Having Salim Durani over to see Afghanistan play their debut Test match in Bengaluru gave a warm and poignant touch to the occasion. The BCCI, often derided for lacking a sense of nostalgia and history, must be lauded for this thoughtful gesture.
Salimbhai (as Durani is known on the cricket circuit) is the original Kabuliwallah and technically the first Afghan to play Test cricket, though this was for India over a 15-year career. His family had moved to Junagadh from Kabul when he was a toddler.
Though his 83-year-old frame now carries a stoop, in his heyday, Salimbhai’s popularity matched that of the charismatic Tiger Pataudi. With matinee idol looks (he was leading man in Parveen Babi’s maiden film Charitra), and tremendous cricketing prowess, he was a crowd favourite everywhere.
He was a crafty left-arm spinner and dashing batsman: sometimes too mercurial and irrepressible for his own good as his staccato appearances for India would suggest. But he was a match-winner, with bat or ball. In the West Indies in 1971, he dismissed Garfield Sobers and Clive Lloyd off successive deliveries that turned the Test – and ultimately the series — in India’s favour. While he represented Rajasthan, Gujarat and Central Zone, Salimbhai had a cult following in Bombay. The SoBo maidans where office matches were held, would fill up rapidly if he was on the day’s menu. His best-remembered performance also came in this city. This was against England in 1972-73 in the last Test of the series and was preceded with controversy and melodrama.
Salimbhai, despite decent earlier performances, was dropped for the Test, leading to public ire. Posters proclaiming ‘No Durani, No Test’, sprang up at various places, putting selectors in a quandary. Finally, they relented. While the Test ended in a tame draw, Salimbhai made it memorable with his lusty hitting. Just out of school, I was eyewitness to this and can vouch that at least two of the three sixes he hit were on public demand, earning him the everlasting sobriquet of ‘Mr Sixer’.
Sadly, he was never to play another Test. He was getting on in years, selectors were looking to infuse fresh blood into the India team and Salimbhai was put out to pasture, with many critics regretting he had not fulfilled his potential.
I got to know Salimbhai professionally about a decade later. He was warm and affectionate, but lived life without restraint (whenever he could afford it), and often became a victim of his own generous ways. In early 1990 I was alerted that Salimbhai was on hard days and staying at Aram Hotel on Girgaum Chowpatty. I spoke to Pritish Nandy, then editor of Illustrated Weekly, of a possible story he agreed to instantly.
Aram was a rundown dorm-cum-hotel. Salimbhai was crammed in a room that could barely accommodate his 6-foot place frame, a chair and a small suitcase. Over cups of tea, he spoke about his travails, blaming nobody except himself, optimistic that the tide would turn.
On my way out, I asked the receptionist whether the room was being paid for, and if so by whom? The receptionist turned on me with astonishment and not a little consternation. “Do you know who that man is? Does anybody have the ‘aukat’ (loosely translated, standing and temerity) to ask Salim Durani for rent?’’