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Abid Ali: A multi-dimensional cricketer who was always in the thick of action on the field

Abid Ali: A multi-dimensional cricketer who was always in the thick of action on the field

Abid Ali scored 78 and 81 in the Sydney Test of his debut series against Australia in 1967. It followed his six-wicket innings haul on his Test debut at Adelaide © Getty Images

The energetic Abid Ali was born on September 9, 1941. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at a man who continues to live two decades after his obituary was written.

Abid Ali was that rare combination of Hyderabadi flair and the exuberance of youth: in an era when fielding and running-between-the-wickets were alien concepts in India, Abid was different in a refreshing fashion. He was dynamic, athletic, energetic, and a sheer delight to watch.

Abid fielded like no Indian did in his era. He ran extremely fast, had the fitness of a gymnast, never gave up, and maintained the same energy level throughout the day. The same applied when he ran between the wickets — his sheer presence converted the ones into twos and twos into threes.

The lithe muscles, the moustachioed face, that supple movement all gave off an aura Indian cricket has never seen before: world-class fitness, inexhaustible stamina, relentless optimism, but all in a very earthy, very Indian package. He could not have hailed from any other nation.

There was more to Abid than the feral prowl and the incessant dynamism. He was a decent medium-paced bowler, and his batting centred on clean hits, deft placements, hard-run singles, and an omnipresent optimism. Had he been born a couple of decades there was every chance of his ruling the shorter formats.

The Hyderabad dynamo scored 8,732 runs at 29.30 with 13 hundreds from 212 First-Class matches. He also picked up 397 wickets at 28.55 with 14 five-fors. An occasional wicket-keeper to complete his all-round talent, Abid finished with 190 catches and five stumpings.

At the highest level, though, Abid’s role was mostly restricted to taking the shine off the new ball before the Indian spinners came on. Once the bowling bit was out the way he became a part of the group that prowled like hungry birds of prey around the bat — along with Eknath Solkar, Sunil Gavaskar, Ajit Wadekar, and Srinivas Venkataraghavan himself — the group that played a crucial role in the success of the spinners.

Abid picked up 47 wickets from 29 Tests at a modest 42.12. Batting low down the order he scored 1,018 runs at 20.36. He also took 32 catches. Other than the positions ridiculously close to the wicket, Abid was also an exceptional outfielder renowned for covering a lot of ground with his rapid strides and throwing the ball flat and unerringly.

Early days

From an early age, Abid loved the joy of catching the ball and stopping runs. He used to visit Hyderabad’s Fateh Maidan every morning, watered the heavy roller, and then threw the ball on it and caught it whichever direction it went.

He could be at it for hours. It was not homework or an assignment given to him; it was his passion. “Fielding is an art which one has to enjoy in order to excel,” was his philosophy, and he lived up to it till the last day he played.

While attending St George’s Grammar School and All Saints School in Hyderabad he was selected to play for Hyderabad Schools. In the tournament, he scored 82 against Kerala and won the Award for the Best Fielder. He eventually found a job in State Bank of India.

Abid started off as a specialist batsman who could make it to any Indian side on the basis of fielding alone — though he could also keep wickets quite efficiently. He made his way through the junior levels rapidly. Making his Ranji Trophy debut against Andhra at home, however, he was almost a bundle of nerves.

Sensing his anxiety to get off the mark, ML Jaisimha, the Hyderabad captain, walked up to Abid and said “I am ready, man, just take a single.” So Abid sprinted for his first run, scored 51 (Jaisimha made 124), and was off the mark. It was, however, his last match of the tournament.

The next match — the opening match of the next season against Andhra at Secunderabad — was a high-profile affair. With men like Abbas Ali Baig and Asif Iqbal in the middle-order Abid was asked to open. He scored a polished 61 to set a platform for an innings victory.

However, the fifties dried out after that, and runs did not come as frequently as he would have liked. Meanwhile, in his fourth season, Jaisimha threw the ball to Abid in the match against Andhra at Anantpur with the opposition on the verge of an innings-defeat. Abid picked up his first wicket by having K Radhakrishna out caught. That single wicket brought out a hitherto unknown bowler in Abid. He had bowled 20 balls in his first four seasons, but bowled 756 in his fifth and 1,116 in his sixth. Suddenly he emerged as an all-rounder.

The 1965-66 season was a watershed for Abid. He scored his first hundred against Vazir Sultan Tobacco Colts XI (led by ‘Tiger’ Pataudi, and featuring the likes of Ambar Roy, Surinder Amarnath, Kailash Gattani, Venkat, and Solkar). Opening batting he scored 144 and featured in century partnerships for the first two wickets.

Later that season he saved State Bank of India against Khandu Rangnekar’s XI at Indore — a bowling attack that boasted of Ramakant Desai, Rusi Surti, Chandu Borde, and Bapu Nadkarni. Trailing by 165 he saw his side to safety with a patient 140 not out. He also picked up five wickets in the match.

