December 17, 1999

He lighted up every ground with his incandescence

Syed Mushtaq Ali, that exhilarating Indore opener of the 30's and 40's, and one half of India's most legendary opening pair turns 85 today. He was the original dasher and the biggest draw of his day. A crowd once gheraoed Duleepsinhji, the chairman of the selection committee, with the refrain of `No Mushtaq, No Test' and forced his recall for an unofficial Test at Calcutta with the Australian Services side.

Mushtaq began his Test career as a left arm spinner against Jardine's team at the Eden Gardens in 1933-34. Although he batted at No.7 in his first Test innings he quickly graduated up the order to open in the second innings with Naoomal Jeoomal. But it was his association upfront with Vijay Merchant on the 1936 tour of England that was justly famous.

At Old Trafford. Mushtaq was run out in bizarre circumstances in the first innings when Merchant's drive rebounded off his bat at the non striker's end to Arthur Fagg at short mid on who threw down the stumps to catch Mushtaq out of his ground. England declared at tea on the second day at 571-8 having made 398 in the day and Mushtaq and Merchant returned fire with fire as they raced to 190 without loss in the last session off an attack that comprised Allen, Gover, Hammond, Robins and Verity.

Mushtaq, ever the dasher, drove and pulled with lightning reflexes, taking 15 runs off one over by Allen. In an unorthodox display of hitting he stepped down the track to upset the rhythm of the quick bowlers. He got to his century by the end of the day (106 not out) and was gifted with a gold wrist watch by his captain Vizzy in the pavilion. It was too good to last and Mushtaq was out for 112 the next morning with the partnership worth 203.

Indeed ten years later on the '46 tour of England they were still worthy competitors as a more mellowed Mushtaq and the still compact Merchant put on 124 at Old Trafford and 94 at the Oval. In an association that lasted just 4 Tests and 7 innings they averaged a stupendous 83.4 as an opening pair.

It was thus quite tragic that India was deprived of their services for the subsequent Australian tour with Mushtaq's non-selection leaving a sour taste in the mouth. He was appointed vice captain for the tour but his brother's demise forced him to withdraw. He made himself available again just before the tour party left only to find himself ignored by the then Board President Anthony de Mello.

Mushtaq had one last hurrah making 54 and 106 against the West Indies at the Eden Gardens in 1948-49 but he was never in the good books of the selectors and they brought him back as an afterthought for the last test of the 1951-52 series against England merely in order to give him a bad name and hang him. Sure enough, he was omitted from the 1952 tour of England and that was the end of an all too brief Test career which comprised just 11 Tests.

A feline grace and sheer flamboyance were the hallmark of every stroke he played. The Errol Flynn of cricket, as Keith Miller (who was second to none in the flamboyancy stakes) famously referred to him, was one of those rare players capable of changing the complexion of a match in the twinkling of an eye.