Playing for Hyderabad pre-1980 was not just about playing cricket. It was a lifelong lesson in the nuances of on-field technique and off-field glamour.
Geniuses like Nawab MAK Pataudi and ML Jaisimha (Jai khaloo to me) simplified the awfully technical game of cricket in a practical way, and demonstrated it every time they stepped out onto the field. They also added a great deal of romance and flair to the game and filled up stadiums all the time.
The swaying Sultan Saleem and Mumtaz Hussain continued that tradition and took the fun to the dressing room. Workhorses like Syed Abid Ali and Devraj Govindraj dedicated their lives in trying to get P Krishnamurthy behind the wickets more victims.
While all that was happening at the first-class level, coaches like Pawan, Kiran, Imran, Anil Mittal and John Manoj, to name a few, helped create a batsman like VVS Laxman.
Hyderabad cricket then was played hard and in the true spirit of the game. The A league was filled with Ranji Trophy players, and getting runs there was as tough as it was on the first-class circuit.
There were few coaches who understood the fundamentals of the game and moulded our instincts into technique. Most importantly, we had many grounds on which to play matches. Today Hyderabad has many coaches who charge phenomenally high fees and don't have a clue about proper technique. There are hardly enough grounds for the players to play on. To make matters worse, youngsters and their parents seem to feel an urgent and insistent need to learn T20 skills before understanding the basics of the game. This is tragic, because Hyderabad never lacked inherent cricket talent and never will.
During our times, we lived cricket. I remember playing a game with Jai khaloo leading, and the crowd going wild, screaming, "Helen, idhar tau dekh!" And once while we batted together on a turning track where the ball was holding up, he came up to me and said, "Saadu, don't square-cut the offie." The rest was left to me to understand.
One time when Anura Tennekoon, the elegant captain of Sri Lanka, was batting against us, Jai positioned me at a very silly silly point with the order that I was to move just a fraction every time he swayed in to bowl. After the game I asked him why. He said, "Think about it, son." I did but came up with naught. He laughed and said, "To disturb his peripheral vision."
I also remember the time in our house in Delhi when I asked the Nawab why I was getting out caught at point so often. His reply, short and curt as always, was, "Square cut to covers." I hardly ever got out square-cutting again.
The discussions in our dressing room were usually about cricket, girls and how to keep Tamil Nadu from qualifying for the knockouts, which could be called fixing, but only involved cricket strategy. It was never about money. Had these old boys been offered a few crores, I wonder what they would have done. I would like to believe that they would have asked the bookies to take a hike. I know for sure the likes of Jaisimha, Mumtaz, Nausheer Mehta, Jyoti Prasad, Abid Ali, Jayanthilal and Krishnamurthy would have died rather than sell the game they so cherished. There may have been politics in the game, and the administrators of the time, no friends of mine, may have been nepotists, but they were not known to have been corrupt.
When I was younger, visiting players would often come home for dinner - Sir Garry Sobers, Ken Barrington, G Viswanath and many other great players of the world. I would stand behind the curtain and listen to them in awe. Later, my older brother and I would play cricket till the early hours in the verandah with these greats of the game.
The contest was the thing back then, and the desire for it was strong in the hearts of Hyderabad's players. The dressing room at Fateh Maidan Stadium used to be shared by both teams, their allotted spaces separated by a green cloth. One time, Pataudi and Jaisimha were batting when tea was called. In the opposing team was the dashing virtuoso Salim Durani, Salim bhai to me. Making sure they could be heard across the partition, Pataudi and Jaisimha started to joke about the opposition spinner, Salim bhai, content in the fact that the wicket was dead and there was nothing the genius could do. Their intention was to rile Salim bhai, and riled he was. He walked up to them and said, "Call yourself batsmen? The first over, I will get you both." Both players had made half-centuries by then, so they chided him for his childishness.
When play resumed Durani grabbed the ball and yorked Pataudi with his first delivery. Tiger doffed his cap to the genius. Then Durani allowed the new batsman to take a single and when Jaisimha came on strike, he spun the last ball of the over viciously across him. Jaisimha took off his cap and gave it to Salim bhai as both walked off the ground, having been caught at gully. Salim bhai split the webbing on his hand, tearing it with the effort it took to spin the ball on that dead track. Such were the cricketers I grew up with.
Hyderabad cricket was full of romance. Till very recently there were only two instances when a girl ran on to the ground and kissed a batsman. The first time it was Abbas Ali Baig who was the recipient of female affections and the next time I did. Sadly, a don from Charminar was madly in love with the lady who had got to me on the field, and the next day there were threats that my legs would be broken if I ever looked at her again. Who was to reason with this madman that it wasn't me who was doing the looking! The day after, I sent one of our fast bowlers to negotiate a truce.
The bonding between players both on the ground and off it was extraordinary during those glorious days of Hyderabad cricket. Later in my career, things changed.
I stood for what I believed to be right, and unfortunately, for my career that is, I also spoke my mind, which wasn't the done thing in those days. There was an incident where the Hyderabad team was sacked after we demanded the coach apologise for abusing and screaming at our captain, who was my best friend and room-mate. The coach never apologised. The captain joined hands with the coach and the administrators and I was made the scapegoat.
After this incident, I saw, from the outside, the game change in Hyderabad. Caps gave way to helmets, the amateur to the professional, and the tremendous team spirit and bonhomie, both on and off the field, to a dog-eat-dog world. I believe it was because both the BCCI and the Hyderabad Cricket Association were in denial about the entry of professionals into the game and refused to define the term "professional" and alter the spirit of the game accordingly. In this confusion many an administrator and player slipped into the cesspool of betrayal, corruption and disgrace.
The true old Hyderabad cricket no longer existed, its extraordinary culture and traditions were completely eroded, and for a long time, whenever someone asked me who I had played for, I hid behind "Haryana".
That was till I arrived uninvited to the wedding of the son of my close friend Faiyaz Baig and met all my old boys and reminisced about our glorious days. I dare say there still remains many a player and administrator who can swing Hyderabad cricket on its heels and give it the direction of old, but till that day Hyderabad cricket will rest in my heart and not in my eyes.
Hyderabad has an unlimited and unbelievable pool of talent, and if it can produce Mumtaz, Jaisimha and Laxman once, it can, with proper management and a great dose of zealous love for the game, produce their like again and again.
I know it for I am a Hyderabadi at heart. We fall like any other, but while others remain vanquished, we rise to conquer again.