By now he had also started opening the bowling for Hyderabad. He picked up four for 75 against State Bank of India at Hyderabad, and bettered it with four for 20 against Andhra at Kothagudem (and followed the haul with three for 26 in the second innings).

He picked up a wicket in another match against Andhra at Visakhapatnam in the first innings, and with Venkatesh Rao injured, he kept wickets in the second innings, holding a catch and effecting three stumpings.

Abid finished the season with 581 runs at 48.41 with two hundreds, 27 wickets at 19.71, six catches, and four stumpings. It remains one of the greatest all-round season performances for Hyderabad. From a champion fielder who could bat a bit Abid had evolved to Hyderabad’s most valuable player — opening both batting and bowling.

The elusive five-for came against Madras at home when he picked up five for 63 (and scored 55). The next month he bettered it against Kerala at Sirpur-Kagaznagar with a haul of six for 64 (he also picked up two for 50 in the second innings, and scored 59 and 28). Within a season and a half he was ready for the top-level. Indeed, he made it to the twin tours of Australia and New Zealand next season.

Test debut

Abid began the tour decently, but did not really take Australia by storm. He picked up two wickets against South Australia at Adelaide and scored a match-saving 61 against Tasmania at Hobart, but little else of note. Then, with Pataudi pulling out of the first Test at Adelaide Abid was given his Test cap.

As the third seamer Abid was possibly expected to take the send down a few overs and give Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and EAS Prasanna some more time before the ball got old; coming in after the Surti and the other debutant Umesh Kulkarni, Abid had Bill Lawry caught behind after a 99-run opening partnership. And 19 minutes later, he had Bobby Simpson caught-and-bowled.

Prasanna then scalped three wickets, but Australia recovered to 311 for five when Abid struck again, this time clean bowling Barry Jarman. In a short burst, he picked up three more wickets and Australia collapsed to 335. Abid finished with six for 55 on debut. It was the first time an Indian bowler took six wickets in an innings on Test debut. Unfortunately it would turn out to be Abid’s only Test five-for.

He scored 33 in each innings and got Cowper again but could not prevent a defeat. He remains the only Indian to have scored 50 runs and have picked up five wickets on Test debut.

India were whitewashed that series, but Abid came good again in the final Test. He took his customary wicket of Cowper, and being promoted to an opener by now, he top-scored with a 123-ball 78 out of the 111 scored during his stay at the wicket. He gave the bowling what Wisden referred to as “cavalier treatment”, and things seemed to be getting out of hand of the Australians before he got out hit-wicket.

A total of 342 seemed a big target, but Abid went about it with all guns blazing. He top-scored yet again — this time with a 165-ball 81. As in the first innings (where he had hit five boundaries) he relied on hard-run singles with only three hits to the fence. However, at this stage Lawry brought on Bob Cowper, who had Abid caught at slip. From 145 for two India collapsed to 197 against the unlikely pair of Simpson (five for 59) and Cowper (four for 49). The 81 would remain Abid’s highest Test score.

Abid played a hand in India’s first overseas Test victory as well — picking up four for 26 at Dunedin in an innings dominated by spinners. It opened the floodgates, and India went on to win their first series away from home. On return Abid was named an Indian Cricket Cricketer of the Year.

The 1971 victories

Abid continued to contribute, scoring a fifty here and chipping in with a few wickets there, and always setting the ground alive with his fielding. A run of lean performances saw him being dropped after the first Test against Australia at Bombay in 1969-70, but he was eventually recalled for the West Indies tour of 1971.

He had also got a chance to play against Pakistan for a Rest of the World XI at Karachi in 1970-71; he was the only Indian to make it to the side apart from Farokh Engineer. The side boasted of the likes of Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Dennis Amiss, Lance Gibbs, Geoff Arnold, and Pakistani Hanif Mohammad. Abid opened with Hanif and added 105 in the fourth innings.

Despite an ordinary start Abid was selected as an opening batsman for the first Test at Sabina Park possibly due to Gavaskar’s injury. He scored six and Abid could bowl. It meant that when Gavaskar eventually made his debut at Queen’s Park Oval, it was Jayantilal —he had score five — who got the axe, and not Abid.

Abid grabbed the opportunity, and how! The first ball of the match was a yorker on Roy Fredericks’ toe which crashed on to the stumps. Shortly afterwards he managed to bowl Lloyd as well, and West Indies slumped to 62 for four. They eventually recovered to 214.

Abid came out to bat at 300 for six and launched an attack. The 20-run cameo came out of a 30-run partnership with Solkar, and helped stretch the lead to 138. Set a target of 125 India were cruising along with Gavaskar and Ashok Mankad putting up a 74-run stand.

Then Arthur Barrett struck with three quick wickets, reducing India to 84 for three. Wadekar held back himself and Solkar and promoted Abid instead: he wanted to disturb Barrett’s rhythm with Abid’s ability to rotate the strike, which was precisely what happened.

