This is your last chance Taz. You'd better give it all you've got. I don't know what you'll do, but you must get wickets. If you don't, I'll have no choice but to drop you for the next game at Madras.
Abid Ali, the Hyderabad captain, spoke these words in a matter of fact voice, but his heart was heavy as he uttered them, because the man he was addressing was the seniormost player in the eleven after the captain himself. The selectors had told him in unequivocal terms that his senior left arm spinner was on trial.
Mumtaz Hussain, the recipient of the bad news, was close to the end of a distinguished career in which he had taken 173 Ranji Trophy wickets at less than twenty runs apiece. He had been a vital part of the Hyderabad spin attack, forging a successful partnership with off spinner Naushir Mehta, no longer a member of the team, having been replaced a few years earlier by me. The occasion was a Ranji Trophy match against Kerala at Kollam.
Initially depressed and dejected, Mumtaz decided on calm reflection, that it was time to unveil the rare bag of tricks he had kept hidden from public view for over a decade. In his Ranji Trophy career, he had stuck to bowling left arm orthodox spin, never attempting the bizarre variety he had unleashed on unsuspecting batsmen in the inter university matches for the Rohinton Baria Cup in the late 1960s. He then had the standard left arm spinner’s stock delivery which left the right hand batsman, bowled a chinaman using his wrist, a googly from the back of the hand, and both these deliveries with a finger spin action for variety. Batsmen were completely foxed by his changes of grip and action, or the lack of either, as they misread ball after ball, until they were bowled, caught, lbw or stumped, simultaneously looking very, very foolish indeed.
One famous victim was Sunil Gavaskar of Bombay University in 1970. He describes in his autobiographical 'Sunny Days' how he shouted to his partner Ramesh Nagdev that he had learnt to read Mumtaz, only to be completely fooled by one that looked like a perfect Chinaman but went the other way.
Wicket-keepers were not immune to the Mumtaz magic either. They had to resort to secret signals to anticipate what would come their way from a Mumtaz Hussain in midseason form.
The first innings was over at Kollam and Kerala was heading for defeat. Not bringing Mumtaz on even for a solitary over in the first innings, Abid Ali tossed the ball, barely seven or eight overs old, to the left arm spinner in the second. He dearly wanted his old teammate to perform well today and save him the embarrassment of being dropped.
In his very first over, Mumtaz attempted a chinaman, despite the newness of the ball. The ball pitched short, but the batsman did not take advantage of the long hop. Very soon, Mumtaz’s length improved reasonably but more important, he bowled a few unplayable deliveries and ended up with a bag of six wickets, though his loose deliveries were hit to the boundary.
The next stop for the Hyderabad team was Chepauk, Madras. The Tamil Nadu batting line-up was formidable, with V. Sivaramakrishnan, V. Krishnaswamy, T. E. Srinivasan and Abdul Jabbar prominent in it. Once again Mumtaz displayed his wares, for the second time after his university days. He was now up against a foe of great talent. There would be no meek surrender this time. He would not find the edge or a defensive blade as often as he encountered in the previous match. Still, Mumtaz claimed five utterly bamboozled batsmen, including Sivaramakrishnan, who went chasing a delivery outside the off stump like one hypnotised, and Krishnaswamy, who was bowled trying to withdraw his bat.
There was a brief moment in cricket history when fame and fortune flirted with Mumtaz Hussain, teasing him and cheating him in the end. He had just completed taking 48 wickets for the season in Rohinton Baria, a record until then, and had been included in the Board President's team to play against the touring West Indies led by Gary Sobers. The other left arm spinner in the squad answered to the name of Bishan Singh Bedi, a young bowler of immense promise. The chairman of selectors was former India captain Ghulam Ahmed--who belonged to Hyderabad--intent on being seen to be scrupulously fair as a selector. When it came to a choice between Bedi and Mumtaz, the local boy naturally lost out, or so the story goes.
Ghulam Ahmed's decision was justified by subsequent events, as Bedi took six wickets in the match and went on to become arguably the world's greatest left arm spinner of all time. But had fate been kind to the Hyderabadi in selection terms, what might have been his future in the game? When Indian batsmen found him practically unreadable, what chance did batsmen overseas enjoy of surviving his wiles and tricks? Had he played against West Indies at Fateh Maidan the day Bedi made such an impressive showing, could the Hyderabadi have made a sensational impact on the world stage?
These questions are merely hypothetical and not for a moment is it being suggested that Mumtaz was a greater bowler than Bedi, but it remains an unsolved mystery of domestic cricket why the former gave up his delightfully mysterious wares, and toed the line as an orthodox spinner in Ranji Trophy cricket, untouched by the greatness that might have been his, had he chosen the other path. Did his captain and seniors tell him to do so in the interest of economy and accuracy, as claimed by his teammates or did he do so of his own volition, as some others have suggested? What heights might he have reached had he continued, considering the way he resumed his old magic from where he left off after a gap of ten years, without any substantial loss of effect?
Mumtaz Hussain is no more today, a victim of cancer. Essentially happy go lucky, he had more than his share of woes in his short life of 52 years. The loss of a daughter a few years earlier was a grievous blow. Yet the enduring image of my old team mate and colleague is that of a man of a cheerful disposition, given to grinning wickedly at batsmen he had fooled.