Syed Mushtaq Ali – the man who made cricket delightful

Syed Mushtaq Ali was a superstar in his own right and in his time idolized no less than Sachin Tendulkar or Kapil Dev were by the generations that witnessed their genius.

Published : Nov 21, 2021 17:53 IST

Syed Mushtaq Ali in April 1936. He holds the distinction of scoring the first overseas Test century by an Indian player.
Syed Mushtaq Ali in April 1936. He holds the distinction of scoring the first overseas Test century by an Indian player.

Syed Mushtaq Ali in April 1936. He holds the distinction of scoring the first overseas Test century by an Indian player.

When Tamil Nadu and Karnataka step on to the Arun Jaitley Stadium on Monday to battle for T20 supremacy, the young players will know the name of the trophy they covet, but perhaps not enough about the man it honours. They should, for the story of Syed Mushtaq Ali is a truly inspiring one.

The story begins in the early winter of 1933. Douglas Jardine, captaining England for the last time, is sent to the land of his birth. It is the first series hosted by the newest Test playing nation - India. Jardine’s men win the first Test at Bombay, and India ring in some changes for the second Test at Calcutta. Making his debut is young Mushtaq, replacing Jamshedji and becoming only the second specialist spinner to play Test cricket for India.

A few weeks before the series started, Mushtaq had almost won a match for India against Ceylon with figures of 6 for 97 and 4 for 32. In the very next match, he had taken 6 for 84 against the Indian Test squad, bowling for Rest of India. Australian Frank Turrant, a much-respected coach and cricket mentor of the time, wrote: ‘India need not search for any other slow left-arm bowler.’ The selectors agreed. In a twist of fate however, it would be his batting which would keep him in the side.

In the second innings of that Calcutta Test, captain C. K. Nayudu turned to young Mushtaq rather than his own brother to step in as an opener when Dilawar Hussain was felled by a bouncer in the first innings. In the final Test at Madras, Mushtaq was once again called upon to stand in for an injured opener in the second innings. This time it was Naoomal Jeoomal who had been hit on the head. Fate was conspiring to unlock the batting genius that had long been hidden under his not insubstantial skills as a bowler. Mushtaq’s scores of 9, 18, 7* and 8 in that series may not have set the scoreboards alight, but his poise and approach had been noticed.

A Gift for Bowling

Mushtaq’s journey to Eden Gardens as a spinner had actually been set in motion by an event three years before. In 1930, 15-year old Mushtaq travelled to Delhi to play in the All India Roshan Ara Cricket Tournament as a part of C. K.’s team. While he put up some stellar performances at Hyderabad bagging 5 for 5 against the Nizam’s side and scoring 65 against a strong Hyderabad XI, it was in Delhi, picking up three catches as a twelfth man that he caught the attention of Vizzy, one of the great royal patrons of pre-independence cricket.

Vizzy made an offer to Mushtaq’s father, through C. K. He would keep the boy under his care at Benaras, give him training and bear all expenses for his education. C. K.’s younger brother C.S. was already under Vizzy’s care, so the decision for Mushtaq’s father, Khan Saheb Sayed Yacub Ali, an Inspector in the Central India Agency Police, was made easier. Mushtaq joined the Bengalitola High School and started his daily cricket practice at the beautiful ground inside the Vizianagram Palace.


Within a few weeks, the young spinner from Indore had been picked to play a series of matches in India and Ceylon for Vizzy’s invitational side (Maharajkumar of Vizianagram XI) alongside Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, the greatest opening pair in the history of cricket. In November and December that year, the team played a series of matches around the country.

With the two English stalwarts in the team alongside some of the men who would eventually form the core of the early Indian sides - Jeoomal, Dilawar, C.K - Vizzy had ensured it was a team that would take some beating. The player who made a real impression on the two Englishmen, however, was Mushtaq.

Indian cricketer Syed Mushtaq Ali in Indore (Published in Sport And Pastime on October 27, 1951).

On November 21, at the Eden Gardens against the Bengal Governor’s XI, Vizzy’s side found itself unable to make inroads into the host's batting. With rain having lashed the city for the past two days and cloudy skies allowing the batsmen to play their way in, at 150 for 3 it looked like Vizzy and his men would have a long day on their feet.

It was then that Mushtaq was introduced into the attack for his second spell of the day. As he marked his short run up, the sun emerged in all its glory. The result was the pre-covered pitches' batting nightmare - a sticky wicket. Mushtaq proceeded to use the stickiness of the wicket to weave his magic on the Governor’s men. In a space of less than an hour, the host had been reduced to 166 for 9 and Mushtaq had taken all six wickets to fall, giving away 36 runs. Proving that not even batting geniuses are immune from the nastiness of sticky wickets, Hobbs and Sutcliffe both failed as Vizzy’s side was dismissed for 78.


