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Opinion

A tribute to Syed Mushtaq Ali, a true entertainer

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Roar Guru
9th September, 2020
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The much-awaited IPL 2020 is set to start in UAE on 19 September. Cricket fans worldwide are eagerly looking forward to this event. Though I don’t enjoy cricket in desert venues that much, I’m also waiting for this event to get rolling.

IPL is India’s main franchise-based T20 event, showcasing the best T20 talent from different corners of the world. But the main domestic T20 tournament in India is called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy.

So who is this Mushtaq Ali? Well, until recently I knew simply as a first-generation Test batsman for India. But to describe him in this manner would be equivalent to describing Victor Trumper just as a leading Australian batsman of the pre-WWI.

The most important thing about him was that he was a genuine entertainer. Not only did he score runs for his sides, he scored them in a carefree manner. It was no surprise he was a great favourite of the crowd, especially at the Eden Gardens, Calcutta – but more about that later.

Sadly the intervention of war combined with Indian cricket politics meant Mushtaq played only 11 Tests in a career of almost two decades. But while his Test career was short, it was an eventful one.

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A perfect match
For four Test matches Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Merchant formed a superb opening partnership for India. In the four Tests (all in England) their partnership yielded 585 runs in seven innings, with a double century and a century stand. The average is 83.57. If we exclude their rare failure in the second innings of the Old Trafford Test after the war, when they together contributed just one run to the India total, their average jumps to 97.67. I might add that in the seven innings of them opening India managed to score 1780 runs losing 64 wickets – that’s an average of only 27.8 per wicket or 278 all-out per innings. In this regard their achievement seems phenomenal.

The pair first came together in Tests at Old Trafford in 1936. Whoever took the decision to pair them together took a bit of risk. While both were scoring freely against the county teams, their Test record prior to this match wasn’t great. In his previous eight innings Merchant had managed only 213 runs with just one fifty. There were plenty of starts, but his highest score was 54. Already there were pundits who were ready to classify him as a very good first-class level cricketer but not good enough for the highest level.

Mushtaq’s case was even worse. Prior to the Old Trafford Test his record read 50 runs in three Tests (averaging 10.00) with a highest of 18. However, I should mention here that he was initially picked in the Indian team as a left-arm spinner who could bat a bit. But, gradually, he focused more on his batting skills.

The start at Manchester wasn’t good. With his team’s score on 18 Mushtaq was run out for 13. From what I have read about him, Mushtaq seemed a dashing strokemaker but a rather poor runner between the wickets.

And Merchant yet again threw it away after doing the hard work. He fell victim to Hedley Verity’s spin after scoring 33. India were bowled out for 203, and this being a three-day test, England scored rapidly to post 8-571 before declaring in the middle of the second day. Walter Hammond led the charge with 167 in 170 minutes.

Everyone expected India to buckle under the pressure, but they fought back, with their young openers leading the line. Despite the situation of the match, both were scoring freely, with Mushtaq in an especially belligerent mood. A fine player of short-pitched deliveries, he pulled or hooked with ease whenever the England seamers bowled short. He especially went after Gubby Allen. The England captain had a forgettable day. At one stage Mushtaq took 15 in one over off him, and Allen eventually went for 96 runs from 19 wicketless overs.

India finished the day with 0-190. Mushtaq was 105 not out. He had become the first Indian to score a Test hundred outside India. More records came on the second morning. As the opening pair took their partnership to 203 they became the first opening pair to produce a double century stand against England in England. Amazingly, these runs had come in just 150 minutes.

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Merchant carried on his own way, methodical and playing every ball on its merit. He scored 114 before being trapped LBW by Hammond. The remaining batsmen batted solidly to ensure a highly creditable draw for the tourists. There was no dazzling stroke play to match the brilliance of the opening duo, but India achieved their main goal. To prove that their Manchester effort was no fluke, the pair shared 81 and 64 run opening stands in the next Test at the Oval, albeit for a losing cause.

Ten years on and cricket resumes in England after the war with another Indian tour. While Merchant yet again looked in prime form in the county matches, Mushtaq seemed to struggle initially. Frequent weather intervention in a wet summer also reduced his chances of enough match practice. In this scenario he withdrew from the opening Test but returned for the last two matches of the series.

Back in their favourite venue of Old Trafford the pair added 124 runs in India’s first innings. This time Merchant played the leading role. He top-scored with 79 while Mushtaq contributed 46. Quite remarkably India was bowled out for only 170. After the openers, only skipper Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi reached double figures, scoring 11. After a rare failure in the second innings, the duo was back to their best for one last time in the first innings at the Oval.

Merchant was at his majestic best, scoring a fine 128. As usual, he got excellent support from his opening partner. The pair put on 94 runs in just 110 minutes before Mushtaq was run out for 59. Quite remarkably this was the last time they played together in a Test match. Merchant’s poor health and the selectors’ rather harsh behaviour towards Mushtaq meant that Mushtaq (11) and Merchant (ten) represented India in just 21 official Tests in total.

