Thursday, April 2, 2009

Platinum cricket: Hyderabad's jubilee

The Hyderabad Cricket Assocation is celebrating its platinum jubilee on 14 April 2009. Here’s my tribute to its great cricketers during my time.

ML Jaisimha. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Abbas Ali Baig. Syed Abid Ali. What a constellation of stars! My peers and I were privileged to rub shoulders with these outstanding cricketers in the Hyderabad line-up of the 1970s. It was perhaps the most glamorous outfit in Indian cricket then, comparable with the Test team. People queued up, at least in the major centres, to buy tickets to watch our team in action. I remember the 30,000 strong crowd that watched Tiger Pataudi score 198 at Chepauk and the cricket mad fans at smaller centres. I remember the train journeys in which the team was closeted together sometimes for longer than 24 hours, and the relaxed atmosphere of those trips. I remember how knowledgeable and wise was our skipper Jai, the most stylish cricketer to walk on our grounds. I remember how dashing and handsome was our Abubhai, serious competition to the youngest team member in the department of sex appeal even in his thirties! I remember the brilliant all rounder Abid—who can ever forget him?—my brother, mentor and critic, without whom our dressing room would have been a dull place. I remember Tiger Pataudi, who blended so quietly into the strictly working class background of our team, even if he was the most charismatic cricketer India ever produced. Noshir, Mumtaz, Nagesh, Sultan Salim, Vijay Paul, Jayantilal, Krishnamurti, Prahalad, Narasimha Rao, Jyoti Prasad, Abdul Hai—a powerhouse of talent welcomed me into the Hyderabad team when I made my Ranji Trophy debut at the ripe old age of 28 in the 1975-76 season.

It was a great Hyderabad team all right—let nobody tell you otherwise—skilful, civilized, elegant, no matter that we did not win the Ranji Trophy. But allow me to digress a bit and talk of the many splendid cricket friends outside of that team who made my life in Hyderabad memorable. Let me speak of the day I reported at State Bank of India, Hyderabad LHO, on transfer from small town Anakapalle, not knowing what the telegram that read “Report to Hyderabad LHO on 1st July” meant, until I met the Personnel Officer who informed me I was to join the cricket team. My joy knew no bounds, as I hadn’t played the game for two seasons since joining the bank as a probationary officer. My benefactor Satyadev was someone I had never met; he was working at SBI, Vizag, and knowing my interest in resuming my cricket, he told his friend Prabhakar Raju who in turn informed his boss the personnel officer! Raju was soon my teammate and I don’t know if he and Satyadev knew that they had changed my life forever with that single act of kindness. Another guardian angel in the personnel department was VS Sudhir, who made sure I did not get transferred out of Hyderabad during the days I was yet to cement my place in the SBI team.

The SBI team was then almost as good as the Hyderabad team: Habib Ahmed, Govindraj, Krishnamurti, Mumtaz Husain, Murtuza Ali Baig, Mazhar Ali Baig, Ali Hassan, Manohar Sharma, Nagesh Hamand, Sultan Salim, Lyn Edwards, G Mohan, Abid Zainulabudeen and Prabhakar Raju. I am sure I am forgetting a couple of names, but there were a few guest players like Inder Raj, Muthukrishnan and Ali Hussain, Hassan’s twin brother, who did duty for us sometimes, as though the regular galaxy wasn’t enough to keep me out of the eleven!

Once the initial excitement wore out, I realised that I was no more than a filler in the team, especially as skipper Govindraj preferred G Mohan’s off spin and occasional skipper Habib Ahmed, already a veteran, did not know much about me. The many-splendoured Mumtaz Husain too did not approve of my bowling for a long time to come. My cricket career in Hyderabad would have died even before it was born but for the fantastic support I enjoyed from the likes of Krishnamurti, Nagesh and Salim and to some extent from Lyn, before he left for Australia. I will be an ungrateful wretch if I do not dedicate any success I enjoyed later in my cricket entirely to these wonderful friends, who, though of my age or thereabouts, mentored me and encouraged me, literally bullying me to keep fighting, when I was about to give up cricket altogether. This was after two years of hard work had not won me a regular place in the Bank’s eleven, my earlier experience as a Madras University bowler and the zillions of overs I was sending down in the nets not seeming to count at all.

This superb trio of friends would keep my spirits up by telling me I was good enough to play for India, leave alone the State Bank team in the local league. In fact, I had sort of ‘retired’ from cricket for a few months, when one Sunday morning in the 1973-74 season, some four of my teammates landed up at home and literally abducted me to play a match against Gujarati XI in the first round of Behram-ud-Dowla. I won’t go into the details, but that was the turning point in my cricket, because I took six wickets that day and never looked back. The team management had met a few days earlier and decided that I should be brought back into the team, by force if necessary and given a fair trial until I fulfilled my potential. By this time my seniors Manohar Sharma, Murtuza Ali Baig and Habib Ahmed had recognized the merit in my protest and decision to exit league cricket.