Given his success in the first innings, Vizzy threw the ball to Mushtaq to open the bowling in the second. The young boy responded magnificently. He soon had the Governor’s XI at 5 for 2, and ended the innings with scarcely believable figures of 5 for 18, helping scuttle out the opposition for a mere 46. Chasing 145 for victory, Hobbs and Sutcliffe decided not to open the innings, giving the turf time to dry out further. Walking in at the fall of the openers, the pair were in their element, stroking freely to see the visitor home safely. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind however that the real hero of the hour was Mushtaq Ali. In his autobiography Cricket Delightful , Mushtaq recounts with much fondness what followed his performances:

‘I was very happy to have done so well but greater honour was in store for me. After the match was over, Hobbs, in the presence of a big gathering, showed his appreciation of my bowling by presenting me with a pair of silver hair-brushes.’

Emergence of a Swashbuckling Batsman

It hardly requires imagination to understand that a man who titles his autobiography Cricket Delightful is one for whom the manner in which one plays the sport is as important as the result of one’s efforts. In the book Mushtaq writes:

‘I still believe that cricket played with joie de vivre, tempered with skill and caution, can normally lead to victory. Stoic resistance can avert defeat, but seldom contribute to a win. You can say, fortune favours the brave or attack is the best means of defence — it all adds to the same thing.’

India's Syed Mushtaq Ali in action during a Test match against England in Manchester on July 27, 1936.

It is therefore not unexpected that one of the greats of world cricket and a man who saw the sport in the same light, Keith Miller, begins his foreword to Mushtaq’s book thus:

‘I have in my many World Travels since the War as a cricketer and later a cricket critic seen all the great cricketers from all cricketing nations. I have seen more methodical and correct stroke-makers, more prolific run getters, but have I seen such a dynamic character as Mushtaq? I doubt it. To me he was the Errol Flynn of cricket, dashing, flamboyant, swashbuckling and immensely popular wherever he played. That was how I best remember Mushtaq — the unforgettable. When he was not selected to play a “Test” in Calcutta against the Australians Services Team, thousands of cricket lovers, incensed that Mushtaq would not be appearing, marched in protest. The result? Mushtaq played. What cricketer in living memory or in the history of cricket could demand such action? Not even cricket’s most talked about character the bewhiskered W. G. Grace could match this true story about Mushtaq Ali. There was only one Mushtaq.’


He would go on to become a renowned opening batsman and form one of India’s most formidable opening partnerships along with Vijay Merchant. But what was it about his batting that was so special? To understand that we go back to Keith Miller recounting his first brush with Mushtaq the batsman in 1945:

‘I first remember Mushtaq cracking a great century at New Delhi against the Australians Services Team that was homeward bound for Australia soon after the War ended. As I bowled a good length delivery outside the off stump, he thumped it with an unerring cross-bat past square leg with the speed and accuracy of a Robin Hood arrow in flight. “Lucky shot”, I thought early in that innings. But as he hotted up to his work, his range of shots wider and even more powerful, it didn't take me long to realise that I was bowling at a champion. Nothing irritates a fast bowler more than to be straight driven, but to be smashed for a six over the bowler’s head with a mere flick of wrists is simply exasperating. To have the identical next ball played with the deadest of dead bats, followed by that characteristic high, slow flourishing follow through of the bat, is maddening. But the crowd? They loved it even more so than the rip roaring sixer that zoomed over the fence the previous ball.’

Mushtaq the Batsman Arrives in Style

The punishing experience that Keith Miller described as a bowler in 1945, was from a batsman in his prime with a decade of international cricket behind him. But Mushtaq’s transformation from spinner to opening batsman had taken place while he was still a teenager, manifesting itself in his brilliant stroke play by the time the 22-year old’s mentor Vizzy led the second Indian Test side to tour the British Isles in 1936.

Watching him bat on that tour was Ray Robinson. In his book Between Wickets , Robinson showers rare praise on Mushtaq’s style, calling him ‘the most daringly original of international batsmen,’ adding that ‘the only time he is still is while he takes guard from the umpire. Why he goes through the formality is one of the mysteries of the Orient because, after making his mark, he takes no notice of it.’

Syed Mushtaq Ali’s transformation from spinner to opening batsman had taken place while he was still a teenager.

The tour had, however, got off to a rocky start for the visitor, losing five of the first eight matches. Then against the Minor Counties, Mushtaq came into his own with his maiden first class century. In the next match against Surrey, he went a step further. The Times wrote about his innings of 141: ‘Mushtaq Ali attacked the bowling, always with imagination and often with power or an attractive combination of footwork and placing. Some of his off-drives were models of timing, and with the ball always coming to him at easy and regular angles, he was able to do much as he liked when playing to the on.’

Given his form, his failure to reach double figures in either innings of the first Test at Lord’s was hugely disappointing. But all this was wiped away at Old Trafford in the match that followed. Having been run out for 13 in the first innings, it was a determined Mushtaq who walked out to open the innings with Merchant, with their team 368 runs in arrears.


