Simplicity was the hallmark of the genius cricketer Salim Durrani. In life as in cricket, he played straight from the heart, and being the one who enjoyed his company, cricket, and conversations, I am convinced that had he been around for T-20 or ODIs, Salim Durrani would have been a roaring success with his swashbuckling batting, spinning deliveries and his graceful on-field demeanour.
Like Tiger Pataudi and Gundappa Vishwanath, Salim Durrani was a sportsman to the core who believed in spirited combat without resorting to abuse, sledging, or gimmickry.
'No Durrani, No Test'
Statistics do no justice to his daredevilry but suffice to say he was one Indian cricketer of the 1960s who smashed Wesley Hall, Charlie Stayers, and Garfield Sobers to a hurricane century in the Caribbean, making the legendary Sobers his lifelong admirer.
That 104 was made at the number three position without a helmet on a devious wicket of Port of Spain, where a decade later, he decimated Sobers and Clive Lloyd in quick succession to gain India its first series win against West Indies. Mind you, the credit was entirely his since he took the ball from Ajit Wadekar by promising to get rid of the two! Not surprising as millions in India witnessed Durrani hitting sixes on public demand; his absence from the Test team led to an outcry of “No Durrani, No Test” in the 1970s making the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) bow to the masses.
Had senior administrators not played foul, Durrani would have added considerably to his tally of 29 Tests, 1202 runs, and 75 wickets. Contrary to public perception, I have Durrani’s word that Tiger Pataudi had no role in his conspicuous absences on various occasions and was a trusted friend.
‘Larger Than Life’ Sportsman Who Exuded Generosity of Spirit
Noted Urdu poet Lokesh Kumar “Saahil” said to me that “a great cricketer and true sportsman had gone” and I agree with him since I was witness to many interactions that revealed his magnanimous persona.
My association with Salim Bhai started in early 1970 when he came to play for Bright Star Cricket Club (BSCC) at Jaipur for a prestigious tournament. Though I was representing my team at Saint Xavier’s School from the age of ten and playing for BSCC in district tournaments, Salim Durrani was bemused at the sight of a thirteen-year-old in flannels. Probably, it was my age that drew him to converse regularly with me and the ten-day tournament gave me enough moments to be in his proximity to perceive his generosity, encouragement, and appreciation.
On a rest day between the matches, he came home early for dinner. I distinctly remember it was the day before Holi and he played tennis ball cricket on road with all the youngsters! As shadows lengthened and my family members invited him to light the pious fire of Holi, without any qualms whatsoever, Durrani walked down the lengthy road with us, lit the holy fire and lovingly gulped the “prasaad” after the prayers.
Back home, he ate the vegetarian food with great relish while regaling everyone with jokes and crispy rejoinders. I still remember his lines to my Dad that though “the public applauds my sixes; none cares to find out if I have money for the fare back home."
In the absence of a stable job, his agony of an inadequate purse stayed for long until BCCI compensated cricketers of yesteryears for their services. Coming from a humble background, this son of a groundsman would not have represented India had it not been for Vinoo Mankad who deciphered his mettle when he faced him in nets at Jamnagar. What many do not know is that Salim Durani was not a natural left-hander but was turned into one by his mentor Vinoo Mankad!
Cricketer-Turned-Accidental Star Sans the Good Fortune of Success
Incidentally, another reason for me and Salim Bhai hitting off in those early years was his regular visits to my school nets to pay respect to Mr ND Marshall, my cricket coach and a mentor of Vinoo Mankad too. The member of India’s first cricket team of 1932, Mr Marshall had gifted insights about everything cricket, and obviously, their discussions and analysis of matches, techniques, and pitches kept me enthralled and bound in a web of affection.
The paucity of money never deterred Durrani from being generous to rickshaw pullers, kitmen, security guards, or attendants. But it was his need for money that made him do a BR Ishara movie “Charitra” with Parveen Babi but when the movie flopped, his ambitions of being a screen star were dashed to smithereens.
Nevertheless, we would regularly bump into each other at Jaipur or Mumbai and he would regularly enquire about my progress in life and sports. He was enormously happy when I made my Ranji debut though he cursed the administrators for making me wait in the wings for eight long years despite record-breaking performances at the University level!
However, my best memories of the cricketing all-rounder are from our fortnight-long stay in Singapore at the behest of ESPN for a series of broadcasts related to cricket. Staying 24x7 in each other’s company revealed the childlike qualities of the handsome man; someone who would delight in slurping an ice cream on the pavement or enjoying a walk past the midnight hour.
And in those hours, he regaled me with such rare snippets of his life, cricket as well as social strata of our country that it led to enormous admiration for his earthy wisdom. It made me realise that paucity of education may have hampered his communication skills but had not deprived him of his native common sense, bonhomie, and pithy observations.
‘Down to Earth’ Demeanour Made Him a Winner
Gentle and generous, Salim Bhai became an elder brother who would not allow me to pay for drinks or dinner. Though he enjoyed his daily pegs of whisky in the evening, he never pestered me to drink as he knew I was a teetotaler and instead, only desired that I recite old film songs or Urdu ghazals of his liking.
The memory of one such night makes me teary-eyed to this day as it showed what a humble and affectionate man he was. Just after finishing a song, I noticed Salim Bhai wearing sandals of delicate leather and on inquiry about the price and shop from where he had bought the same, he promised to take me there himself.
As the next day was a holiday, I got up late when the doorbell bell buzzed in my ears. On opening the door, I found Salim Bhai standing outside with a package containing a new pair of sandals for me. I was astounded to see that the great Indian cricketer, the idol of millions, had gone out to the market to buy those sandals for me. Despite all my persuasions, Salim Bhai never took money from me and the glow on his face on finding the pair fit me perfectly is still vivid on my inner screen.
Obviously, the gifted items became extremely dear to me and whenever I wore them, I was reminded that even though I could not climb the highest ladders of the cricketing firmament, I was a winner in the heart of my idol. Blessed that a genius like him inspired me in childhood and showered me affection till the end! Pity, nature does not make many like him anymore.
(Deepak Mahaan is a documentary filmmaker and an eminent author. A specialist on Cinema and Sports, he has published numerous pieces in prestigious publications in India and abroad. He tweets at @mahaanmahan. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)