Karsan Ghavri broke the news early morning - “Salim Durani passed away.”
Ghavri was one of the few in touch with Salim bhai, ignored by the world of cricket and neglected by his loved ones. Durani, the man, who ruled Indian cricket in the 1960s, suffered during his final days, physically and mentally, confined to the bed in his two-room rented apartment, unable to walk without support. He was 88.
Salim bhai, who once attracted a large number of women to Test cricket with his dashing look and game, died unsung in Jamnagar, Gujarat. His final journey left him disillusioned. “I was devastated to see him in that state, helpless, with sadness in his eyes. It was so hard to accept,” said Ghavri about his recent meetings with Salim bhai, who batted and bowled left-handed.
His Ranji Trophy debut for Saurashtra against Gujarat in 1953 was marked by a dazzling 108. Two matches later, he was playing against New Zealand XI. He scored nothing and did not get to bowl in the company of Syed Mushtaq Ali, Baloo Gupte, Chandu Sarwate and Jasu Patel. He took lessons from them and grew into a formidable all-rounder. Salim bhai was a towering figure in a dressing room that included Tiger Pataudi and Chandu Borde. He made his debut in the Bombay Test along with Budhi Kunderan against Richie Benaud’s Australia in 1960.
Durani played 29 Tests over a period of 13 years. His lone Test century (104) came at Port of Spain against a West Indian attack that comprised fiery Wesley Hall, Lance Gibbs and Garry Sobers. He had batted at No. 9 in the first innings and justified the promotion to No. 3 in the second innings, scoring a magnificent 104.
According to his Rajasthan colleague of many years, Suresh Shastri, the debonair Durani was a match-winner all the way. “Playing with him was education. He was a fantastic captain, a great thinker, a friend of youngsters, and a man generous to a fault. He was a very shrewd competitor. His high-arm action, so effortless, was a sight to behold. Believe me, he could grasp two balls in his palm. I would watch him for hours and always marveled at his sincerity to bowl to even the tail-enders. What to say of his batting! He had all the time in the world to play the ball and an amazing range of shots, going down on his knee to smack even the medium-pacers on matting pitches.”
‘Salim bhai was a dada’
Talking of Durani’s popularity, Shastri recalled a journey from Nagpur to Calcutta in 1974-75. “We had finished the game against the West Indies when Salim bhai desired to go to Calcutta where Karsan and Anshuman (Gaekwad) were to make their Test debuts. Train reservation was not a problem. Salim bhai was the password. But Test tickets? We just went to Eden Gardens. There was a tremendous rush and mounted police were in action. One of the cops recognised Salim bhai and we were ushered in like VIPs. Salim bhai was a dada.”
Durani was a moody cricketer who could win a match on his own. His captains preferred an unfit Durani to a fit player. Once, in a Sheesh Mahal tournament match at Lucknow, Durani, in a relaxed frame, insisted on batting late in the order. When compelled to go in early, he reportedly threw away his wicket and retired in a corner of the dressing room. His team ended up conceding huge first innings lead. The captain, an international, was livid. “I will win you the match,” promised Durani. The next day, he triggered a batting collapse with his left-arm spin and then went on to chase the target with plenty to spare.
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Salim bhai was a charmer. His contemporaries envied him. My sister wanted to meet only two cricketers – Salim bhai and Sandeep Patil. Salim bhai advised her, “Padhaai par dhyaan do (concentrate on your studies).” Patil informed her “Maazha lagn zhaala aahe (I am married)”.
Well, this is about Salim bhai, the man who won hearts off the field too. You will read many tales about him today and tomorrow but this one is close to my heart.
I met him one evening at the Press Club of India in Delhi some two decades ago. He made a polite demand. “Can you find a coaching centre for a youngster near Gurgaon?” I suggested Sonnet Club at Sri Venkateshwara College. We agreed to meet the next morning. I reached out to Tarak Sinha and he lined up his best trainees. I briefed the boys. They waited for Salim bhai.
A majestic figure
His majestic gait was a fascinating sight. Sinha welcomed Salim bhai’s acquaintance and whispered into my ears. “ Durani saab se bowling karva do (please get Durani saab to bowl a bit). I did my bit even though I could see Salim bhai was wearing leather shoes and was evidently short of sleep. “ Arre yaar, dekh rahe ho aap.” I pleaded. He relented, “Ask the best available batsman to pad up.”
The best Sonnet Club batter, an under-19 player, took guard. Salim bhai was past 60. “ Ek over daaloonga bus (will bowl just one over).” I stood at a short distance from the stumps. Sinha watched from behind the bowler - Salim bhai’s magnificent use of crease, varied delivery stride, the pace of the ball, and importantly the release point. “Mesmerising,” exclaimed Sinha.
“Sorry beta,” Durani patted the young batter at the end of the six deliveries. The best Sonnet Club batter that day could not touch one ball. He was struck on the pads four times and beaten embarrassingly all ends up twice. That was the genius called Salim Durani, who famously removed Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd in 1971 at Port of Spain to set up a historic win. He demanded the ball from skipper Ajit Wadekar to pull off that amazing deed. On other occasions, he hit sixes on demand.
Also, I can’t forget his preparation for an interview at the Ferozeshah Kotla. As we sat down, he pulled out his comb and set his hair. I reminded him, “Salim bhai, this is for a newspaper. Not TV.” He floored me with his reply, “ Koi photographer aa gaya toh? (What if a photographer walks in?)”
Rest in Peace Salim bhai. You were the Prince of cricket. Bigger than some hailed as King of the game.