Other unforgettable personal memories are those of the great time I had playing for Hyderabad XI in the local zonal team under the captaincies of Abbas Ali Baig and Abid Ali, and the year I broke into the Ranji team as the 16th member of an already picked squad after taking 8 for 75 against JK XI in the final of the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup, which Hyderabad won after a gap of 11 years. The captain was again Abbas.

The memories come in a flood: of the superb talent of Bob and Joe, Narasimha Rao and Jyoti Prasad. I think Bob, a stylish batsman and match winning bowler in the BS Chandrasekhar mould, would have been a greater cricketer had he not been obsessed with playing for India, and lost focus at a lower level. Jyoti was a brave all rounder, his big heart lifting his undeniable all round talent—sharp medium pacer, hard hitting batsman, brilliant short leg—to better than his best, especially when the chips were down. He would have walked into the Indian one-day squad had he played cricket a little later than he did. These two were for a while inseparable friends and loved by all their peers and seniors. Nagesh Hamand. What a murderer of all kinds of bowlers, especially off spinners. For quite a while, he had a paralyzing weakness against left arm spin which he overcame too late for him to defeat lack of opportunity, even unfair treatment, to become a force to reckon with in first class cricket. Sultan Salim was a boy prodigy who did not rise to the great heights expected of him. A stylish batsman, he was and is a stylish man off the field as well. Like Nagesh and Murti, he too is a loyal friend who loves to relive the wonderful days in the sun we all shared.

And Murti, Pochia Krishnamurti! When comes another like him? A brilliant wicket keeper and on his day an exciting batsman, he was good enough to play five Tests for India in the West Indies, before the start of the Syed Kirmani era. Off the field, he was a simple soul and a true friend. I owe my entire cricket to him. He and another dear friend CR Chandran were very close to me, except during an unfortunate episode when we were on opposite sides, and looking back, I feel my behaviour then was unforgivable. Both have left us, and I salute their memory. Chandran was a very talented opening batsman and new ball bowler, a handsome young man who tried always to look and walk like Amitabh Bachchan. He and Inder Raj gave the team flying starts. Unforgettable was one particular opening stand for Andhra Bank against the visiting Ceylon Tobacco XI. Their fast bowler Ranjan Gunatilleke was a genuine quickie but this unusual opening pair treated him with scant regard. Each batsman tried to outdo the other in the outrageous shots he played. Poor Ranjan!

Murtuza Ali Baig was already a part time cricketer by the time I started playing for SBI, but I caught a few glimpses of the calm, correct batsmanship that had stood him in good stead in his Oxford Blue days. I liked his quiet humour too, and many were the occasions we enjoyed smiles if not a laugh together. He was a manager and I a field officer at the time and I remember one league match when he and I left for the bank while the rest of the team decided to enjoy a nice communal beer after a match was rained off. The opponents too joined in the festivities and their captain could not resist taking a dig at us. “State Bank will collapse if Murtuz and Ram don’t go back,” he sneered. It was none other than Murtuz’s elder brother Abbas.

I happened to play for two brilliant sides in Hyderabad—State Bank from 1971 to 1976 and Andhra Bank from 1976 to 1980. I enjoyed both stints. It was a fantastic experience to share the spin attack with Mumtaz Husain and Nagesh for State Bank, and Bob, Meher Baba and MN Ravikumar forAndhra Bank. Mumtaz was a phenomenon in the 1960s when he wove magic in inter-university cricket with his bewildering mixture of orthodox left arm spin, chinamen and googlies, all bowled in a variety of ways. For most of his distinguished Ranji career, he stuck to orthodox bowling, but displayed his entire range in his last season for Hyderabad. Those lucky enough to witness his bowling against Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the 1978-79 season will never forget it. Nagesh was a brilliant off spinner, but luckily for me, he concentrated on his batting. He was also an effective medium pace bowler when in the mood, and a shrewd captain to boot.

The Andhra Bank team had a lovely bunch of cricketers, most of them considerably junior to me by the time I joined them, but I’ll speak of the spinners first. Narasimha Rao, Bob or Bobjee to everyone, was a magnificent athlete, who could field brilliantly anywhere. His batting was on orthodox lines, very straight and aggressive in intent, with strong wrists and a wide range of shots. His bowling was very accurate for its unorthodox style of fastish leg breaks and googlies. He was unplayable on some wickets and I remember occasions when wicket keepers were hit on the face off his bowling. His best bowling figures came against Tamil Nadu in 1980-81, but he was equally good against Bengal and UP in successive knockout round matches under his own captaincy in 1978-79.

