(Stop if you have read this before!)
No one could have had a more sensational start to his Test career. 20-year old Abbas Ali Baig was a dashing young batsman at Oxford University, with a few exceptional performances under his belt in English county cricket, when the 1959 touring Indian team summoned him to play in the Manchester Test. It had been a severe drubbing for the tourists from Peter May’s Englishmen, but the handsome, fleetfooted Hyderabadi made a brilliant 112 on debut and in the company of Polly Umrigar (118) salvaged some pride for the Indians. Though England beat India in that and the next and final Test to make a clean sweep of the five-match series, Baig’s name was permanently inscribed in the pages of Indian cricket history.
Unfortunately, Abbas never repeated that level of performance in his Test career thereafter, though a defiant 50 by him against Australia in the Bombay Test next season, brought him an unexpected reward in the form of a kiss planted on his cheek by a young female fan in full view of the capacity crowd at the Brabourne Stadium. (The sensational act prompted veteran commentator Vijay Merchant to say to his colleague Michael Charlton, “I wonder, Michael, where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring my hundreds!” Imagine this in Merchant’s singsong intonation).
Back in his native Hyderabad, Baig played a major role in the team's consistent performances at the league stage of the Ranji Trophy for well over a decade, though neither he nor his star colleagues Jaisimha, the captain, Pataudi and Abid Ali were able to achieve a title triumph in all those years. He was stylish in all he did, be it his thoughtful yet positive batting, his sophisticated contributions to team strategy or his urbane social skills.
His three younger brothers played competitive cricket. Murtuza, slightly younger in age, but older-looking and more sober and conservative in behaviour, was also an Oxford Blue, who played for Hyderabad with less success than Abbas. So did Mazhar, next to Murtuza, with a reputation of being a murderer of most attacks below first class level. If Murtuza was polished and rather understated in a British sort of way, Mazhar was relatively earthy, given to less patrician ways than his elder brothers. The youngest, Mujtaba, was the tiniest of them, with a batting style reminiscent of Abbas, a very nice, simple man, lacking the self belief of Abbas to put his talent to comparable use. I had the pleasure of playing a good deal of cricket with all four brothers at different times, and it was a pleasure and privilege to be their teammate.
Abbas—nicknamed Buggy by peers like Jaisimha and Pataudi—was often my captain in local cricket, when we both played for Hyderabad XI in the Zonal Tournament, the Hyderabad equivalent of Chennai’s Buchi Babu before 1968, when it changed from being a local zonal event into an invitation tournament for teams from all over India. He had great confidence in my ability, but it took me a while to realize that, as he nagged me constantly on the field of play, only to praise me generously at the end of the day. He also made it a point to spread the word whenever he felt a player had done exceptionally well. It was he who persuaded me to play in the 1975 Moin-ud-Dowla tournament, when I had doubts about my fitness. I did exceedingly well, finishing with eight for 75 against star-studded JK XI in the final, finally managing to convince the selectors with that performance, that I was good enough to play for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy. To my amazement, Abbas stopped tutoring me during that match; he must have thought I had come of age. His delight at my success in that match and throughout the season that followed was heartwarming.
As I said earlier, Abbas and Murtuza were of somewhat different temperaments, and sometimes did not se eye to eye on some matters. Once, as Murtuza and I, my senior in the State Bank, were preparing to go to the office after a match had been washed out, even as the other players decided to have a beer together, Abbas said in his best acerbic manner: "The State Bank will collapse if Murtuz and Ram don't turn up for work!"
In yet another instance of sibling rivalry, I bowled a faster ball, following a signal from Murtuza from slip, to incur Abbas's instant wrath. Marching up to me, he admonished me: "Didn't I tell you to flight every ball? Don't you dare listen to that Murtuz!"
Of the brothers, Murtuz was my closest friend, though a bit of a mentor as well. We share a birthday, but he is six years older. (I didn't take it very well when Murtuz and his selector colleagues dumped me unceremoniously from the state team, though I knew Murtuz was a perfect gentleman and it must have hurt him to be a party to my axing). But the day Abbas announced he would no longer be available to play for Hyderabad was indeed a sad day. It had been a double whammy as Tiger Pataudi too had come to the same decision at the same time. It was at the end of the 1975-76 season, after we had lost a quarter final match we ought to have won to Bombay. It was the end of an era.