Salim Durani: Big-hearted Afghan who played for love of game

Sunil Gavaskar once wrote that if ever Salim Durani wrote his autobiography, an appropriate title would be ‘Ask for a Six’.

For those who are still alive to remember the early days of Indian cricket in the 1960s and early 70s, one thing that remains in the memory of almost everyone is that if the audience wanted a big hit, Durrani duly obliged.

The 90,000 spectators at the then raucous Eden Gardens would make optimum use of their lungs, shouting “Sixerrr, Sixerrr”. And legend has it that the very next ball would either fly over long on or into the deep midwicket stand.

Durani was a ‘man of the people’ whose influence can never be overstated by the 29 Test matches he played over 13 years between 1960 and 1973, or the more than 1200 runs he scored and 75 wickets, which he took with his left arm. Took with K spin. ,

88 year old breathed his last On Sunday but the first and only Afghanistan-born cricketer to play Test cricket for India will always remain the ‘Prince Salim’ of Indian cricket, Salim Bhai to all, young and old, and Salim Chacha to Gavaskar.

He was a “prince” in terms of behavior and also won many hearts.

A lone century, three five-wicket hauls, and a batting average of over 25 don’t tell the whole story.

At a time when Test match fees were Rs 300, Durani was more of an amateur, whose only agenda was to enjoy and let others have fun.

Gavaskar’s 774 in his debut Test series in the West Indies in 1971 was a pivotal moment in Indian cricket history, as the country won its first series in the Caribbean.

But had ‘Prince Salim’ not got Clive Lloyd and Sir Garfield Sobers in the same spell, would India have won that Test match at Port of Spain as West Indies collapsed in their second innings, leaving the visitors an easy target Gone to follow Durrani’s bowling figures of 2/21 in 17 overs were often drowned out by the flood of runs scored in the series by Gavaskar and Dilip Sardesai (over 600).

What if Durrani had not bowled his prodigious “break back” ball, which skimmed squarely between the bat and pad of a technocrat like Sir Garry from outside off stump.

But, for the next tour of England, he was dropped as the establishment, driven mainly by the Mumbai lobby, believed he did not have the technique to survive in English conditions.

Students of Indian cricket history may find it surprising that Durani played all his overseas Tests in the West Indies over two tours, playing eight out of a total of 29 Tests.

During his international career of nearly a decade and a half, India toured three times to England (1967, 1971, 1974), once to Australia (1967) besides New Zealand (1967), West Indies (1962 and 1971).

In fact, Port of Spain was as dear to Durani as the latter became to Gavaskar.

In 1962, an expert middle-order batsman was asking questions at No.3 with the dangerous Wes Hall, the shrewd Garry Sobers and the great Lance Gibbs. The result was a career best innings total of 104 as India followed on.

Why he could not go on any of the tours to Australia, England and New Zealand is beyond anyone’s understanding, as below average players were selected at a time when merit was often compromised.

Former Bengal captain Raju Mukherjee, an avid student of cricket history, wrote in his blog how Durani highlighted his exclusion.

Salim bhai, why didn’t they take you to England? People would ask and he would say, “Maybe it was too cold for me”.

But then why didn’t they take you to Australia? “Maybe it was too hot for me”.

There was pain but the sense of humor never left him. In fact, after scoring a half-century against England at his favorite Eden Gardens, Durani was dropped for the Kanpur Test, and the Indian team was subjected to hooting and posters of “No Salim, No Test”.

By that time, Durani was not bowling much as the great Bishan Bedi was leading the Indian attack, along with Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan.

He was brought back for the Bombay Test, where he scored 73 in the first innings with 10 fours and two sixes, and 37 in the second. Unfortunately, this turned out to be his last Test, as he was not selected for the 1974 tour of England.

He continued to play Ranji Trophy for Rajasthan and ended a distinguished first-class career in 1976–77 with 8545 runs and 484 wickets, when he was in his mid-40s.

One-day cricket began towards the end of his career, and nobody knows what the possibilities might have been if his best years had been the limited-overs format.

If one scanned YouTube for the highlights that the Films Division used to compile prior to the debut of a film in the 1960s and early 70s, one could see footage of Durani’s exploits. He had a very economical action and looked very accurate with a side-on pivot.

His batting was unorthodox and entertaining, but fielding was anathema to Durani, which saw him fall out of favor with the selectors, who believed he was not hard-working enough.

However, in his 29 Tests, whenever he took wickets or scored half-centuries, India either won or saved the game.

Born during British rule on a train to Kabul, his father Abdul Aziz Durani was a professional cricketer and had moved from Kabul to Jamnagar (Saurashtra), and kept wicket in the pentagular tournament in the 1940s.

The Pathan blood in him made Durani a courageous cricketer who was at ease against Hall’s bouncers, and had a big heart when it came to looking after junior cricketers.

Gavaskar described an incident in his book Sunny Days, when he was traveling by train to play a domestic game. It was cold inside the compartment and one of the cricketers was shivering for want of a blanket.

Durani didn’t say a word, but when the boy woke up in the morning, he saw that he had a blanket and was huddled in a corner to ward off the cold.

“Money is one thing Salim can never afford,” was the word in Indian cricket circles.

Mukherjee wrote that once in 1976, during a Moeen ud Daulah match, Durani loaned him money and shared drinks with him.

“Salim Durrani was a free spirit regardless of yesterday. There were no inhibitions; no arrogance. He borrowed money and bought beer and coke to share with the ‘creditor’!” The next day in the most subtle way, That exact amount went into the man’s shirt pocket! I can confirm this incident because that person was me. In Hyderabad during the Moin-ud-Daulah Trophy in 1976,” Mukherjee wrote in his blog.

There was a funny incident when Durrani got a prank call from a teammate posing as a fan who wanted to present him a tape recorder for his wonderful series winning bowling in the Windies.

Apparently, Durrani, dressed in an India tie and blazer, came into the hotel lobby and someone from behind shouted, “So you need a tape recorder”. It was his partner Dilip Sardesai.

He looked strikingly handsome in photographs from the 1960s and 70s, and starred in a film called Charitra opposite Parveen Babi, though the film flopped at the box office. The offer to become a hero in the early 70s was an indicator of his popularity.

In 2018, when Afghanistan played their first Test in Bengaluru, Durrani was felicitated by the Indian board for his Afghan roots.

A simple man who never understood how big a player he was, Durani will always remain in the hearts of his fans as “Shehzada Salim”.

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