Salim Durani, the debonair India cricketer of the 1960s with movie-star looks, a puckish sense of humour, and a penchant for hitting monstrous sixes on demand, died on Sunday. He was 88. He had been living with his younger brother Jahangir Durani in Jamnagar, Gujarat. Durani had undergone a proximal femoral nail surgery after he broke his thigh bone in a fall in January this year.
Known for his fine dressing style and swagger, he scored just one century though he had seven fifties in the 50 innings he played for the country, scoring 1,202 runs. A joy to watch when in full flow, Durani had the ability to demolish any bowling attack on his day though it was as a bowler he had first made his mark for the Indian team. India’s first Arjuna Award-winner in cricket, Durani was a tall man and could get the ball to lift and turn on any surface with a bit of help.
A fascinating character, the cricketer shared a special relation with the crowd, who once expressed their ire after he was dropped from the team for a match in Kanpur, and carried banners and placards that read ‘No Durani, no Test’. Sunil Gavaskar had once written that if ever Salim Durani wrote his autobiography, the apt title would be, ‘Ask for a Six’. For 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 mid wicket stands. Durani was a ‘people’s man’, whose impact can never be quantified by the 29 Test matches that he played over 13 years between 1960 and 1973, or the 1200 plus runs he scored and 75 wickets that he took with his mean left-arm spin.
The first and only Afghanistan-born cricketer to play Test cricket for India, he 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 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 the 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.
Former Bengal captain Raju Mukherjee, 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 to which he would reply: “May be it was too cold for me”. The pain was there but the sense of humour never left him.