In many ways the Merchant-Mushtaq matching was perfect and given time this could have become one of the greatest opening pairs in Test history. The measured aggression of merchant was the perfect foil to the carefree and unorthodox batting of his partner.

Neville Cardus once wrote an article titled ‘When art triumphs over science’. For Merchant batting was a science. Orthodox and solid in technique, he was a great believer in building his innings. Aggression mixed with caution was his trademark, and it eventually became the trademark of Bombay batting in general.

For Mushtaq batting was an art. He was an early version of VVS Laxman. For him, quality mattered more than the quantity.

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A great pity
It’s a great shame that Mushtaq never played a Test in Australia. He would have enjoyed batting on the bouncy pitches against Ray Lindwall and co. The Aussie crowd would also have enjoyed seeing him play his favourite pull shots.

When the team for Australia tour in 1947-48 was announced his name was there. In fact when Merchant, the captain, withdrew with health issues Lala Amarnath was made the captain with Mushtaq his deputy. But the death of his elder brother Iqbal meant that Mushtaq wasn’t able to remain part of the preparation as he had to join his family.

This greatly annoyed board officials, and although he made himself available before the departure of the team, he wasn’t included in it. After this, Mushtaq became a fringe player in the national team. But at least the selectors generally gave him chance to play at the Eden Gardens, where he was a great favourite.

Back in 1945-46 the Australian Services team was in India on their way home from England. Mushtaq missed the first unofficial Test due to illness, and then his name was inexplicably missing from the team for the second at Calcutta. This didn’t please the Calcutta crowd, and during the East Zone versus the tourists match prior to the ‘Test’ there were angry protests from the crowd. At one stage KS Duleepsinhji, the chief selector, was assaulted.

Eventually Mushtaq was included in the XI. While he was happy to be in the team, he deeply resented the manner in which Duleepji was treated. He always had great respect for both the princes from Jamnagar.

I find Mushtaq’s popularity with the Eden crowd quite interesting. It must have been related to his aggressive batting style – surely there was no birth connection involved. Mushtaq was born at Indore in Central India and played most of his first-class cricket with different teams from Central India, most notably with Holkar, based on Indore. With strong royal patronage, Holkar enjoyed a memorable spell of success during the period 1944 to 1955.

Mushtaq always tried to entertain his fans of Calcutta. Quite appropriately, his second and final Test ton came at this very ground. On the final day of 1948, the third Test of the India-West Indies series started there. The tourists completed their first innings early on the second day, finishing with 366 all out. Mushtaq lost his opening partner Ibrahim cheaply, but, supported by an in-from Rusi Modi, he dominated the Windies bowling. Modi himself was a fluent strokemaker but here was forced to play the supporting cast.

Soon Mushtaq reached his fifty and the crowd became ecstatic with joy. But then there was dead silence on the ground, as Mushtaq was dismissed by Windies skipper John Goddard. Mushtaq, however, made amends in the second innings. This time Mushtaq scored 106. He was the second batsman out for 106. The team total was 154 at the time.

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India had started batting on the fourth evening needing 431 runs for victory, and Mustaq’s batting gave the impression to everyone that he believed that the target was reachable within time. At the end India settled for an honourable draw, finishing on 3-325.

Mushtaq remained a prolific run-getter in Ranji cricket but was frequently overlooked by the selectors. He scored four first-class hundreds during the 1950-51 season but didn’t feature in the first four Tests of the home series against England in 1951-52. He was given an unexpected recall at Madras for the final Test. Opening with much younger Pankaj Roy from Bengal, he scored 22 in the only Indian innings. This was his last test, but at least he went out amidst joy – India recorded their first-ever Test win in this match.

Friends and foes
Merchant and Mushtaq were great friends on and off the field, but for a few days in early 1945 they became bitter rivals as Bombay hosted the Ranji Trophy final against Holkar. It was a traditional power versus an emerging force.

On this occasion it was the established power of Bombay that prevailed in the timeless match at the famous Brabourne Stadium. Holkar playing their first-ever final, scoring 360 and 492 runs, but still they lost by the huge margin of 374 runs. Bombay took a first-innings lead of 102 despite Mushtaq’s 109. And then they put the match beyond their opponent’s grasp by scoring 764 in the second innings. Merchant contributed 278. Rusi Modi scored 151.

Remarkably, chasing an improbable target of 867, Holkar was given a ray of hope by Denis Compton (249*) and Mushtaq Ali (130), but the rest of the batting collapsed. Mushtaq ended the match in the losing side despite scoring hundreds in each innings.

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Nevertheless, Mushtaq and the Naidu brothers played a big part in Holkar emerging as a major power in India’s domestic cricket. Between 1945 and 1955 they played ten finals, winning four titles. Mushtaq frequently performed in the big matches for his first-class team but somehow never seemed to impress the selectors enough. Many pundits include Mushtaq’s name towards the top of the long list of might-have-beens of Indian cricket.

At least naming India’s premier domestic T20 competition after him was a belated but nevertheless a well-deserved accolade for him.