To read the recent tributes to former India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi who died four years ago was to briefly relive Hyderabad cricket of the 1970s, some of the happiest memories of my cricket life. To share the Hyderabad dressing room with the likes of our captain ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig, Syed Abid Ali and Tiger Pataudi was a special experience. Each was a stalwart in his field and collectively brought a hundred years of playing experience.
While Abbas and Abid are happily with us, Jai was the first to go, in 1999, leaving the cricket community of the day bereft. My association with each of them was brief at the Ranji Trophy level, though I played a good deal of local cricket with them.
None from this Fab Four was given to complimenting you to your face; their appreciation of a good performance was always quietly behind the scenes, putting in a word or two where it mattered, so that your reputation preceded you wherever you went to play. And God save you if you gave the slightest hint of complacency or smug self-satisfaction. I remember a conversation I had with Pataudi in December 1992, long after my playing days. He was generally appreciative of the dignified way southerners tended to treat sportsmen and other public personalities. When I warmed to the theme and said that many old cricket lovers remembered how well I bowled in my day, he shot back with, "Yes, people have such short memories!"
It took a long time to win the confidence of the captain. Jaisimha was not exactly aloof in the dressing room but he did exude an air of authority. I know that S Venkataraghavan's chair in the Chepauk dressing room was a legendary abode of detached grandeur, and though Jai did not have a reserved corner in ours, where he sat was an island of calm amidst the general chaos of blaring radio-cassette players and strewn gear. We all knew to stay off limits whenever he seemed lost in thought.
The mood changed when one of the boys, like Narasimha Rao or P Jyothiprasad, played a prank that caught his eye. He would then unwind enough to roar an appropriate Hyderabadi shout, such as "Ud bola!" In my case, the first suggestion that I had arrived in the eyes of the captain was when he said to the team at the end of a hard day at the KSCA stadium that the two old men in the side (he and I) hadn't done too badly. "Bowling bhi achha kare aur dyvaan mare" (Bowled well and did some diving around). I didn't know whether to feel happy at this, because Jai was eight years older than me, but it was a compliment all right!
Off the field, Abbas was the stylist among the four, though at the time all of them, with the possible exception of Tiger, were quite dapper. Appearing to look at the world around him with amused tolerance, he spoke both English and Hyderabadi with a beautiful but natural accent, and was politeness personified even while ticking you off for a poor effort. I played under his captaincy for quite a few years in local cricket, and discovered he was a different animal on the field. It needed nerves of steel to handle his nagging ways between overs during a long bowling spell, but all was well at the end of the day.
"Abbas Ali Baig spoke both English and Hyderabadi with a beautiful but natural accent, and was politeness personified even while ticking you off for a poor effort"
Abid was perhaps the most popular senior player in the side. If Jai favoured Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong in his musical outbursts (strictly after playing hours), Abid enlivened the atmosphere with his favourite calypso, which contained the line "Great India bowler Abid Ali". He was an enthusiastic participant in silly card games on train journeys and once ran the length of a train platform in khaki shorts to win a wager. He was a role model for effort, enthusiasm and physical fitness, no matter what the status of the match, but off the field, he was the life and soul of the party - in a strictly teetotal way.
Hyderabad had many other talented players. Kenia Jayantilal was a solid opening batsman who scored tons of runs in domestic cricket. He was a more-than-handy bowler with the new ball as well, though in the time I played for Hyderabad, he was not often called up to bowl. His was an ever-smiling presence in the team. His long stint with Mafatlal made him a Mumbai professional, and he became a valued assistant to Frank Tyson in his coaching programme for fast bowlers.
Mumtaz Hussain was a magical left-arm spinner in his university days, with several mysterious variations in his armoury, but equally mysterious was his transformation into an orthodox bowler in the Ranji Trophy. His was perhaps the sharpest cricket brain in the team, quick to analyse a situation and offer solutions.
Medium-pacer D Govindraj had a beautiful action and a natural outswinger that promised an international career, but he had to be content with domestic cricket.
Wicketkeeper P Krishnamurthy's talent was spoken of highly, and he could bat a bit too. His great moment in cricket was the 1971 Indian triumph in the West Indies. He played all five Tests in that series, though he faded away when Farokh Engineer came back for the England tour the same year, and later Syed Kirmani stepped into his boots. Murthy was a bowler's delight with his encouragement and insights from behind the wicket. As a team-mate he took under his wing, I owed him a huge debt of gratitude, as I did my other mentor, Abid, as well.
Narasimha Rao and Jyotiprasad were the bright sparks of the team, very talented and mischievous. Rao was perhaps the first young Hyderabad batsman of my time to be selected for India, but he was also a brilliant legspinner and fielder. His Test career was all too brief. Today's selectors would have probably seen more value in his unorthodox bowling gifts than those in the past. Vijaya Paul was a correct, compact batsman, who too did not progress much beyond the Ranji Trophy.
Despite an abundance of talent, Hyderabad did not win the Ranji Trophy under the leadership of Jaisimha. Brijesh Patel once joked that Tamil Nadu's failure to repeat its 1987-88 Ranji Trophy triumph could be traced to the state's water. It would perhaps need the disputed water from the river Kaveri with its origin in neighbouring Karnataka to bring the trophy home! It was difficult to pinpoint the reasons for Hyderabad's inability to translate ability into results, despite Jaisimha's widely held reputation as the shrewdest captain in the country. He and his senior colleagues rarely spoke about it, but it must have hurt them greatly.