Sunil Gavaskar had once written that if ever Salim Durani wrote his autobiography, the apt title would be, ‘Ask for a Six’.
Those who are still alive to recollect Indian cricket’s nascent days in the 1960s and early 70s, one thing that remains etched in almost everyone’s memory is that if spectators wanted a big hit, Durani duly obliged.
By shouting “Sixerrrrr, Sixerrrr’, the 90,000 spectators at the then raucous Eden Gardens would make optimal use of their lungs. And legend has it that the very next ball would either soar into long on or deep midwicket stands.
Durani was the ‘people’s man’, whose impact can never be quantified by the 29 Test matches that he played over 13 years between 1960 to 1973, or the 1200 plus runs he scored and 75 wickets that he took with his mean left-arm spin.
The 88-year-old breathed his last on Sunday but the first and only Afghanistan- born cricketer to play Test cricket for India will forever remain ‘Prince Salim’ of Indian cricket, Salim bhai to all young and old, and Salim uncle to Gavaskar.
He was a “Prince” in terms of attitude and also won many hearts.
A lone hundred, three five-wicket hauls, and a mediocre batting average of 25-plus doesn’t tell the whole story.
At a time when Test match fee was Rs 300, Durani was more of an amateur, whose only agenda was to enjoy and let others have fun.
Gavaskar’s 774 runs on his debut Test series in the West Indies in 1971 was a seminal moment in Indian cricket history, as the country won its first series in the Caribbean.
But would India have been able to win that Test match in Port of Spain if ‘Prince Salim’ wouldn’t have got Clive Lloyd and Sir Garfield Sobers in a single spell as West Indies collapsed in their second innings, leaving visitors with an easy target to chase. Durani’s bowling figure of 2/21 in 17 overs often gets drowned under avalanche of runs that Gavaskar and Dilip Sardesai (600 plus) made in the series.
What if Durani hadn’t bowled his prodigious “break back” that turned square from outside the off-stump to breach through the bat and pad of a technician par excellence like Sir Gary.
But, for the very next tour of England, he was dumped as the establishment, mainly run by the Mumbai lobby, believed that he didn’t have the technique to survive in English conditions.
The students of Indian cricket history find it baffling that Durani played all his overseas Tests, eight out of a total of 29, in the West Indies across two tours.
During his international career of nearly a decade and a half, India went to England thrice (1967, 1971, 1974), Australia once (1967) New Zealand (1967), apart from the West Indies (1962 and 1971).
In fact, Port of Spain was as much dear to Durani as it later became for Gavaskar.
In 1962, a specialist middle-order batter went in at No.3 with the fearsome Wes Hall, the wily Gary Sobers and the great Lance Gibbs asking probing questions. The result was a career-best knock of 104, with India following on.
Why he couldn’t make it to any tour of Australia, England and New Zealand is something that remains beyond anyone’s comprehension, as some really below average players were picked during those times, when merit often got compromised.
Former Bengal captain Raju Mukherjee, an ardent student of cricket history in his blog had written how Durani made light of his exclusions.
Salim bhai, why didn’t they take you to England? People would ask and he would say, “May be it was too cold for me”.
But then why didn’t they take you to Australia? “May be it was too hot for me”.
The pain was there but the sense of humour never left him. In fact, after having scored a half century at his favourite Eden Gardens against England, Durani was dropped for the Kanpur Test, and the Indian team was subjected to booing and posters of “No Salim, No Test” were displayed.
By that time, Durani wasn’t bowling much as the great Bishan Bedi was leading the Indian attack, with Bhagwat Chsndrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan for company.
He was brought back for the Bombay Test, where he smashed 73 in the first innings with 10 fours and two sixes, and 37 in the second essay. Unfortunately, that turned out to be his last Test, as he wasn’t selected for the England tour of 1974.
He continued playing Ranji Trophy for Rajasthan and ended a distinguished first-class career with 8545 runs and 484 wickets in 1976-77, when he was well into his mid 40s.
One-day cricket started towards the fag end of his career, and no one knows if limited overs format was there in his best years, what could have been the possibilities.
If one scans YouTube for highlights that Films Division used to compile in the 1960s and early 70s before the start of a film, one could see footage of Durani’s exploits. His was a very economical action and he looked very accurate with a side-on pivot.
His batting was unorthodox and entertaining but fielding was anathema to Durani, which made him fall out of favour with the selectors, who believed he was not hardworking enough.
However, in his 29 Tests, whenever he took wickets or scored fifties, India either won or saved the game.
Born during the British rule on a train that was going to Kabul, his father Abdul Azeez Durani was a professional cricketer and had migrated from Kabul to Jamnagar (Saurashtra), and used to keep wickets in the Pentagular Tournaments in the 1940s.
The Pathan blood in him was what made Durani a gutsy cricketer, who was at ease against Hall’s bouncers, and big-hearted when it came to taking care of the junior cricketers.
Gavaskar had narrated an incident in his book, Sunny Days, when they were travelling by train to play a domestic game. It was cold inside the compartment and a cricketer was shivering as he didn’t have a blanket.
Durani didn’t say a word, but when the boy got up in the morning he saw that he had a blanket even as the senior man cuddled himself in one corner, trying to beat the cold.
“Money is a commodity Salim could never afford,” was the word in Indian cricketing circles.
Mukherjee had written that once Durani borrowed money from him during a Moin ud Dowla match in 1976, and shared a drink with him.
“Salim Durani was a free soul without a care for the morrow. Had no inhibition; had no ego. He borrowed money and bought beer and coke to share with the ‘creditor’! “Next day in the most subtle manner possible, he left the exact amount into the man’s shirt pocket! I can vouch for the incident because the person happened to be me. At Hyderabad during the Moin-ud-Dowla Trophy way back in 1976,” Mukherjee wrote in his blog.
There was a funny incident when Durani got a prank call from a teammate posing as fan who wanted to present him with a tape recorder for his brilliant series winning bowling in the Windies.
Apparently, Durani wore India tie and blazer and came down to the hotel foyer and someone from the back shouted, “So you want tape recorder huh”. It was his teammate, Dilip Sardesai.
He looked drop dead gorgeous in the pictures of 1960s and 70s, and acted in a film called Charitra with Parveen Babi, though the movie tanked in the box office. The offer to become a hero in the early 70s was an indicator of his popularity.
In 2018, when Afghanistan played its first Test in Bengaluru, Durani was felicitated by the Indian board for his Afghan roots.
An easy-going person, who never understood how big a player he was, Durani will forever reside as “Shahzada Salim” in the hearts of his fans.