Meher Baba was a fine all rounder who played for Andhra Bank and Andhra in the Ranji Trophy, except for one season when he turned out for Hyderabad. He was my teammate and constant companion, and a very dear friend. Unfortunately, like Murti and Mumtaz before him, he too was snatched away prematurely from us. Many were his sterling exploits for Andhra Bank, and he, Ravikumar and I enjoyed a nice partnership as spinners, with Bobjee away most of the time in Ireland. Meher had a gift for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment and had us all in splits most of the time. To relate all his exploits will take up too much space here, so I will give just one example. Meher, Shivlal, Shahid Akbar and I were walking down Colaba Causeway during a trip to Bombay for a Deodhar game, when we passed the secretariat with the Ashoka Chakra on the fa├žade and the national flag fluttering in the breeze. “Look Ram, Indian Embassy!” Meher said. When I gave him a long, hard look, he corrected himself hastily: “Oh no, that’s in Delhi, isn’t it?”

Ravikumar was a very talented all rounder, a fine opening batsman with a lot of time to play, and a delightful off spinner who never turned the ball, yet beat batsmen in the air. He once took nine wickets in an innings for Andhra Bank against State Bank of Hyderabad in my absence and never let me forget it, because my best for the bank had been an eight-wicket haul.

Jyoti, Chandran, Vijay Paul—one of the best domestic batsmen not to have played for India—Hafiz, H Ramprasad, Mujtaba Ali Baig, Mazhar, Dilip Reddy, Inder Raj, Meher, Ravikumar, Bobjee, Nihal Puri, Bhaskar Ramamurthy, KN Charan—these were my teammates for most of my four years in Andhra Bank, every moment of which I enjoyed thoroughly, but I’m sure I have left out a few names. Each of these was a fine cricketer and I can write pages about them, but I’ll reserve it for another day. We were a happy unit and were always in and out of one another’s homes. The most unforgettable experience was after a final between Andhra Bank and Syndicate Bank ended in a tie. Both teams came to my house for drinks and dinner and the fellowship was unbelievable. Vinod Reddy, Moses Nityanand, Shivkumar, Jugal Kishore and Sainath are some of the Syndicate Bank players I remember from that evening, though Chamundeswarnath made only a brief experience, with a black eye and other injuries he sustained after the match!

There were several others who supported us from behind the scenes—the late Blessington Thomas, Ramesam, Sam Ebenezer, Gopal, basketballer Yadgiri, footballer Rammohan, marker Babiah and others in State Bank of India and the indefatigable Mangeshkar and our smiling, indulgent big boss C S Shamlal of Andhra Bank. So many talented cricketers and wonderful human beings were part of our cricket scenario—N Ramprasad, John Tarachand, Khaja, Satyendran, Wahed, Zahid Ali Khan, Kaleem-ul-Haq, B Mohan, Abid Ali, Noshir, Prahlad and so many more from SBH made the evenings after cricket thoroughly enjoyable. Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub were two off spinners who played for India when I missed out. Though they were both excellent cricketers and proved themselves at every level, the haste with which I was dislodged sure hit me hard.

PR Man Singh gave me my first break courtesy P Krishnamurti’s hardsell, when I was an unknown. He picked me in the Hindustan Breweries XI in the Gold Cup, but I got switched on the day of the match to the opponents State Bank of India, my employers. It was a great experience to bowl my first ball in that match to Rohan Kanhai and impress my captain Hanumant Singh, who taught me more about my own craft than any off spinner ever did. My cricket in Hyderabad gave me a chance to meet the great off spinner Ghulam Ahmed, and it was indeed a memorable experience. There were so many officials with whom I got on well and whose affection I enjoyed. I had the pleasure of travelling with the Hyderabad Blues when I got to know Ranga Reddy well, though I never toured with Man Singh whose hospitality was legendary. Ranga too was an excellent companion and made our life on tour pleasant and comfortable. Among the journalists, I remember Pillai of Deccan Chronicle and Radhakrishna of Indian Express, not to mention photographer Srinivasulu, who refused to acknowledge that his photo of “Sarfraz Nawaz” that Express carried during the Jaisimha Benefit Match in 1978 was in fact mine!

Returning to the subject of the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy team I started this story with, I have not mentioned the many fine young cricketers I played with after the Jaisimha era came to an end after the 1976-77 season. Saad Bin Jung was perhaps the best of them all, closely followed by Shahid Akbar, both openers, one right handed and the other left handed. It’s a pity neither of them made it big. Another Hyderabad cricketer who should have by right played for India was another off spinner, Kanwaljit Singh. He was as good as any after the greatest of us all—Ghulam Ahmed.

I have a few regrets—I only caught a glimpse or two of young Azharuddin, when he used to bowl in the SBI nets, and again in a local match, when I bowled to him. Unfortunately, I left Hyderabad in 1981, and therefore did not have any close encounters with him thereafter, nor did I ever get to play with or against Venkatapathy Raju or VVS Laxman, one of the finest batsmen India has produced. His 281 at Kolkata in 2001 will remain the high point of any cricket lover’s watching career.

I would have never played first class cricket if I had not moved to Hyderabad. It was my wonderful second home and I can never forget the many kindnesses of people connected with its cricket. It is impossible to mention all of them here, but I certainly will—in my cricket memoirs, which I am in the process of completing.