There was a popular theory in the 1970s that the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup was Hyderabad’s answer to drought. Usually the season opener, the tournament had some of the best combinations in India fight for a gold cup in the name of a former local aristocrat. It was held in August-September, and invariably rain interfered with the progress of the event. Even on the few occasions the tournament was conducted at other times of the year, the rain gods decided to visit Fateh Maidan where the cricket was in progress. When in 1972 or thereabouts, a severe drought was broken by thundershowers and a truncated final, people were convinced that it was divine retribution or mercy at play, depending on whether they belonged to the cricket association or the water-starved general public.
It was without doubt the premier cricket event in India outside of Test matches. All the Test players and the best of the rest took part in this invitation tournament. The Lal Bahadur Stadium wore a festive look for a fortnight, all the matches being played at the same venue up until the 1980s. They were three-day affairs and regarded as first class fixtures until over limitation was introduced in 1974 to make for results and exciting finishes as opposed to drawn games. These were not slam bang affairs, at least in the first innings of 90 overs each, but sometimes the second innings of 40 overs could produce exciting run chases. The decision to withdraw first class status was an unfair one, as much of the cricket on view those days was superior to most inter-state matches. It also meant players had fewer first class runs and wickets against their names. In a limited career, I for example, finished with 96 wickets in 25 first class matches, while recognition of Moin-ud-Dowla would have given an additional fifty or so. Worse was the case of a number of excellent cricketers, who, in such a scenario, would have been eligible for the BCCI's pension plan for former cricketers. I managed to qualify by the skin of my teeth, having played exactly 25 first class matches, but my friend Nagesh Hammand fell short. He would have gained if Moin-ud-Dowla had continued to be treated as first class cricket.
I played in the tournament for five or six years in the 1970s, bowling my first ball at that level of cricket to Rohan Kanhai. Behind that most unusual occurrence lay a tale—a tale so astonishing that I might have been forgiven for believing that I was destined for international recognition. (I have described in an earlier chapter the miraculous circumstances which took me from Anakapalle, a tiny but thriving business centre in Andhra Pradesh, to Hyderabad and inclusion in the State Bank of India's star-studded cricket team, followed by a long wait for a permanent place in the playing eleven. Throughout that frustrating period, when my captains Habib Ahmed first, and D Govindraj later, preferred another off spinner, G Mohan to me, a few of my teammates—Indian wicket keeper P Krishnamurti, Nagesh Hammand, Sultan Saleem and Lyn Edwards—had kept my morale up, by constantly encouraging me to believe I was India material, when I was not even a local regular).
Going earlier than reporting time to the Nizam College ground for a league match one morning in 1974, I found my friend and mentor, the late Krishnamurti, already there, sitting on a cement bench under a tree. By this time, I had more or less lost interest in cricket, with time spent at home with a young wife and new-born daughter a vastly more exciting prospect than continuing to work hard at cricket with no prospect of breaking into the big league, as Noshir Mehta was firmly entrenched in the Hyderabad team. I had actually begun to be casual about my cricket gear, having more or less decided to quit the game to focus on my work at the bank.
Krishnamurti took one look at my footwear and burst out in a volley of abuse. “Have you taken leave of your senses?” he said to me. “Are you a G Division player, wearing these cheap Bata shoes only rickshawallahs wear? Do you look like someone about to play for an international XI in Moin-ud-Dowla?”
I was astonished and thrilled when Murti explained he had persuaded HCA secretary P R Man Singh who fielded the Hindustan Breweries XI in the tournament to include me in the team as the top off spinners Prasanna and Venkataraghavan were not available and Noshir Mehta was playing for Hyderabad in the Gold Cup. Man Singh had been scouring the length and breadth of India to find an off spinner good enough to play alongside Pataudi (captain), Kanhai, Budhi Kunderan, Anura Tennekoon, Duleep Mendis, David Heyn, Russell Hamer, Tony Opatha, Krishnamurti,Kailash Ghattani and William Anderson Bourne, a West Indies-Warwickshire fast bowler who promised much but never graduated to Test cricket. Man had been on the verge of calling Rehmat Baig, a Hyderaabd-born NIS coach serving the armed forces at the time, when Murti somehow managed to convince him that I was good enough to belong in that exalted company.
It was a proud moment when I received my official call-up letter, with my name appearing at the bottom of a distinguished list of players. Readers of the newspaper announcement of the team must surely have been perplexed to find my name in the team, as I had never played for the state, nor even for the all India State Bank of India team, our prospective opponents in the first round. It was an even prouder moment, when, seated behind some senior cricketers watching an earlier match in the Gold Cup, I overheard my former skipper Habib Ahmed—the one who had once laughed patronisingly after I took three wickets in an over in a league match (“Not bad, this guy has come in useful”, he had said)—tell my new captain MAK Pataudi, “Look out for this lad Ramnarayan, he's a great prospect.” And Pataudi soon asked me to bowl to him in the nets, where, in my eagerness to impress, I gave him a torrid time on an unplayable drying wicket, a very unprofessional thing to do to a batsman looking for some practice. 'Tiger' was sporting enough not to mind my immature exhibition; he in fact went so far as to tell Habib I was a match winner.
