When people are asked to describe a Hyderabadi batsman, they always say "wristy" and "stylish". When they are asked to describe Hyderabad, they say "aaram se [laidback]". As a proud Hyderabadi, I will say this: not only has our city changed over the last two-odd decades, so has our cricket.
Yes, it was a great place to live in when I was growing up and it is still a great place. (We will come to traffic and traffic sense later).
The reason for the wristiness that gets people excited about Hyderabadi cricket actually is quite ordinary and unstylish. Matting wickets. You can tell who grew up on matting wickets by the amount of wrist they put into their batting. Not just in Hyderabad but anywhere, because the bounce off matting is very awkward from a good length. You have to use your wrists to manoeuvre the ball and keep it down. Batsmen from the west and the north of the country, however, grow up on turf wickets and use their elbows a lot more. Look at a batsman's style - wrist or elbow - and you can tell what wickets he grew up on.
Apart from matting, then, was there ever a Hyderabadi cricket culture? I would like to think so. Just like there was a Hyderabadi culture. The character of Hyderabadi cricket, I think, is of cricketers who are naturally talented, easygoing and very approachable, without egos or an air about who they are.
For me, the very emblem of this was ML Jaisimha, who I called "uncle". I couldn't bring myself to say much to him because I was in awe of him, but I listened to everything he said. I first met him when I was selected for an Under-13 camp in Vijaywada. I was instantly charmed. He was very real yet seemed magical. His stories about Indian cricket legends took our breath away. MAK Pataudi, Erapalli Prasanna, GR Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar… to imagine that the man speaking to us had spoken to them filled us with wonder.
And he was a quintessential Hyderabadi. Our camp was a ten-minute walk from his guest house. Often we saw him turn up at our ground sitting on the back of someone's bicycle. He'd slide off and give us a smile, and we'd think, "My god, someone like the great ML Jaisimha can move around like this on a bicycle."
I was 16 when I met Azhar for the first time. As kids we were in awe of the fact that a Hyderabadi was captain of India.
I grew up in the heart of what at the time was the new part of Hyderabad - an area called Abids, about 5-6km north, across the river, from the Charminar area. The apartment complex we lived in had three blocks of flats set in a u-shape with an open playground in between. We played cricket, football, badminton in the open, and during festival season floodlights were installed, so we played cricket - tennis-ball tournaments - at night.
Like most kids growing up in the '70s, I naturally gravitated towards cricket, though it was at school that I began playing it seriously. The PE teacher, Jayaprakash sir, at Little Flower High School, which was a five-minute walk from home, saw me one day batting casually with friends during recess and asked me to join the school team's practice. I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time. School ended at 3pm, I practised with the seniors till 4:30, went home and played till about 6:30.
Every Sunday, my parents would take me and my brother to my maternal grandparents' house in Marredpally, Secunderabad. My mother's brother, Baba Krishna Mohan, who played club cricket, would dive into games with us. Cricket was a big part of his life and slowly it became part of mine. Our Sundays were spent playing cricket, watching his videotapes - the 1983 World Cup, India beating England in 1986, and from a video featuring David Gower, an image of him walking through the Long Room at Lord's - I never forgot it.
One summer my uncle suggested I join a cricket camp started by MV "Bobjee" Narasimha Rao at St John's, near my grandparents' house. One of my uncle's team-mates, V Manohar, was the coach, along with John Manoj. It was an adventure for a 12-year-old to live away from home. But after a week at the camp, despite living with my grandparents and uncle, who doted on me, I got homesick and went back. Then one week at home and I missed the cricket. I told myself that if I wanted to play cricket, I would have to return to the camp. Leaving home was a task I had to embrace very early.
