By Navneet Mundhra
Salim Durani is a mystical figure among the titans of Indian cricket. He could change the course of the matches swiftly and win them by the genius of his batting or bowling. The most cherished memory of his cricketing career is when he nipped out Clive Lloyd and Gary Sobers in quick succession in the second innings of the 1971 Port-of-Spain Test. Those blows were instrumental in India going on to clinch the Test and, in the process, their first away-series victory over mighty the West Indies.
Durani was hailed as a prodigious talent by all his contemporaries. In 1961-62, Sir Frank Worrell compared him with Sobers for his multi-skilled abilities. But despite bountiful laurels from all quarters and enviable pedigree, Durani had a chequered career - he played only 29 Tests in an international career spanning 13 years. His Test record, though impressive, is not reflective of his outstanding all-round prowess. Appellations like ‘unpredictable’ or ‘wayward genius’ and ‘charming maverick’ are often used to describe him.
He was a swashbuckling batsman, who was renowned for slamming sixes on public demand. As an efficient left-arm spinner, he would lazily amble in and belt out deliveries which had the zip to flummox the best of batsmen. He had little consideration for personal records and milestones; for him relishing every moment on the cricket field was the only tenet. He was a crowd-puller in true sense.
Everything about Durani was larger than life. He was a dashing, handsome man with copious munificence. He was a rage among women, who would drool over his good looks, flamboyance and charming demeanour. In fact, his dashing looks saw him act in a Bollywood film, “Charithra" opposite Parveen Babi.
Generosity was another virtue which Durani wore on his sleeves. Sunil Gavaskar once said that when he had just started his first-career as a youngster, Durani and he were travelling in a train going for a match. Winter had just set in and Gavaskar forgot to take the blanket along with him. Gavaskar was shivering in the cold at night during the train journey. When Durani saw him, he gave his blanket to Gavaskar. The Little Master woke up in the morning, and was shocked to see Durani huddled up to keep himself warm. “I couldn’t believe his gesture. An established Test cricketer had given his only blanket to a young, unknown Ranji Trophy player,” recalled Gavaskar.
Durani earned the moniker, “Prince Salim” for his large-heartedness.
His monumental popularity among the people could be gauged by the fact that once when his name was omitted from the Indian team in 1972-72, people protested on the roads holding the placards, “No Durani, No Test”
Watching IPL, one couldn’t help but think that had Durani played in this era, he would have been the undisputed star of the show owing to his barn-storming all-round exploits and unfettered audacity. He was an enigmatic and unalloyed entertainer who would pull crowd in hordes. The T20 format looks tailor-made for a man of Durani’s wares and mystique.
Excerpts from an interview:
CricketCountry (CC): Your contemporaries christened you as a ‘genius’ and you vindicated their opinion by unleashing a slew of spectacular performances yet why did you only play 29 Test matches?
Salim Durani (SM): If you look at my Test career closely, Whenever, I was dropped from the team, my performance had been fine. When I was axed from the Indian squad in 1966 after the first Test match against West Indies at Mumbai, I had made 55 and 17 runs respectively. The reason quoted was my discipline as I could not join the team in time at Calcutta for the second Test. That was because my wife was ill and hospitalised. I was then dropped for the tours of England and Australia that followed. In fact, I was discarded from the team for five long years until I made it to the squad which toured Caribbean in 1971.
During the second Test in the 1971 series in the West Indies, I dismissed Lloyd and Sobers at a crucial juncture in their second innings and India went on to win the Test. But I was again dropped after the third Test and was not selected for the tour of England which followed the Caribbean tour. I performed exceptionally well in the domestic season. In the 1972 domestic season, I helped Central Zone lift the Duleep Trophy for the first time. The noted cricket writer KN Prabhu wrote a piece in the Times of India with the headline, “Duleep Trophy or Durani Trophy?”
Later in 1972-73, when England team, led by Tony Lewis, visited India, I was recalled for the second Test at Eden gardens, Kolkata. I knocked off 53 runs in India’s second innings (out of the total of 155), highest score by a batsman in that innings, and India won the Test by 28 runs. In the third Test at Chennai, India needed 86 runs to win in the fourth innings, I cracked 38 runs (I think, the best innings I played in my Test career), when the wickets were tumbling at the other end, and India, eventually, squeaked home by four wickets. And in the final match of the series at Bombay, I made 73 and 37 runs. Unfortunately, I was never picked again after this Test.
I would like to believe that I deserved to play more than 29 Tests but I don’t fret over it, neither do I have any rancour against anyone. Probably, I didn’t have any godfather to back me but the fact that people still remember and acknowledge my achievements is the biggest reward I could have ever asked for.
CC: Your career statistics are impressive but still many believe that they don’t portray the true picture of your incredible calibre. In fact, late Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi said that one of his biggest regret as the captain was that he could not handle you well and take the best out of you. Do you feel that you under-achieved in international cricket?
