Salim Aziz Durani had an extraordinary persona. Tall, handsome, debonair, flamboyant and many such epithets that convey the star value of a man were freely attributed to him. This over-six-feet tall, blue-eyed, fair Pathan was a heartthrob of millions of cricket fans in an era and a time bygone when there was no television. The written and spoken word were the only means of communication and Durani’s fame, despite very modest achievements, had spread far and wide.
A batting average of 25 in 29 Test matches and a bowling average of 35 don’t speak of an achievement that could lead to the player being idolised by a legion of fans. Durani was an exception, and not because of his magnetic personality alone. He was not short of cricketing skills, being a batsman with rich potential. What lent aura and mystique to his batting were his risk-taking and adventurous forays at the batting crease, and those magical spinning fingers which lured a batsman to his doom.
We humans may prefer hardworking, regimented, disciplined sportspersons who smash records and become the epitome of perfection; yet somewhere in our hearts we reserve a special place for an irreverent “genius” who has the potential to achieve the impossible but never cared enough to do so. Durani, it seemed, was born to saunter along life’s journey, where there is no end goal, just the desire to savour the many goodies life has to offer. Durani’s career is littered with incidents of an indifferent genius, who would in rare moments, produce a sublime performance that would endear him to the public and teammates alike. Be it his match-winning ten and eight wicket hauls against England at Kolkata and Chennai in the 1961-62 series, or his magical spell against the West Indies in the Port of Spain Test of 1972. The two deliveries which he produced to scalp Clive Lloyd and Gary Sobers in quick succession laid the foundations of the historic Indian win, its first ever in the West Indies.
More than his bowling, what literally made him into a folklore hero was his aggression with the bat and his ability to hit sixes, almost on demand. Style was his ingrained trait and the lazy elegance with which he would strike the ball into the stands captured the imagination of the masses. In his comeback series against England in 1972-73, he delivered a few knock-out punches that floored the rivals and won him accolades. In that series he made his name as a man who could hit sixes on demand. In a brief but difficult run chase of a mere 86 runs on a treacherous wicket at Chennai, Durani scored a quick-fire 38, which included two sixes, among the many sixes he hit in that series.
Durani was a man given to many distractions life has to offer, and that dismayed his captains and even his teammates. Supremely gifted and at his best, a match-winner. Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi was his captain on India’s series to the West Indies in 1962 and was agonised at Durani’s lack of focus. I document Pataudi’s frustrations at Durani’s lack of discipline in my book Not Just Cricket: A Reporter’s Journey Through Modern India, where I quote Pataudi saying that it was not easy to handle Durani. Many have, over the years, felt that Durani needed a more empathetic and understanding captain, who could have harnessed and channelled his undeniable talent into a singular force. In response to this question, Pataudi did feel that may be “on hindsight, I should have” but obviously it was not easy.
Durani’s six-hitting ability and his film star looks did get him an opportunity to try his hand in the glamour world of Hindi cinema. His co-star in the B.R. Ishara film Charitra was another debutant, Parveen Babi. Babi went on to become a superstar whereas Durani was dubbed a failure, never to act again.
Durani’s journey had begun in 1937, born in a camp at Khyber Pass, when his mother and brother were travelling from Kabul to Karachi. His Afghani father Abdul Aziz Durani had played for India as a wicketkeeper in a couple of unofficial tests in 1935-36. In 1947, Abdul Aziz migrated to Pakistan, leaving his family behind in Jamnagar. Rameshwar Singh, a veteran journalist from Jaipur who had idolised Durani and seen him up close later in life, right up to the end, feels Durani was generous to a fault, “helpful to friends, kind to even strangers and always there for you.” He is sad, almost tearful, to see the end of a fascinating personality, with whom he had interacted first as a fan and later as a professional journalist and a friend. So are all lovers of sport and cricket.
Pradeep Magazine has been a cricket writer for four decades and is the author of two books, Not Quite Cricket and the recently published Not Just Cricket: A Reporter’s Journey Through Modern India.