Numbers don’t lie… sometimes they do
When I called back unknowing where he might be because he has led a peripatetic life, Durani was in Jamnagar, the place where he learnt his cricket after his family moved from Afghanistan (is he the first Kabul-born cricketer ever?) to India. The slightly squeaky voice – that belies his tall frame – expressed his eternal restlessness. “I’ve just reached here and will be in Mumbai in the first week for the Dilip Sardesai Memorial Lecture,” he said.
But why am I writing about Durani now? For some weeks even before Eid, his name had been swirling in my mind, perhaps because of Ravindra Jadeja who also comes from Jamnagar and is now being touted as high quality all-rounder.
Like Durani, Jadeja bowls let-arm and is an attacking batsman revelling in the lofted shot. Interestingly, Saurashtra, otherwise considered the boondocks in Indian cricket for several decades, has produced three all-rounders who’ve made it to the national side, all of them starting out as left-arm slow bowlers: Vinoo Mankad, Durani and now Jadeja.
Mankad stands apart in that he batted right-handed. More importantly, his eminence as an all-rounder would be hard to challenge not just by Durani and Jadeja, but also – according to some aficionados - even Kapil Dev.
Mankad had a luminous international career, has a Test named after him for his all-round prowess (v England at Lord’s, 1952) and is rightly considered a giant in Indian cricket history. Jadeja is the big hope of the future, more so with so much limited overs cricket being played.
In this mix Durani might appear as an also-ran going by statistics. But for those who’ve played with or against him and those who’ve watched him, there could be no bigger falsehood. He was arguably the most talented and easily the most colourful cricketer to wear the India cap.
He bowled orthodox left-arm spin with immaculate control and batted with a flamboyance that made him a crowd favourite wherever he went. Tall and rangy, with blue-green eyes and clean-cut looks, he was easily the biggest star of his time after the Nawab of Pataudi.
In the early 1960s he was the highest paid professional cricketer in the country. Spencer’s retained him at Rs 6000 a month to come to Madras and Jolly Rovers club paid him Rs 3000 a month to play league cricket there. In current rupee value terms, this would match if not exceed the earnings of any major player in the IPL.
Durani was also the first cricketer to win the Arjuna Award in 1962 after he had helped India beat Ted Dexter’s team in 1961-62 with his prolific wicket-taking. For almost two decades was unanimously considered the country’s best all-rounder. Despite all that, he played intermittently for India: only 29 Tests between 1960 and 1973.
In the opinion of many he short-sold himself by not showing enough ambition. The biggest argument heard against him is of discipline, or the lack of it. One particular incident – which could be termed the turning point in his career - has perplexed me for decades, so when I caught Durani in a mellow Eid mood, I dared to ask: Why was he dropped from the second Test at Calcutta against the West Indies in 1966-67?
Durani is pushing 79 but, as mentioned earlier, retains his wit and remembers everything - or almost. “I forget who was team manager when I was dropped on disciplinary grounds,” he said with a cackle of laughter when I nudged him about the incident last week. It’s a fib, of course. The name of the manager can hardly be a mystery nor is it relevant. What remains is the question why?
This was in the season of 1966-67 when Gary Sobers had come here with a powerful side bursting with talent. Consider the line-up: Hunte, Bynoe, Kanhai, Lloyd, Sobers, Holford, Hendriks, Hall, Griffith, Sobers, Gibbs. Beat that.
The first Test of that series that was played at the Brabourne Stadium which the West Indies won by six wickets, thanks largely to Sobers’s all-round brilliance with bat and ball, Hunte’s immaculate century and a blistering start to his Test career by Clive Lloyd.
For the home crowd Durani, along with the Nawab of Pataudi, Abbas Ali Baig, M L Jaisimha and Budhi Kunderan – dashing personalities all - was a big attraction: more so because of his success against the West Indies in 1961-62 when he had scored a scintillating 104 against Hall and Griffith, “Hooking them off his nose,” as reports said, while batting number 3 on a fiery Barbados pitch.
Indeed, so impressed was Frank Worrell, arguably the most influential figure in international cricket then, that he compared the Indian all-rounder favourably with even Sobers. Durani believes Worrell was kind, but erroneous. “There is no comparison between Sobers and any other cricketer of any era. He was simply the best,” he says with undisguised reverence.