August 19, 2001

Abid Ali was an original, a genuine character among cricketers

"Kya bole?" (What did you say)

"Kya bole?" (What did you say)? Syed Abid Ali is credited with asking this classic question of GR Viswanath, when they met three quarters of the way down the pitch, with GRV rooted to the spot and repeatedly shouting "No!" at the top of his voice, and Abid still charging down regardless for a run.

This no doubt apocryphal story of an incident in a Test match was told with much relish by the Karnataka batsman, at the expense of the Hyderabad all rounder, who had a reputation for getting mixed up in run outs. The reason was simple: Abid Ali was about twice as swift between wickets as most other batsmen and was always on the lookout for quick singles. He was once stumped off the first ball he faced, because he had taken off for a single even before playing the ball.

Abid Ali was a genuine character among cricketers, an original in many ways. For instance, he set high standards of physical fitness for a generation of cricketers known for its lackadaisical attitude to such matters. The punishing regimen of training he followed was often the subject of anecdotes, wildly exaggerated and embellished, but perfect entertainment in the evening after a long day at the ground.

Few cricketers exploited their God-given talent better. Abid Ali was an honest-to-goodness medium pacer, who could also bat aggressively, but look where it got him. He made a sensational Test debut in 1967 when he took 6 for 55 against Australia at Brisbane, following it up with two brilliant innings of 78 and 81 opening the innings in the Sydney Test. He practised his fielding with such devotion that he became an acrobatic close-in fielder and an athletic one in the outfield, with an unerring, flat throw. He developed enough variations in his military medium pace bowling to keep the batsmen constantly guessing. He also had the knack of making the ball skid on most wickets. He was demonstrative in an age when most bowlers tended to hide their emotions. His appeals to God when he beat the edge, and his sardonic grins at batsmen blessed by the Lord - unfairly in Abid's opinion - were sights to see and remember.

I was one of many younger cricketers to benefit from his encouragement. His way of helping me become a better off spinner was to hit my best deliveries repeatedly out of the ground during net practice, so that I learnt to adjust my flight when confronted with batsmen who could do that to me in matches. Even in matches in which we were pitted against each other, the lessons continued, ruining my bowling analysis in the process. Of course, when I got him out, he always had a perfect explanation for the accident that had nothing to do with good bowling!

When Abid Ali took over the Hyderabad captaincy from the cerebral and celebrated ML Jaisimha, he was determined to make a strong impression. He was solemnity personified as he addressed the team just before taking the field in his first Ranji Trophy match as captain. "Boys, I want you to play tight, mean cricket. I want us to give not LESS than 40 runs in the first hour." He had meant to say "not MORE than 40 runs," and the giggles and suppressed guffaws that interrupted him, spoiled his speech somewhat, but it was a happy Hyderabad team that took the field that morning.