First published in The Bengal Post
“Do you want to know how we made the old ball swing in Barbados?” The year was 1978, the man talking to us at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad one sunny afternoon in February or March of that year was one of the inventors of reverse swing, though it was yet to be known by that name. The tall, gangling, tousled-haired, moustachioed, side-whiskered Sarfraz Nawaz then proceeded to rub the fairly new ball on the bare ground just outside the boundary line until it became completely rough. He went on to polish the other side to make it shine like a mirror. The umpires looked the other way, as the match in progress between India XI and an International XI was the ML Jaisimha benefit match, not a first class fixture, though they did need a bit of arm-twisting by Sarfraz before they agreed to let him tamper with the ball.
What followed was a magnificent spell of fast swing bowling by the mad, mad Pakistani seamer, which was made more exciting by the efforts of his colleague from the other end to show everyone who was the quickest bowler around. Imran Khan had just a couple of weeks earlier been declared one of the fastest bowler in the world by some Australian commentators. “Bhai, hum donon men kaun zyada tez hai? (Brother, which of us is faster?)," Sarfraz kept asking us. Though all of us knew Imran was faster, none of us had any doubt about Sarfraz’s skill and wicket-taking ability. Only we did not dare say that aloud for fear of a boycott by Sarfraz.
In later years, I was to learn that Sarfraz had given us a demonstration of what became world famous as reverse swing, but I not speak about it, worrying that my audience would accuse me of making the whole thing up. I was relieved when Dilip Vengsarkar, who played in that game, gave a detailed account of that incident in his column in the Saturday Sports Special of The Hindu.
Three non-Test cricketers—M Narasimha Rao, Shahid Akbar and I—from Hyderabad were part of the International XI led by ML Jaisimha, as were former India captain Tiger Pataudi, Zaheer Abbas, Mushtaq Mohammad, Imran Khan and Sarfraz Nawaz and a couple of Test cricketers who had been part of the Indian Test team that had just returned from a tour of Australia, but were not included in the India XI for this match. The Pakistanis were on their way back from the Kerry Packer World Series cricket. While Zaheer Abbas gave us a foretaste of things to come in the forthcoming Indian tour of Pakistan by hammering our great spinners all around the park, the two quickies gave us a devastating display of fast bowling, the likes of which we had not seen in Hyderabad.
The match started on a slightly damp wicket following an early morning shower. The wicket was certainly not fit for play, with a couple of wet spots threateningly close to the good length area. Chetan Chauhan and Anshuman Gaekwad opened the innings, sportingly agreeing to an on-time start because a large crowd had bought tickets for the benefit game. Unfortunately for the Indian openers, Imran and Sarfraz were intent on outbowling each other unmindful of the physical danger to the batsmen. The ball kept flying from a good length and both Gaekwad and Chauhan had a torrid time negotiating the pace and the bounce. “Come on Jai, what’s going on?” Chauhan complained to Jaisimha. “Why don’t you tell these guys to take it easy? No sensible batsman would have agreed to bat on this wicket, but these chaps don’t seem to care.”
The captain looked on helplessly while Pataudi sported a wicked grin as we slip fielders were jumping and leaping, trying to hold on to perfect defensive shots taking off first bounce over our heads.
Jaisimha solved the problem by bringing on the spinners soon after the first two wickets fell, with a grim-faced Chauhan and an equally upset Gaekwad trooping off. Though it should have been a great moment for me, my spirit was somewhat dampened by Mushtaq Mohammad walking in from mid-off every other delivery and saying, “Runs do, Bhai (give runs, brother)!” As if the great batsmen facing me, Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar needed any such help. But the unexpected did happen. While Vengsarkar helped himself to a flurry of boundaries, Alaska pulled a long hop straight into the hands of deep square leg Ashok Mankad.
That evening, at a dinner hosted by Jaisimha, Mankad was entertaining a small crowd that included the Pakistani visitors, Bishan Bedi the Indian captain, and me, with some great stories delivered with characteristic panache, when an intrusive guest asked him, “Mankad saab, is there any old rivalry between you and Sunil Gavaskar saab? After getting out, he came into the dressing room, flung his bat and said, ‘The chap drops catches in Test matches, but holds this one in a benefit match.” Mankad’s reply was a classic: “Sunil Gavaskar’s catch and me drop it? Wake me up at midnight and I’ll still hold it.”