Image: Salim Durani, by Vasim Maner/ Impact Index
One of the most intriguing aspects of the next fifty-over World Cup, to be staged in Australia and New Zealand in 2015, is the presence of Afghanistan. They will be one of four Associate countries participating, having defeated Kenya in the qualifying competition, the World Cricket league in Sharjah in October.
Everybody wants the non-Test playing nations to develop, and help promote cricket’s cause as a global sport. Test cricket of course is too much to expect as indicated by Bangladesh’s travails. There has not been a properly functioning new entrant for thirty years, since Sri Lanka’s first Test in January 1982. One-day cricket presents a more realistic challenge but even then the World Cup can seem a tediously long process of working out that the quarter-final places will be filled by the eight top Test playing nations.
Twenty years ago it was Kenya who looked the most likely of the “minnows” to reach the big time. Now Ireland are looking good but every time they are on the verge of something significant, a big star moves to England.
It is surely the case that everyone will be hoping Afghanistan do well in 2015. The story of the national team, arrestingly told in Tim Albone’s book, Out of The Ashes (2011) is certainly unique in cricket history and it is difficult to believe that any other sport has anything to compare with it. When somebody talks of a sportsman’s triumph over adversity, it is usually a reference to a strained ligament. The Afghan cricket team has emerged from refugee camps in Pakistan, surviving conditions that nobody watching the World Cup will be able to imagine.
Cricket is first reported as having been played in Afghanistan in 1839. This was the year of the start of the First Afghan War, one of a series of engagements brought about by enduring British suspicions of Russian intentions in Asia. Then, as now, Afghanistan was a beautiful, fractured violent and invincible land. Cricket didn’t really catch on.
When Matthew Engel became editor of Wisden in 1993, he introduced a new part into the Overseas Cricket section, “Cricket Around The World” featuring brief reports from various places from Austria to Tristan de Cunha. Afghanistan did not feature at all until the 1997 edition, which reported that refugees from the Soviet invasion returning from Pakistan had brought a love of cricket with them. An eight team softball competition took place in 1996 with the final taking place in Jalailabad. Players wore traditional Afghan dress. The next Wisden bulletin, in 2003 remarked on a further influx of returning refugees, this time after the fall of the Taliban government, and reported on advances in development with the Afghanistan Cricket Board, with support from Pakistan and England, organising domestic competitions.
The progress since then has been little short of astonishing. Afghanistan qualified for the Twenty 20 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2012 and performed creditably. India had to work hard to beat them in Colombo. The fifty-over competition is a great leap forward. But they will not lack support.
Afghanistan has already made one distinctive and diverting contribution to cricket history.
The development of cricket in India is a complex story. One aspect of it is the contribution of rulers in the so-called princely states. In this context by far the most famous was the great England batsman, K S Ranjitsinghi who became the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar. One of his successors, together with Ranji’s nephew, another outstanding England player, K S Duleepsinghi, decided to enter Nawanagar in the domestic Ranji Trophy for 1936-37. They needed foreign talent and recruited the great seam bowler Amer Singh and a wicket-keeper from Kabul, named Abd-al-Aziz. He had a son, also born in Kabul in 1934. That son’s name was Salim Durrani.
Durrani was not India’s greatest cricketer – he averaged 25 with the bat and 35 with the ball in 29 Test matches played over fourteen years. But he was surely the most quixotic and the most charismatic. Even his near contemporary the Nawab of Pataudi did not have quite his regal bearing as Ramachandra Guha rightly described it. Nor can one imagine any Indian cricketer of the past – not Pataudi, not Sunil Gavaskar, not even Kapil Dev – slipping so easily into the modern era of celebrity and T20. Durrani did not just look like a matinee idol – he actually was one.
It is tempting, but would be quite wrong, to call him a poor man’s Gary Sobers. Tall and slim, he was a marvellously casual looking left handed batsman, who appeared to be able to hit sixes at will but was just as happy to stonewall, should inclination as much as circumstance dictate. In his early days he was a highly skilful slow left arm bowler: he once had the better of the great man. At Port of Spain in March 1971, in India’s second Test against the West Indies, Durrani dismissed Sobers – for a duck – and Clive Lloyd in quick succession in a vital passage of play, Sobers being beaten by sharp turn and bowled between bat and pad. India went on to win the match – their first victory over the West Indies – and the series.
Durrani rarely bowled by that time – but in earlier days he had taken ten wickets in a Test, against England at Madras in 1961-62. He played against England in three series at home, 1961-62, 1963-64 and 1972-73 but oddly enough never toured England although India made three trips there during his career.
He played solely as a batsman in his last series in 1972-73, playing a vital part in the victory over England at Madras with 38 in each innings in a low scoring match and almost hustling India towards victory with two straight sixes. He was dropped for the fourth Test, causing a national outpouring of rage and grief. The selectors were effectively forced to bring him back for the fifth Test but he was a passenger in the field.
He made one Test century, against the West Indies at Port of Spain in 1961-62. It was, of course, a special one. West Indies had won the first three Tests convincingly and in the match against Barbados, the Indian captain, Nari Contractor had been concussed by a ball from Charlie Griffith. In the fourth game, Wes Hall, the world’s fastest bowler, took five for 20 to reduce India to 197 in response to 444. Durrani had batted at number nine in the first innings but Pataudi promoted him to number three in the second as India followed on and he made 104. It was a magnificent innings full of straight drives, and powerful hooks and pulls off Hall as much as anyone. He inspired the out of form veteran Polly Umrigar to make 172 not out though India still lost.
As Mihir Bose has written, it was an innings that made a statement, about India, but especially about Durrani. From then on, whenever he batted at home, the crowds would chant “Give us a sixer Salim!”.
He really was ahead of his time.
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