Then, with victory in sight, he did something rather unusual for someone coming from a country that has produced cricketers who were always keen to hog the limelight. As Clayton Murzello wrote in Mid-Day, he “deliberately tapped a full-toss from leg-break bowler Arthur Barrett to give debutant Gavaskar the honour of scoring the winning runs.” Abid later told in an interview to Sportstar: “It was just to give him [Gavaskar] that feeling of immense satisfaction.”

He did a commendable job in the remaining three Tests as well: he scored 50 not out at Bourda; on a placid Kensington Oval he picked up two for 127 and three for 70 as the match petered out to a high-scoring draw; and in the last Test at Queen’s Park Oval Abid picked up had a quick burst, removing John Shepherd, Kanhai, and Sobers (the last two in consecutive balls) to reduce West Indies to 50 for four. They grimly hung on to a draw with 165 for eight.

Abid was an obvious choice for the England tour. After a quiet Lord’s Test he jolted the England top-order at Old Trafford, picking up John Jameson, John Edrich, Keith Fletcher, and Basil D’Oliveira to reduce England to 41 for four. In the third Test at The Oval he walked out to join Engineer with only four runs to be scored.

Abid Ali: A multi-dimensional cricketer who was always in the thick of action on the field

Abid Ali (left) scores the winning runs off Brian Luckhurst in the 1971 Oval Test to give India it’s first-ever series win in England. Farokh Engineer is the non-striker. Abid Ali was also there in the middle when India beat the West Indies at Port of Spain earlier that year which gave them their first-ever series victory in the West Indies © Getty Images

This time he wasn’t willing to forego the opportunity: he cut Brian Luckhurst past point to bring up the winning runs. He was thus the man who was at the crease during both historic victories, and was a part of the first three overseas series victories of India.

Abid had a quiet series against England at home, but consistent performances at home saw him make it to the 1974 tour of England.

An abrupt end

Abid began the tour quite well. India won only two of their first 12 tour games (they drew the other ten). At The Oval Abid bowled out Surrey for 85 with six for 23 as Indians won by ten wickets. Then, in the next match against Derbyshire at Derby Abid led the rout again with five for 103: Indians won by eight wickets.

The Indians lost in the Test at Old Trafford, but Abid did a commendable job. On a green-top he picked up four for 70, but it was his batting that stood out in the Test. With India reduced to 143 for seven in response to England’s 328 he counterattacked, providing Gavaskar with the support he needed. The pair added 85 in 101 minutes before Gavaskar fell; Abid was last out for a 93-ball 71.

That was the hardest India fought in that series — before they were blown away at Lord’s and were defeated by an innings again at Edgbaston.

Abid was retained for the home series against West Indies at home. He played the first two Tests without doing a lot and India lost both. By now Karsan Ghavri and Madan Lal — both decent with the bat — had arrived on the international scenario, and Abid’s Test career came to a halt.

He got a chance in the inaugural World Cup next year. Abid picked up Fletcher and Tony Greig against England at Lord’s, picked up two for 22 against East Africa at Headingley and two for 35 against New Zealand at Old Trafford. He also top-scored with a 98-ball 70 in the third ODI in what was his only chance to bat in the tournament.

Abid finished his One-Day International (ODI) career with 93 runs at 31.00 and a strike rate of 70.45 along with seven wickets at 26.71 with an economy rate of 3.33 from five matches. It was probably an indication of what could have been.

Back to domestic cricket

Abid continued to deliver at domestic level, playing on till 1978-79, excelling with both bat and ball. He was named the captain of Hyderabad towards his final playing days. After Prasanna had made Hyderabad follow-on at Bangalore with figures of seven for 70, Abid gritted it out against the wily off-spinner, scoring 59 and saving the match. He announced his retirement after that match.

Post-retirement

Abid coached the Hyderabad Junior team before moving to California in 1980. He was probably not amused when Engineer told on air that Abid had passed away. As a result of this faux pas Abid’s obituaries were published all over media. “That was hell of an experience to read that you are dead after a successful, by-pass surgery. How can such things happen? It is amazing!” was the retort.

Abid went on to coach Maldives in the late 1990s, Andhra in 2001-02, and United Arab Emirates from 2002 to 2005. His son, Syed Faqeer Ali, played for World XI against Asian XI in a match involving an ensemble cast at New York in 1999. Faqeer went on to marry Syed Kirmani’s daughter. He passed away from a heart attack on April 19, 2008, casting on Abid perhaps the severest possible blow a father can endure.

Abid Ali: A multi-dimensional cricketer who was always in the thick of action on the field

Abid Ali coached the United Arab Emirates from 2002 to 2005 © AFP

Abid hasn’t given up. He still coaches at the Stanford Cricket Academy in California. He rues the fact that Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has always considered him ‘a foreigner’ and has generally overlooked him for coaching assignments. He still continues to stand as an umpire in the Northern California Cricket Association League.

Abid was rewarded with a sum of Rs 1,500,000 after an exhibition match between Mohammad Azharuddin XI and Arjuna Ranatunga XI in 1998. He was still fighting financial issues when the BCCI granted him a reward worth Rs 6,000,000 in 2012.

(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 Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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