Few batsmen from the 1930s and ’40s would have found a place in any contemporary white-ball cricket side. Syed Mushtaq Ali — sinuously graceful, outrageously aggressive — is a glorious exception.
Quite appropriately, the BCCI has named its domestic Twenty20 tournament, played among Ranji Trophy teams, after the man who would, according to cricketing legend, hit sixes upon spectators’ demands (“Mushtaq! Six!”, went the cry).
This is a tribute to Syed Mushtaq Ali’s unique genius, on his 107th birth anniversary.
A whirlwind at Old Trafford
English cricketer, and later renowned cricket administrator, G.O.B. ‘Gubby’ Allen — whose house had a common wall with the Lord’s Cricket Ground and who had his own private access to it — had an early inkling of Mushtaq’s capability.
When the Indian team toured England in 1936, Gubby was one half of a formidable opening bowling pair, the other being Alf Gover.
India was having a torrid time in the series for reasons other than cricket. The Indian captain, the Maharaja of Vizianagram, better known as ‘Vizzy’, was not a popular figure in the team.
For India, the highlight of the series was the second Test at Old Trafford, Manchester. In replying to India’s first innings total of 203, England declared their innings at 571/8, with a big ton by Wally Hammond. As India began their second innings, England would have thought of wrapping it up quickly.
But a tall, gangly Indian opening batsman who was run out in the first innings, had other plans.
Mushtaq Ali, who was used to matting wickets and perhaps had never played on turf wickets, stepped out and lofted Gubby Allen over mid-wicket for a boundary first ball.
Alf Gover, who was due to bowl from the other end, was a world-class swing bowler of repute. After retirement, he imparted skills at his famous indoor school — a coaching centre way ahead of its time.
The slips were where Gover got most of his wickets, and on that day, he packed the off-side field.
Imagine his surprise when Mushtaq Ali hit an away-swinging ball from the off side to mid-wicket for a blistering four.
Fully aware of his genius, his usually quiet, reticent teammate, Jahangir Khan, encouraged Mushtaq Ali to hit against the line. The English team and the Manchester crowd thought this ruse would not last long.
Syed Mushtaq Ali reached 30 in no time. The Lancastrians in the crowd who were purists were not impressed and thought this was too good to last.
In one Allen over, Mushtaq hit 15 runs. Hedley Verity was brought into the attack to break the partnership.
Now, a batsman no less than Don Bradman was on record saying he never got the full measure of Verity. But on that July day, all Verity could do was to stem the flow of runs by bowling the first maiden of the day.
When Mushtaq Ali was batting on 90, the great Wally Hammond came to him and suggested he slow down and be cautious, as Test hundreds don’t come so often.
The next three scoring shots were boundaries. It was a remarkable hundred, the first by an Indian on foreign soil. Mushtaq made 112 and shared an opening stand of 203 with Vijay Merchant in English conditions.
Mushtaq regularly played impossible shots, not just in that innings but right through his career. By the end of it, the Old Trafford crowd was more appreciative of his immense talent.
Amongst the English greats who came to the dressing room to congratulate Mushtaq were C.B. Fry, Pelham Francis ‘Plum’ Warner, Jack Hobbs and Douglas Jardine.
Facing Mushtaq’s broadsword
In the third Test of the 1948-49 series against the West Indies in Calcutta (as it then was), Mushtaq scored a half-century in the first innings and a hundred in the second. The West Indies used all 10 cricketers on the field in the second innings to bowl at Mushtaq.
When Mushtaq Ali wrote his memoirs, Cricket Delightful, he chose another mercurial cricketer, the Australian fast-bowling great Keith Miller, to write a foreword. He conveyed to Miller that he did not intend to write a controversial, best-selling book, but rather one that dwelt on the pleasures of the game.
What Allen and Gover faced at Old Trafford, Keith Miller himself experienced in Delhi.
Miller bowled a good length delivery outside off stump, only to witness Mushtaq hit it with a cross bat to square leg. Miller attributed it to luck, but when a rising delivery on the off side was glanced to fine leg, it made Miller realise that Mushtaq Ali was a genius with the bat.
Mushtaq, fans’ favourite
Modern cricketers play with abandon only because T20 and one-day cricket give them the licence to do so.
It’s a marvel then, that from 1936 to 1952, this tall wizard from Indore played cricket T20-style. Such was his popularity that when he was not selected to play against the Australian Services team in Calcutta in 1945, thousands of spectators marched in protest. ‘No Mushtaq, No Test’ was the defiant call around Eden Gardens.
The public anger was so high that the team had to play Mushtaq. As Keith Miller rightly put it, no cricketer in living memory till then could make such a thing happen.
Mushtaq’s fan following transcended national boundaries. The former prime minister of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, twice tried to persuade Mushtaq to take up Pakistani citizenship even as late as during the 1972 Shimla Agreement.
It didn’t surprise anyone that Mushtaq declined, because leave alone going to Pakistan, he didn’t even consider leaving his hometown Indore in favour of a metropolis like Bombay or Delhi. While Mushtaq declined Bhutto’s offer, he nicknamed his grandson ‘Zulfi’ by way of acknowledging Bhutto’s admiration for him.
Mushtaq was a simple, sensitive man. Always appreciative of the fans’ love for him, he would sign autographs at Eden Gardens for hours after the end of the day’s play.
His descendants inherited some of his talents — son Gulrez played 74 first-class matches, and grandson Abbas 110.
A greater man
For all his cricketing genius, the person Mushtaq was twice as great as the cricketer. He had remarkable human qualities, gratitude being top of the list.
He would always say that India’s first captain, Colonel C.K. Nayudu, was his ‘guru’ and called him the ‘shahenshah’ (emperor) of cricket.
Meeting Mushtaq meant being in the company of a gentle, down-to-earth, friendly, soft-spoken man.
But god help anyone who ventured out with him on a walk! He loved his tea and was fond of walking. Even when he was 90, it would be difficult for a 50-year-old to keep pace with him. In fact, he went for a long walk on the eve of that fateful night when he passed away. Never ever unfit, he never had any major illnesses in his 90 years.
When in 2006-07, fifty years after he retired from all forms of cricket, the Board of Control for Cricket in India decided to name its official domestic T20 trophy the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, not a soul complained.
“Cricket is not merely a game; it is a code of conduct, a philosophy of life, a messenger of goodwill” — Syed Mushtaq Ali (17 December 1914, Indore – 18 June 2005, Indore)
(Kush Singh is founder, The Cricket Curry Tour Company)
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)