Indian cricket’s real superstar Durani passes away

On Sunday, Salim Durani raised his bat one final time and left the field. He was 88.
Salim Durani trains budding cricketers at Jamnagar, Gujarat in January 2004. (Inset) He interacts with Anil Kumble at an award function in Mumbai in 2006 | pti
Salim Durani trains budding cricketers at Jamnagar, Gujarat in January 2004. (Inset) He interacts with Anil Kumble at an award function in Mumbai in 2006 | pti

On Sunday, Salim Durani raised his bat one final time and left the field. He was 88.

In the 1960s and 70s, before the men in blue and IPL, when cricketers could still walk around in the street unhindered, Durani was the closest Indian cricket had to a superstar. Decades before Indian cricketers were treated on par with Bollywood superstars, Durani starred in one, alongside Parveen Babi. 

The Kabul-born Durani was never the most technically proficient, but more than made up for that with some audacious hitting. That, and his natural good looks, made him a fan favourite. Upon his omission from the squad for a Test against England, the people of Kanpur protested holding placards that said ‘No Durani, No Test’. 

His big-hitting ensured that his more than handy bowling abilities were never much talked about. Durani took 74 wickets in 29 Tests including three five-wicket hauls. In 1971, when India beat the fearsome West Indies in the second test — a victory that would hand Indian cricket its first series win ever — it was Durani who turned the match in the second innings, dismissing Clive Lloyd and Gary Sobers.

It is said that death often makes myths out of men, but Durani made that transition a while ago. Rarely has Indian sport had a figure who perfected the art of being colourful without being obnoxious. Everyone had stories to tell about him and when it came to Durani, no story was too far-fetched. 

In 2019, the great entertainer was gracious enough to grant this reporter an audience. His health had worsened and he was living with his niece at the time. Just as popular consciousness had relegated him to a dusty corner of cricketing history, Jamnagar had confined him to one of its most ancient corners, a room on the roof of a house that was inaccessible by car, separated from the rest of the world by a large wooden gate.

Durani held court from a worn-out blue sofa that was covered with a tattered blanket. Ill-health though had not dented his famous sense of humour of someone who, when asked why he had been omitted for a tour of England, had quipped ‘maybe, it’s too cold for me’.

Neither had his famous sense of style deserted him. It was May and Jamnagar was burning under the summer sun, but Durani would still not be seen without a blazer. The Gold Flake cigarettes that almost always featured in stories about him were lying scattered on the table, along with an assortment of keys, pills and beedi packets with the number 11 prominently featured on them. 

But perhaps most importantly, his spirit was still there, indomitable, unconquerable. As he recollected stories of fans mobbing him or begging him to hit sixes — requests that he obliged without fail — his smile betrayed genuine happiness, something that can only come towards the end of a life lived without regret. 

The final question that I put to him was whether he wished his prime had come fifty years later, in an era where big-hitting cricketers were demigods, flooded with endorsement deals and installed in the middle of a bidding war by IPL teams. His reply was accompanied by that all-conquering smile. “I am happy with what I got.”

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