Salim Durani, who died on April 2, 2023, at the age of 88, was one of the most entertaining cricketers in independent India. He batted and bowled left-handed with complete ease and fluctuating interest —inexplicably so. His batting average of 25.04 in 29 Tests and 75 wickets at 35.42 runs per wicket would be considered moderate at best, but those who saw him playing in the ’right mood’, as did this writer, first, in the 1962 Calcutta Test versus Ted Dexter’s Englishmen would vouch for his prodigious gifts with the bat and ball.
In the first innings, he scored a scintillating 43, which included a lazy flick over mid-wicket for six off his bête noire, Dexter, a deceptive fast-medium bowler besides being a marvellous attacking batter. E.A.S. Prasanna, the great off-spinner, recalled in his autobiography, One More Over, “Those were the best 43 runs in the match’’.
His stylish 71 runs along with his friend, Chandu Borde, who made 68 in a crucial partnership in the first Innings of the first Test at Bombay (now Mumbai) got noticed. What was not noticed was his sudden loss of interest if the bowling was not challenging enough! It was said, within four years of his Test career, that he would throw away his wicket if he was bored — a trait of the aristocratic amateur!
This trait was noticed in the 1964-65 Test series against Bobby Simpson’s Australians. In the second Test in Bombay, India won in a thrilling finish. In the second Innings, Durani, going great guns, with Vijay Merchant exhorting, “Steady, Salim, steady!’’, suddenly lost concentration, got out at 30 to the leg-spinner and captain, Simpson, who had him caught by Bob Cowper off his bowling. It was left to Borde, who made a gritty 30 n.o. to help India just scrape through to a win. Merchant, Chief National Selector and an excellent Test batter in the 1930s and ’40s noticed this moodiness in Durani.
In the third and final Test at Calcutta, an inspired Durani took six for 73 off 28 overs, and bowled the Aussies out for 177 runs, who were earlier 117 for no loss! Merchant said, “When in the mood, Durani is the best bowler of his type in the world.” Yet, in 1966, after the first Test at Bombay against the West Indies led by the great all-rounder, Garry Sobers, Durani’s sparkling 55 in the first innings, which included a straight six over the still very fast Charlie Griffith’s head, came in for criticism! When Sobers bowled him out with a swinging full toss, Durani’s response was a cavalier one-handed shot that was seen as an irresponsible act. Mansur Ali Khan, mercurial captain and an excellent attacking batter, it was said then, at Merchant’s behest, dropped Durani from the Test team.
One suspects that the extremely tiring, both mentally and physically, tour of the West Indies in 1961-62 somehow affected his subsequent career as a Test cricketer. After the second Test, Nari Contractor, the captain, playing in a first-class match, unsighted by an extremely fast delivery from Charlie Griffith, ducked into it and caught a nasty blow behind his ear, nearly dying — a 16-hour surgery saved him but ended his career. This incident certainly affected the morale of the team. Twenty-one-year-old Mansur Ali Khan, aka Nawab of Pataudi, then Vice Captain, was promoted to lead the eleven.
The Indian Test selectors, out of sheer pique, dropped their star leg-spinner Subhash Gupte for the West Indies tour of 1961-62, as they did leg-spinner V.V. Kumar, a potential star! Had either been in the team, the burden on Durani as the lead bowler would have lessened considerably, and he would have got many more wickets than the 17 he managed a four for 82 in the Port-of-Spain Test as his best. Poor catching and ground fielding also prevented him from getting more wickets. The bowling load was carried by Durani and the stalwart all-rounder, Polly Umrigar, playing his last series at age 38, who, in addition to restricting the aggressive, pulverising West Indies batting with his persistent off-cutters, scored 172 n.o., one of the two centuries by the Indians. The other was Durani’s terrific 104, remembered 40 years later with awe by his two senior colleagues on the tour, Borde and Bapu Nadkarni, in a TV interview in Marathi. India were drubbed 5-0 in that Test series and saw a winning ‘racehorse’ like Durani employed as a cart horse.
Vinoo Mankad, India’s first great all-rounder, was Durani’s mentor. From the day he saw him play as a boy, he was clearly impressed. Asked by a Princely cricket patron from Rajasthan, “Who is that boy?’’, Mankad responded, “My son.’’ Mankad was a professional cricketer, who earned his living playing Test cricket, first-class cricket, and in the Lancashire League in England during the summer months. Durani did the same later. He told this writer, at one of several lunch meetings at the Press Club of India, Delhi, in the late 1990s, “Main Lancashire League mein chhe saal khela” (I played in the Lancashire League for six years). “Tab Garry aur main acche dost ban gaye the. Ham aksar shaam ko ek doosre ke yahaan jaate the, guppe maarte the, khana banate the” (Garry and I became good friends then, spent time together in the evenings, chatting, cooking). It was in a one-day match in the same league that he got 133 runs off Roy Gilchrist of the West Indies, the fastest and most fearsome bowler in the world. The one trait he shared with Sobers was a fondness for alcohol. Durani was also a chain smoker.
In the next Test at Madras which, India, led by Wadekar, won by a whisker, he made 38 and 38 with the bat in the two innings and while bowling in England’s second Innings tricked the very tall, technically and temperamentally solid batter capable of turning a game, Tony Greig, then on five, into spooning a catch to the ever alert Eknath Solkar at forward short leg by subtly altering the trajectory and angle of the ball. In the final drawn Test at Bombay, he scored 73, helping G.R. Vishwanath, who made a century on debut in 1969 versus Australia, to break the voodoo and score his second. That was also Durani’s last Test match.
(This article first appeared in Hardnews)
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