SM: Honestly, I didn’t care for the personal milestones and records. All I wanted was to perform for the team to the best of my abilities. Sometimes I succeeded, and at times I failed. I could have batted in a manner to improve my career numbers, but I wasn’t made that way. It was against my conscience to put myself ahead of the team. I am glad that my small contributions helped my team win matches. Be it the couple of wickets against West Indies at Port-of-Spain, Trinidad in 1971 or my two innings of 38 against England at Chennai in 1972-73.
As far as Pataudi is concerned, he was the best captain I played under. He was always aggressive and enterprising in approach. Look, he had to manage not just me but 14 other cricketers as well, so he couldn’t possibly channelise all his energy on me. I am, solely, responsible for all my performances, good or otherwise.
CC: Frank Worrell once compared you with the great Gary Sobers.
SM: That was mighty generous of Sir Frank. But Gary’s cricketing abilities were streets ahead of me. He is the greatest all-rounder the world has seen. Cricketers like him are born once in 200 years. His abilities were akin to three cricketers. Besides being a great batsman and a bowler, he was a brilliant fielder as well. Whether batting or fielding, he would pounce on the ball like a ferocious tiger.
CC: You were the first cricketer to win Arjuna Award. That must be very satisfying?
SM: Yes, definitely. Arjuna Award is given by the government of India for outstanding achievement in sports and I am elated that my humble contribution was acknowledged at such an early stage of my career. I chalked up eight and 10 wickets respectively in the consecutive Test matches against the visiting England side and my team romped home in both the Tests. I came good with bat as well and we won the five Test series by 2-0. England team was formidable and had great batsmen like Ted Dexter and Ken Barrington in their squad. I won the Arjuna Award after my performance in the Test series.
CC: You had a long association with Rajasthan cricket and you played for them in Ranji Trophy for many years. Please share some of your memories.
SM: Firstly, I must credit Maharana Bhagwat Singh Mewar of Udaipur who was a great admirer of cricket and took keen interest in the fortunes of Rajasthan cricket. He pitch-forked many Test cricketers, like Vijay Manjrekar, Vinoo Mankad and Rusi Surti in Rajasthan side. We reached the Ranji final seven times in ten years but lost to Bombay every time. People of Rajasthan are exceedingly warm and it has become my second home for the last 50 years. The feeling of not winning Ranji Trophy rankled for years till the current Rajasthan team won the trophy two years in a row.
CC: What are your views on current Rajasthan team? What, according to you, worked in their favour in last two seasons?
SD: The current Rajasthan team is a very balanced side with the right mix of experience and youth. Three professionals, Hrishikesh Kanitkar, the captain, Aakash Chopra and Rashmi Ranjan Parida did a meritorious job. They injected professionalism in the team and inspired youngsters by their sparkling individual performances.
Vineet Saxena is one of the best batsmen on bad wickets I have ever seen. His technique is impregnable and his presence on the crease is phlegmatic. His both the innings against Haryana in the Ranji Trophy semi-final this year, on a spiteful wicket, were the best innings of the tournament and, arguably, two of the best ever played by a Rajasthan batsman. He, along with his opening partner Aakash Chopra, lays the foundation and the middle order is redoubtable with Kanitkar and Parida coming at No. 3 and 4. Robin Bist bats at No. 5 and he is currently the best young batsman in India. He notched up more than 1000 runs in last Ranji season and I am sure he will score many more runs (and centuries) in the years to come, not only for Rajasthan but also for India.
Ashok Menaria is a very promising youngster with all-round abilities. His left-arm spin bowling lends variety to Rajasthan’s bowling attack. Pankaj Singh leads the team attack with gusto and has been remarkably consistent from last three years. I feel he is the unsung hero of Rajasthan. I have high expectations from Deepak Chahar and Rituraj Singh as well. Both of them have been impressing in their brief careers.
CC: What is your take on IPL? Don’t you think that IPL would have been tailor-made for someone with your kind of abilities?
SM: IPL is great entertainment and I would have loved to play T20 cricket. It draws huge crowd and people now see it as a family outing. They go to the stadium, cheer their favourite team and players and enjoy themselves thoroughly for three hours. The biggest advantage of IPL is that young domestic cricketers get a global platform to exhibit their talent and a couple of fine performances ensure them recognition and rich dividends.
But Test cricket remains unchallenged. Test cricket will always remain sacred because one needs to be mentally and physically fit not just for three hours, but for five days. And only players with good technique and temperament can survive in the long run.
IPL does require certain set of skills but I would never judge a player’s ability on the basis of his showing in IPL. Likewise, the criteria for selection in Indian team must be the performance in Ranji Trophy and not IPL. I wish the BCCI brings the IPL flair in our domestic tournaments. That will help our domestic cricket and we’ll see more quality youngsters coming through. Cricketers who slog away relentlessly in domestic circuit deserve much than what they are getting now.
(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)