If Indian cricket lovers of the earlier generation, who had followed the game during the 1960s onwards, are asked to name the most romantic cricketer produced by our country, the answer would unanimously be Salim Durani. A tall and handsome Pathan, he brought to the game a sense of thrill and excitement every time he stepped on to the cricket field. There was little that he could not do either with the bat or with the ball. He could hit sixes on demand, take vital wickets, make the most difficult of catches look surprisingly easy and could even keep wickets. He was the first cricketer to be awarded the prestigious Arjuna Award. His handsome features earned him a entry to Bollywood where he acted in a movie Charitra, opposite Parveen Babi.
Durani was born in 1934 in Kabul thus earning the rare distinction of being the first player born in Afghanistan to feature in a Test match. His father Abdul Aziz had played for United India team in two unofficial Test matches against an Australian side led by Jack Ryder in 1935 as a wicketkeeper. After partition of the Indian sub continent, Aziz moved to Karachi as a cricket coach while Durani and his mother stayed on in Jamnagar, where his father was employed previously. Later, Durani moved to Rajasthan, where he was offered a contact by Maharana of Udaipur who was the patron of the side. Incidentally he was offered the contract to play as a wicketkeeper, as Vinoo Mankad, who was also playing for Rajasthan, thought that since he was the son of Aziz, he should be a good stumper! Durani did not let Mankad down and even played for Central Zone against the touring West Indies side as a wicketkeeper during the 1958-59 season.
However, Durani switched over from wicketkeeping to left- arm spin bowling soon afterwards. He made his Test debut in the very next year, against the visiting Australian side led by Richie Benaud at Bombay. He batted at No. 10, scored 18 runs and bowled only one over in the inconsequential second innings. He was dropped after this match and languished in the sidelines till he announced his comeback with a mighty roar against the Ted Dexter-led England side during the 1961-62 season. He was by then acknowledged as an all-rounder; a lower middle order batsman and frontline left-arm spinner. Durani picked up 23 wickets in the series and played a key role in India winning the last two Tests at Calcutta and Madras. At Calcutta he picked up 8 wickets for 113 runs while at Madras he had a match haul of 10/176.
This was followed by the tour to the West Indies in 1962, where India lost all the five Tests. Indian batsmen did not have any answer to the West Indian pace attack led by Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith and went down meekly in all the matches. This was the tour during which Indian skipper Nari Contractor almost lost his life after being hit on his head by a Griffith bouncer in a tour match. Durani was one of the few players who emerged out of the series with his reputation intact. He scored a century (104) in the fourth Test and a half-century in the first Test, besides picking up 17 wickets.
Durani was a regular in the Indian Test side during the home series against England in 1963-64 and against Australia and New Zealand in 1964-65. However, he was dropped from the squad after the first Test against the West Indies during the 1966-67 season, despite scoring a half-century in the first innings. The emergence of Bishen Bedi, a left-arm spin bowler of great promise was cited as the reason for axing him. However, Durani’s attitude to the game was questioned in many quarters and he did not help his case by combing his hair and returning the cheers of Bombay crowd while fielding at the fence when the game was in progress! It was also rumored that he did not get along well with skipper M.A.K. Pataudi and this made the job of the selectors easier.
Durani was condemned to stay out of the national side after this till 1971 when he forced his way back into the reckoning with his performances in the domestic circuit, where he scored heavily with the bat. The fact that he had toured the West Indies earlier and performed creditably there made him one of the key members of the squad, led by a new captain Ajit Wadekar. Unfortunately, he lost his form with the bat after reaching the Caribbean and could not contribute much as a batsman.
However, Durani was instrumental in India winning the second Test at Port of Spain which helped them clinch the series as well. Batting first, West Indies were dismissed for 214 and India replied with 352. In the second innings, West Indies were 150 for two wickets when he was introduced into the attack when play started on the fourth day. Off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna was injured and Durani had promised his skipper that he would take the wickets of Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd, the two main West Indian batsmen. He first bowled Sobers though the gate for a duck and followed this by dismissing Lloyd who pushed a sharply turning delivery into the hands of Wadekar at short midwicket. After the fall of these wickets, the West Indies innings folded up for 261 and India could reach the target of 125 runs with 7 wickets to spare.
Durani was not selected for the tour of England that followed in 1971. But he made a comeback when England visited India during the 1972-73 season. His 53 was the top score in the second innings of the second Test at Calcutta where India scraped through by 28 runs. In the next Test at Madras, he held the Indian second innings together while chasing a target of 86, again top scoring with 38 runs. In the last Test of the series, which marked his swansong from international arena, he hit a brilliant 75 in the first innings. He was not considered by the selectors again despite playing first class cricket for Rajasthan till 1977-78 season.
One striking characteristics of Durani’s batting during his last Test series was his ability to hit sixes when the crowd demanded it. In the last innings of third Test at Madras, when India were struggling to reach a modest target, Durani obliged the crowd by hitting two sixes on demand. In the first innings of the last Test at Bombay, he came to bat towards the close of play on first day. Bombay crowd asked for a six and skipper Tony Lewis of England duly moved a fielder to the fence at deep mid wicket, hoping for a mishit. Derek Underwood bowled one which pitched in line with the middle and leg stumps and Durani promptly went down on his knees and hoisted him over deep midwicket for a six. When Durani could not play the fourth Test at Kanpur due to injury, posters appeared all over the city stating “No Durani, No Test”!
In the final analysis, Durani’s aggregate of 1202 runs and 75 wickets from 29 Tests do not reflect either his potential or his full contribution to the side. He was a temperamental person and a proud cricketer. During the Madras Test of the 1972-73 series, when Bedi left the field for a short span, captain Wadekar asked him to bowl. However, Durani threw the ball back to his skipper saying tersely that he was not a change bowler.
It reflects the failure of Indian cricket establishment that they were not able to handle a temperamental genius like Durani and make full use of his enormous potential. This resulted in Durani playing in far too less Test matches than he should have featured in. He would have made an ideal limited overs’ cricketer, but unluckily for him and the cricket lovers, this format of the game became popular only after his active playing days. It might be the poignancy associated with what he could have achieved given his enormous talent that makes him appear like a tragic hero to fans of the game who had seen him in action. This combined with his elegant personality and the exciting brand of cricket that he played makes him the perfect candidate for the title of the most romantic Indian cricketer of his generation.
(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)