A year had passed since Hanumant's wager. My cricketing prospects were getting dimmer by the day. My workload at the bank was heavy and I was one of a few officers of the public sector State Bank targeted by a boss keen to cover his posterior in the face of some crude attempts by an all powerful ruling party to find scapegoats for their failures in priority sector lending. I had given up all hope of making it to the Hyderabad team in the Ranji Trophy and even walked out of a zonal match midway with a high fever, something I would not have done in earlier years.
Miraculously, my luck turned one fine morning. My rival Noshir Mehta was drafted into the State Bank of India team for Moin-ud-Dowla—like Abid Ali, he belonged to our subsidiary State Bank of Hyderabad and qualified to play for SBI. This opened a vacancy in the Hyderabad team for the Gold Cup and the selectors included me in the squad ahead of younger contenders like future Test off spinners Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub, who were both still university students.
I wasn't exactly overjoyed. I had had a couple of false alarms earlier and my enthusiasm was now singularly lacking in the first fine rapture. As I said earlier, I hadn't been in the best of practice, having missed some games during the season. The work pressure at the office was high and I had been smoking quite a bit. So it was that I trudged reluctantly to the Hyderabad nets on a wet afternoon long after the scheduled start of practice. I had a bad cough and cold, and told my captain Abbas Ali Baig I was unfit for the game on the morrow. It had been raining and the practice wickets were wet, so Abbas was having a knock outside the nets with a young marker throwing a few balls at him. “Come and bowl,” he ordered me, and I obliged, still in my working clothes. After some ten minutes, he said to me with finality, “Nothing wrong with you. Sleep well tonight and come back in the morning. You are playing.”
As the host team, we had been given a bye, and we were already into the second round. Our opponents were Vazir Sultan Colts, some of India's most promising youngsters bunched together into a motley crew. They were led by Anshuman Gaekwad, a young batsman from Baroda who had made a gallant debut against Clive Lloyd's West Indies team that toured India the previous season. Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Arun Lal and P Ramesh were some of the other youngsters in the side to have made a mark in first class cricket.
The Colts won the toss and elected to bat. We shot them out for 73, my share of the spoils being 4 for 22 in some 15 overs or so. My spin partner Mumtaz Hussain took three of the remaining wickets. Mumtaz was a huge talent at university level, holding the record for the highest number of wickets in a season, at 49. The record had stood from 1968 or so but would soon be broken by S K Patel of Madras University, another left arm spinner. Mumtaz was still a brilliant fielder and attacking batsman as he had been in his college days, but his bowling no longer posed the multiple threats to batsmen it had earlier, when he used to send down a bewildering array of unreadable deliveries. He was now an orthodox left arm spinner, accurate and intelligent, but no match winner.
Mumtaz and I were colleagues in the bank, and I was a great fan of his cricket, yearning for his approval of my bowling. Unfortunately, for most of our careers, Mumtaz remained a critic of my cricket—my bowling, my fielding, my attitude, all of which he looked at with a somewhat jaundiced eye. That day, too, his praise of my bowling was muted. “You should have finished with seven or eight wickets, today. You didn't bowl as well as you can.” I don't know what his intention was, but these remarks stung me to the quick and strengthened my resolve to do well in the matches to follow.
We won the match comfortably and qualified to meet U-Foam XI in the semifinals. It was led by M L Jaisimha, the man who had been Hyderabad captain for over 20 years then. It was because players like Jai turned out for other teams in the Gold Cup, that people like me got into the Hyderabad team. That year there were as many as six players in the second string Hyderabad team who were not part of the Ranji Trophy squad already selected. U-Foam were formidable. Besides Jaisimha, they had players like Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathi Sharma, Mike Dalvi, Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Kailash Ghattani and a number of promising young Hyderabad players.
The first two days' play was completely washed out by rain. The ground was very wet on the third day too, but it had stopped raining. After a number of inspections by the umpires, it was decided to play a 30 overs a side match. The only alternative was to decide the winner of the match through a toss. “Jai is so confident he can beat us, he has bullied the umpires to start the game,” my friend and teammate Vijay Paul said. “That would be better than risking the toss.” He was probably right, as the ground was so soggy and muddy, no match would normally have started in those conditions.
