An enigma wrapped in controversy

Salim Durani was born in Kabul and he played most of his first class cricket from Rajasthan and Gujarat but he learnt the A, B, C of the game in Saurashtra where he was growing up as a kid. Jamnagar was his home and his friends in Saurashtra still remember the temperamental genius’ tryst with cricket and the journey that followed.

A cricketer, actor, maverick et all, his friends call the misread genius ‘an enigma wrapped in controversy’. They said, on his day, Durani would use his willow like a magic wand and score a quick fire 50 in no time, would score a century facing thunderbolts of Hall, Watson, Sobers and Worrell as he did at Port of Spain in the fourth Test against the West Indies, produce six on demand or produce unplayable balls which would baffle batsmen of the stature of Sobers, Lloyd, Dexter, Booth and Burge. But the same Salim Durani would perform so badly in the very next match that everybody would be left wondering if they were watching the same player.

"But people today know him more for his off-field incidents rather than his cricketing genius," they said in unison.

"He suffered a lot during his cricket journey and I am a witness to all that agony which he suffered. People talk of his negative but one should not forget that he was a victim of circumstances," said Vaman Jani, an old friend with whom Durani played cricket in Jamnagar and for Saurashtra.

"Success and failure are called the two faces of the same coin but in Durani’s case, this coin of fortune often spun so fast that they appeared to be embossed on the same side," added Jani.

"In fact, cricket flowed in Durani’s blood. And his father Abdul Aziz Durani was a competent wicketkeeper (who played two unofficial Test for the country)," said Jani.

Friends also recalled how a Nawanagar (Jamnagar) team went to Karachi to play a Ranji Trophy match under the captaincy of Maharaja Pratapsinhji in 1935. Durani Sr batted so well against a mighty bowling line-up of Nawanagar and kept wickets so skillfully that the skipper strongly recommended Durani Sr’s name to the then Maharaja Jamsaheb Shree Digvijaysinhji of Nawanagar. Jamsaheb offered Durani Sr a job as a police inspector and that’s how the Durani family landed in Jamnagar. Durani’s maternal and paternal grandfathers were in the army of Shah Amanullah. The Duranis, who besides serving in the army, were dry fruits suppliers, mainly supplying to the Maharajas of the then Kathiawad.

They also recalled how Durani Sr would bowl to his son and the mother used to keep wickets. But Durani was a right handed bat but his father wanted him to be a left-hander so the youngsters training started with his right hand tied behind his back.

"During a Cooch Behar Trophy match in Saurashtra, Durani took seven catches of the same bowler which still sounds to be an individual record. But the destiny of this genius cricketer really changed when a Bombay School team led by Nari Contractor came to Rajkot where Durani scored 41 runs and captured six valuable wickets," recalls Jani and added: "During the dinner hosted by HH Thakore Saheb of Rajkot, Mr. Farid who was the manager of the Bombay team and a teacher-cum-cricket coach at Anjuman-E-Islam High School asked Durani if he wished to come to Bombay and join the school team to play in the Harris Shield. Durani politely said that he has to seek his mother’s permission to do so. Vinoo Mankad, who was a close family friend of the Duranis, cajoled Durani’s mother, whom Mankad used to address as Malti Kaki to send Durani to Bombay for advance training in cricket."

Durani stayed with Mankad at Pannalal Terraces, Grant road who took utmost care of him before he shifted to the school hostel where he was provided dormitory accommodation with a coat, desk, cricket kit, uniform and some books. In his first match in Bombay against CCI in the Kanga league, Durani scored 23 runs and captured three wickets playing on a turf wicket for the first time in his career.

After school, Durani came back to Jamnagar and started playing local cricket before he got his first opportunity against Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy. He celebrated his foray into big time cricket with a century on debut.

Sumanbhai Munsha, a noted industrialist from Ahmedabad who was watching that match was so impressed with Durani that he asked Jasubhai Patel to find out if Durani was willing to join Baronet Club. Jasubhai was again a good family friend of the Duranis so it didn’t take long before Durani started playing for Gujarat in the Ranji Trophy. Playing for Gujarat, Durani scored another century and thereafter never looked back. Mankad later took Durani to Rajasthan in 1956-57 where he started laying the foundation of his international career.

Durani made his debut against Australia on January 1, 1960. But it was against Ted Dexter’s English team in 1961-62 that he really showed what he could do wit the ball. Durani’s exploits in the Caribbeans with both bat and ball prompted Sir Frank Worrell to hail him as the finest left-handed all-rounder in the world after the incomparable Garfield Sobers. He became a regular member of the Indian team in their encounters against Mike Smith’s England (1964), Bob Simpson’s Australians (1964-65) and also played against John Reid’s New Zealanders’ when they toured India in 1965.

During the second Test against the visiting West Indies in 1966 Durani’s wife Rekha fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalized and as a result he could not reach Calcutta on time for the Test. Durani was too worried to inform the Board about all this and so, the brilliant all-rounder remained out the Test arena from 1966 to 1971 when India played 19 Test matches without him.

Absence from the Test scene had not rusted his brilliance and he forced his way into the 1971 Indian team to tour West Indies by scoring a brilliant century for Rest of India against Ranji champions, Bombay. That was India’s year of glory and Durani played a stellar role in India’s maiden triumph in the West Indies. It was due to his brilliance that a mediocre Central Zone team was able to defeat the formidable South Zone and West Zone teams. His single-handed efforts in Duleep Trophy were so spectacular that critics and fans alike felt that that years Duleep Trophy should have been called ‘Durani Trophy’.

His friends also recalled how because of a leg injury, which was hampering his running between the wickets, Durani was on a hitting spree. That was also the series against the visiting Englishmen where the crowd displayed ‘No Durani No Test’ play card. Durani thrilled the massive Bombay crowd by hitting three successive fours off Tony Greig—two sizzling square cuts and a glorious cover drive and then hit Jack Birkenshaw for a towering six.

In the second innings, he skied an Underwood delivery where there was no fielder. This aroused the crowd’s expectations. They clamored for a six and the next Unerwood ball was amidst the roaring crowd. The East stand went mad with joy and Durani’s name became legendary for producing sixes on demand.