A huge surprise awaited me the next day at the nets. I had barely sent down a few deliveries, excited beyond words by the august company I was keeping, when Pataudi called me aside. “Ram, go and bowl in the other nets. Chhotu wants you there.” Nonplussed, I went over to meet Hanumant Singh, the Chhotu Tiger was referring to, and a former prince like the Nawab of Pataudi, who was also the captain of the State Bank of India team, our opponents of the morrow. Hanumant explained to me that he had decided to hijack me from the Breweries XI. I was going to play for State Bank tomorrow! I immediately saw the hand of Syed Abid Ali, Indian all rounder, who was grinning at me from behind Hanumant. Abid had been one of my great supporters in Hyderabad cricket, and he had put a simple question to Hanumant: “Why should our off spinner play for our opponents?”
I was both disappointed and elated at the turn of events. I had looked forward to playing for the Breweries XI, which was truly international in its composition, with my boyhood hero Kanhai from the West Indies, five cricketers from Sri Lanka and Budhi Kunderan now settled in Scotland. At the same time, selection to the bank's all India team was a huge promotion, as I had not even been picked for its Hyderabad team in its inter-circle tournament. It was as star-studded as the Breweries XI too. G R Viswanath, Hanumant Singh, Syed Kirmani, and Abid Ali were Test cricketers and most of the other members were knocking on the doors of Test cricket.
We won the toss and batted first. Our openers Gopal Bose and Madhu Gupte gave us a flying start, Viswanath and Kirmani ran into mid-season form and we made over 400 in rapid time. Poor William Anderson Bourne was belted all over the park and had to be content with a solitary wicket—mine. When Hindustan Breweries batted, they lost an early wicket. In walked Rohan Kanhai to a grand welcome by the crowd and all of us on the field as well. I couldn't believe my luck when Hanumant handed me the ball as soon as Kanhai took guard. Nervous as hell, I bowled my first ball a little wide of the off stump, and Kanhai, obviously rusty from lack of practice, flashed at the ball; and missed! Despite that encouragement, I did not bowl the rest of the over very well and the veteran picked a couple of easy runs. That was the last over of the day.
The weather gods decided to smile on us. It rained in the early hours next morning. Only those who have played cricket in our era, when it was allowed to leave the wicket uncovered, can appreciate the difficulties of batting on a wicket drenched by rain, once the sun starts beating down on it afterwards. The ball tended to turn and jump alarmingly. It was a dream wicket for an off spinner to bowl on, and I was licking my fingers in anticipation. Play started about an hour late, and Hanumant straightaway started the proceedings with spin—unfortunately, not with me. Fellow off spinner Arun Ogiral (Rajasthan) and Zahid Ali Khan (Hyderabad) ran through the top order, Ogiral in particular proving to be devastating. He took five wickets including Kanhai's scalp, and Zahid took three. I did not get to bowl until towards the end of the innings. The wicket improved by then and though I took two tail-end wickets, I did nothing of great note.
Worse was to follow. We won the match by virtue of our first innings lead and entered the final of the tournament. I was looking forward to bowling to the U-Foam XI batsmen—the likes of Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathy Sharma, Mike Dalvi and M L Jaisimha, when Hanumant Singh summoned me to his room on the first floor of the stadium. The rooms overlooked the cricket ground, and you could watch the action from the front veranda. Chhotu seated me there and made me feel comfortable with his affectionate conversation and a couple of beers, before dropping a bombshell. He was dropping from the eleven for the final. The great Haryana left arm spinner Rajinder Goel was to replace me. The U-Foam batsmen were all very strong against off spin bowling, so the captain had decided to go into the final with two left arm spinners—Goel and Zahid. There was no question of dropping Ogiral, as he had taken five wickets in the semifinal. Moreover, he had been going through a rough patch, even dropped by his club in Bombay, and this was just the encouragement he needed.
Hanumant Singh went to assure me that I was a better spinner than Ogiral and Zahid and that I had a bright future. Hyderabad skipper Jaisimha and Pataudi thought highly of my bowling and I would soon find myself in the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy squad. “You must work harder, though. I hear you miss practice sometimes, saying you are busy at work. The bank lets off cricketers to practise, doesn't it?” I tried to explain that my career was more important to me than cricket with the uncertain future it held for me. There was no way the state selectors were going to replace Noshir Mehta with me. His father was the chairman of the committee and I didn't see the other selectors proposing my name ahead of his son's, even if the old man was willing to give me a fair break. “You are being unfair to the selctors, Ram,” Hanumant said. “I'll take a bet you will play for Hyderabad this year. If you don't, I'll eat my words. I'll retire from first class cricket.”
Hanumant's solicitude greatly reduced my disappointment. During our conversation, he gave me plenty of technical advice on my bowling, advice I never forgot. It was to stand me in good stead throughout my career. When I failed to get into the Hyderabad team that year, I toyed with the idea of sending Chhotu a telegram reminding him of his threat to quit cricket, but did not actually do it. He had taken so much trouble over my cricket, when he hardly knew me. It made me a better, stronger cricketer.