Before we get on to what transpired, there is a back story that merits telling here. It is a tale that speaks volumes of Mushtaq's strength of character and outlook towards life.

Merchant had steadily been gaining in stature over the course of the past few years and indeed as the series progressed. To the egoistic Vizzy, who had maneuvered his way to an undeserving captaincy and had Lala Amarnath, his premier batsman sent back from England after an argument, Merchant’s growing popularity was a threat. Vizzy called his protege aside and instructed him to run Merchant out. Shocked as the latter was with his words, Mushtaq’s upbringing didn’t allow him to refuse his mentor on his face.

Instead, Vizzy did the sensible thing. As they were walking out, Mushtaq quietly told Merchant what Vizzy had asked him to do. Merchant, by now no stranger to Vizzy’s shenanigans, appreciated Mushtaq’s position and candor, knowing the relationship between him and his mentor. He gave his young partner a reassuring smile, adding for good measure: ‘Try it if you can.’

Mushtaq started off with a picturesque cover-drive off Gover. A journalist waxed eloquent: ‘[He] sent the ball over the grass so swiftly that it might have been a ray of light.’ India reached 25 in 20 minutes, and the 50 took them 45 minutes. Wally Hammond then tied Merchant down with some tight line and length bowling, so at the other end, Mushtaq decided to go after England’s best bowler Hedley Verity. The left-arm spinner had proved difficult to get away in 1933, but the 22-year old Mushtaq was a different player now. With the young man on 90 and attacking as if without a care in the world, Wally Hammond walked up to him: ‘My boy, be steady, get your hundred first,’ was the sage advice. His words brought Mushtaq down to earth and he settled down to register his first Test ton.


Syed Mushtaq Ali had become the first Indian to score a Test century abroad. Never one to hold back prose, Neville Cardus wrote:

‘We could understand how a Ranji flowered from this field of play. Mushtaq Ali gave one of the most beautiful and spirited exhibitions of batsmanship ever seen at Old Trafford for years. He opened the magic casement and let us see a light cast from their own land.’

Mushtaq Ali’s career, like that of much of his generation, was sadly disrupted by the Second World War, taking away prime years from his batting. Fortunately, unlike Hedley Verity and similarly unlucky contemporaries, he survived the war to have a second chance in the sport. In 1946 when the last cricket team from Undivided India toured the British Isles under the Nawab of Pataudi, Mushtaq was an automatic pick. After all, he was only one of the six in the squad who had played Test cricket before this series. But the series was a disappointment from his perspective. He ended the tour with a relatively poor first class average of 24.03 and a single fifty in the Tests he played.


In 1947, when the first Indian team to Australia left her shores under the stewardship of Lala Amarnath, Mushtaq’s name had to be crossed out after his appointment as vice captain. His brother had passed away and he had recused himself to be in mourning. By the time Mushtaq decided to make himself available, it was too late as the squad had been chosen and there was no way to fit him in. Perhaps his presence could have got India a better result in that series, not least because the hard and true Australian wickets would have been perfectly suited for his swashbuckling batting style.

Mushtaq was to play just a couple of Tests more over the next four years despite his domestic form. Against the West Indies he scored a blitzkrieg ton and almost helped India pull off a 431 runs fourth innings chase in the remaining 415 minutes of play. He was a part of the side that beat England for the first time two years later, but his contribution to the win was a rather modest 22.

A Second Innings to Cherish

Mushtaq was however slated to play an important role in giving back to the sport that had made him what he was. He continued to coach young boys until his mid-70’s, guiding them not just on the intricacies of the sport, but imbibing in them life lessons that would stay with them.


For about a decade after he had crossed 60, ‘Mushtaq Saab’ spent every summer at Renukoot in Uttar Pradesh coaching boys in the finer points of the sport. Gaurav Saktavat, who grew up in the Hindalco Industries complex at Renukoot, and is now a senior leader with the same company, recalls those lessons that have stayed with him:

‘The strong voice calling out loudly “Up” as I batted, still resonates in my ears. It was the instruction to step out fearlessly the moment I saw a spinner flight the ball. It was the way he had played his cricket, and it was the way he taught us. But his lessons went much beyond cricket. He gave me confidence in myself and influenced the way I thought and acted. I never saw him slouch even when he was much older. Mushtaq Saab was always appropriately dressed for every occasion, on and off the field. His attire, his humility, his integrity, insistence on hard work, and his generosity in imparting knowledge, were all lessons that live on in me.’

Mushtaq was a superstar in his own right and in his time idolized no less than Sachin Tendulkar or Kapil Dev were by the generations that witnessed their genius. It is thus only fitting that the Indian cricket administrators have named the nation’s premier domestic T20 competition after the nation's first cricketing superstar. It is a format that could have been tailor made for the great man. As the Pandeys, Padikkals and Shankars step out to send the ball soaring heavenwards, the genius from Indore will be smiling in quite satisfaction.

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