early, and the debutant, having scored 26 in the first innings and having impressed everyone with some excellent fielding, walked out to join Nari Contractor.

Seldom has a batsman this elegant taken up bat for India. With his fleet-footed movement, incredible hand-eye coordination, and dazzling strokeplay, Baig lit up a dull Old Trafford. Contractor provided him with able support, and the duo added 109 runs in their contrasting styles of batsmanship.

Then ‘Dusty’ Rhodes struck twice in quick succession, and when Baig was on 85, he was hit on his right temple by a bouncer from Rhodes. Baig had to retire, and India finished the day at 236 for four. He walked out again the next day at the fall of the fifth wicket to join the experienced Polly Umrigar.

Rhodes was brought on immediately after Baig arrived at the crease, and the Derbyshire fast bowler bounced at him. He kept on bouncing at him, but the kid did not flinch — cutting, pulling, and hooking his way to a hundred on debut. He also became the youngest Indian to score a hundred at 20 years 126 days — 11 days short of Madhav Apte’s existing record. He also became the first Indian to score a hundred on his Test debut outside India.

India crossed 300, and suddenly a victory seemed on the cards, with both of them running profusely for tight singles. Then Baig drove one to Ted Dexter at long-on, who threw the ball to Roy Swetman, who broke the stumps with Baig short of his crease. He had scored 112 on Test debut. With his departure, though, the match was over, and India collapsed in a heap to 376 with Umrigar scoring 118.

The decline and the kiss

After his spectacular debut hundred, Baig seemed to be one for the future. However, he did little of note, barring a crucial 36 in India’s maiden Test victory against Australia. With the series levelled 1-1, there was a general excitement leading up to the third Test at Brabourne Stadium, Bombay.

With a strong bowling line-up comprising of Alan Davidson, Ray Lindwall, Ian Meckiff, and Richie Benaud, Australia went into the Test as strong favourites. Baig walked out to join his old mate Contractor, and the two of them put up 133 for the third wicket before Baig fell for a cautious 50.

Trailing by 98, India were 112 for four when Baig was joined by the nimble-footed Ramnath Kenny. They defied the Australian attack, and both of them remained unbeaten till Gulabrai Ramchand closed the Indian innings with a farcical declaration. Baig remained unbeaten on 58 and Kenny 55 when they returned to the pavilion.

The innings was not without a famous non-cricketing incident, though — that has now become a part of Indian cricket folklore. When Baig and Kenny were on their way back at tea-break, a girl of around 20 in her frocks ran out of the North Stand and intercepted Baig on his way back. In Baig’s own words, “I was returning to the pavilion at tea when this girl jumped the fence and kissed me”. A startled Vijay Merchant, commentating on All India Radio, complained: “I wonder where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring my hundreds and 200s”.

The kiss, the first of its kind during a Test on Indian soil, soon became a topic of discussion all over the country. The incident made its way into literature when Aurora, the mother of Moraes Zogoiby aka Moor (the protagonist in Salman Rushdie’s 1995 book The Moor’s Last Sigh), drew a painting called The Kissing of Abbas Ali Baig.

Baig missed the last two Tests of the series, and was selected for the Pakistan series that followed. However, he scored 34 from four innings in the series against Pakistan, and was dropped from the side promptly. He made it to the tour of West Indies in 1960-61, but did not get to play a single Test.

His achievements did not stop him from being nominated an Indian Cricketer of the Year for 1959-60.

The second innings

Baig served Hyderabad faithfully, and along with stars like Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, ML Jaisimha, Abid Ali, Kenia Jayantilal, Pochiah Krishnamurthy and Asif Iqbal, who later captained Pakistan. Baig formed a strong nucleus that made Hyderabad one of the most attractive Ranji Trophy teams during Bombay’s dominance in the 1960s and 1970s. Baig was also signed up by Somerset during this period for three consecutive seasons from 1960 to 1962.

Meanwhile, Baig made his back to the Test side for one last stint — against West Indies in the ill-fated 1966-67 series as the reward for a strong domestic season. Wes Hall’s pace proved too much for him in the first innings at Bombay, but he scored a defiant 42 in the second innings. He scored four and six in the next Test at Calcutta (where India lost by plenty), which also turned out to be his last.

He came close to being selected for the 1971 tour of West Indies, and though he made it to the England tour that followed, he was not selected for a single Test — the selection committee preferred Ashok Mankad instead. It did not help his cause that he scored only 526 runs on the tour at 25.04.

He played his last First-Class match in 1975-76, and finished with 12,367 runs at 34.16 with 21 hundreds. His 10 Tests had yielded 428 runs at 23.77 with the solitary debut hundred. The jinx that had continued to haunt Indian Test debut centurions held true for him as well — he did not score a second hundred. It took Gundappa Viswanath, who arrived almost a decade after Baig did, to lift the curse.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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