If Jai thought his team would rout us in the shortened game, he could not have been more wrong. We had in our team younger legs and greater experience of over-limit cricket than our opponents. Batting first we made 99 for 8 in the allotted thirty overs, with our openers C R Chandran and Inder Raj giving us a flying start. The score was equal to about 200 in normal conditions, so difficult it was to score boundaries or even twos and threes on it, except when a fielder found it tough to reach the ball through the slush. When U-Foam batted, they found our medium pacers Jyoti Prasad and Govind Raj too hot to handle. They were bundled out for exactly 60 runs. I didn't have to bowl at all. We were through to the final!
The final was against a superb all round team led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi—JK XI. Two prolific scorers in domestic cricket, Laxman Singh and Rajeshwar Vats of Central Zone, opened the innings. Abdul Hai, Salim Durrani, Surinder Amarnath, Pataudi, Mohinder Amarnath and Karsan Ghavri followed. The tail was brought up by wicket keeper Ved Raj (or was it someone else?), off spinner Ranjan Baindoor and left arm spinner Rajinder Singh Hans.
As you can see from the list, there were five left handers in the batting line-up, including Hai, Durrani and Surinder Amarnath in the top order. JK batted first. There was much start-stop-start as it rained intermittently. I think I came on to bowl in the last hour of play. I enjoyed a big stroke of luck, once I overcame my nervousness and settled down to a length. Laxman Singh miscued an on drive and the ball ballooned over Nagesh Hammand at mid-on. It should have been a simple catch, but as Nagesh took a couple of steps back to get under the ball, he slipped and nearly lost balance. A superb athlete and fielder, Nagesh managed to recover quickly and hold on to the catch.
As it often happens, that first wicket improved my bowling—and my confidence—miles. At that very moment, another piece of luck came my way. In walked the brilliant left hand batsman, Abdul Hai, known for his strokeplay and tall scores in domestic cricket. The one thing in my favour as he took guard was that we played against each other regularly in Hyderabad. And I invariably got his wicket—a twin advantage now, as I was confident I could get him, and he must be nervous against me. Abdul did not last long as he became my next victim.
Wonder of wonders! The next batsman too turned out to be one against whom I felt I had a chance. I had once bowled to Salim Durrani on a fiery matting wicket in Madras, beating him many times. Having a few catches dropped off my bowling, I did not dismiss him that day, but now, when I saw him, I felt a great adrenaline surge. I was all fired up to do my best against a world class batsman, with my memory of that long ago day spurring me on. I fired a vicious off spinner on the off and middle and Durrani edged it into the wicket keeper's gloves.
The ball I bowled to dismiss Surinder Amarnath was perhaps the best delivery I ever bowled. Going round the wicket, I bowled what could only be described as a right arm bowler's arm ball to a left hander from wide of the crease. Suri went to cut but his middle stump was knocked out before he could bring his bat down. I had Tiger Pataudi dropped by Inder Raj and Mohinder Amarnath played a beautiful unbeaten innings as JK crashed to 175 all out. My tally was 8 for 75 and I had nailed all five left handers.
Despite a few hiccups along the way, we won the Gold Cup after a lapse of 11 years. At the end of the match, the state selectors added my name to the already announced Hyderabad Ranji squad as its 16th member. I had arrived at last!
Many circumstances had conspired to bring about this happy conclusion, beginning with Noshir's inclusion in the State Bank team, and the decision to hold a 30 overs a side semifinal between us and U-Foam, enabling us to enter the final, without my having to bowl an over. The catch Nagesh held despite slipping, the sight of Abdul Hai and Salim Durrani at the crease, each bringing out the best in me for a different reason, all these were serendipitous occurrences that helped me along.
One other crucial factor was Abbas Ali Baig's captaincy. I had played a number of matches under him for Hyderabad Zone in the local zonal tournament, and he had invariably nagged me constantly on the field of play, only to praise me to the skies after the match. Nothing I ever did seemed to please him on the field, yet he kept me on for long spells. In the Moin-ud-Dowla final, he suddenly stopped harassing me with his constant advice and admonition. He let me be my own man for the first time. Perhaps I had earned my spurs with him. Whatever the reason behind his change of manner, he was happy and proud that one of his boys had come good, and that we had regained the Gold Cup.