After the camp ended, the trainees were accommodated in various league clubs around the city. I was sent to join the Marredpally Colts, a D1 Division club owned by Randolph Salins, who we used to call "Uncle Randy". I was 12 at the time, and our oldest player, the captain, was 35. Uncle Randy, who is no more, ensured I was made to feel comfortable and at home while playing among much older players. On one occasion when I was at home down with fever, he called and said I should turn up to play because the team needed me. My father took me to the game and I scored 55. Uncle Randy then made a prediction to my father: "Your son has got the potential to play big cricket, because not only is he skilful, he is determined too." He had such faith in my game even at a very early stage. I still play for the Marredpally Colts and am proud to announce that they are now in A1 in the Hyderabad league.
I loved being around cricket - practice, batting, matches. I loved scoring runs and loved watching other batsmen do the same. In 1980, when I was about seven, I remember sitting in the stands of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Stadium when Keith Fletcher's England took on South Zone. The ground was very close to my house.
My biggest international game as a boy was India v Pakistan. I felt like a king that day, because I was watching from the Hyderabad Cricket Association president's box since my grandfather was the president of the Andhra Pradesh Sports Council. I remember Wasim Akram hit Krishnamachari Srikkanth and forced him to retire, but India won, so I was very happy. Every cricket match was a huge occasion.
That was our world: school, college, the large compound in the house of my oldest friend, Parth Satwalkar. As we grew older and more independent, we had our own eating places too. Paradise for biryani; Maharaja, a bakery near my college, St Mary's; and King & Cardinal, a bakery and fast-food restaurant in Himayat Nagar, owned by my former Hyderabad captain in the Buchi Babu tournament, Srinivas Chakravarthy. Maharaja is not around anymore, but whenever I'd return from a tour, I'd go eat at Paradise and King & Cardinal, where you get the best burgers in the world. The only difference now is that I can't go into these restaurants, so I eat in my car.
Hyderabad has changed substantially since the time I was growing up. We were thought of as old-fashioned boys from an old-fashioned town. The first time I went to Bangalore and walked down MG Road and Brigade Road, I remember being dazzled by the lights and the buzz at night. It was a culture shock.
Today, my city is buzzing too, and I can say with confidence that Hyderabad is one of the most happening cities in India. The software boom has led to a dramatic change - an old, quiet, conservative town is now a cosmopolitan city. It welcomes and absorbs people from all over the country. There are great job opportunities, good schools, parks, and hospitals. I think the airport actually symbolises what Hyderabad has become.
The one thing I miss about the Hyderabad of old is the absence of traffic on the roads. The only time I get surprised and annoyed (yes, I do get annoyed) is when I see people driving their shining new cars as if they were riding bicycles that can squeeze through any narrow road.
And the thing that makes me pause for thought is the cricket we're seeing at the school, club and league levels. While there are many more people entering cricket now, and there's excellent infrastructure, plenty of grounds, coaching camps and turf wickets, I can't say the standard of matches is of the kind I grew up watching.
There was a time when the two strongest league teams in Hyderabad were Andhra Bank and Syndicate Bank. It's not an exaggeration when I say their matches used to be watched in packed grounds. I realise how lucky I was growing up as a player due to the quality of cricketers I played alongside. Even by a conservative estimate, in the Hyderabad team I played with for many years, there would have been no less than ten who were talented enough to play for India. When I played for Hyderabad last season, that number was now down to five or six at the most.
That the standard of club and school cricket is not exceptional should worry us. According to me, it is very important that the selection process is carried out stringently and accurately for the U-14 and U-16 age group, because that's a very tough phase for youngsters. It's when they choose their career. If a talented kid doesn't get rewarded for good performances, he tends to leave the game and concentrate on academics and the other options available to him these days.
But I don't think it's a problem limited to Hyderabad. It is a wider issue. There are great things being done in Indian cricket but we have to make sure that those with talent don't quit the game because of sloppy selection systems.
Other than that, I am proud to be a Hyderabadi and welcome you to my city. We are known for our hospitality and respect our visitors. Khuda Hafiz. Namaskarmandi.