Errol Flynn of Cricket
One of my regrets is not having followed up on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s desire, that he expressed to me once in 1972 when I was working for him, of inviting Mushtaq Ali to Pakistan. All it would have taken at the time was a couple of phone calls, but such was the rush of events in those early days of ZAB taking office that what he so much wanted and what would have given him immense joy and satisfaction, never came to pass. ZAB was cricket crazy as a boy and he was also good, a natural. Skipper Abdul Hafiz Kardar once said that had he continued, ZAB would certainly have played first class cricket. It was also Skipper who told me that young Zulfi received coaching in Bombay from Mushtaq Ali.
Cricketers come and go but there are some who leave their imprint on the game and who are remembered long after they have departed the scene. Mushtaq Ali was one such. A great stylist, an opener, he loved to go after the bowling right from the start. Sometimes, he would begin to step out of the crease as the bowler began his run-up. Vijay Merchant, his co-opener for India, is said to have often shaken his head in despair at seeing Mushtaq dance down the wicket while the ball was new and swinging. Keith Miller called him the Errol Flynn of cricket after the great swashbuckling Australian-born Hollywood star. Miller, who was in the same mould himself, said Mushtaq was “dashing, flamboyant, swashbuckling and immensely popular wherever he played.”
The first century for India abroad was Mushtaq Ali’s classic 136 at Old Trafford on the second day of the test against England in 1936. That particular day has also gone into history as it saw a record 588 runs being scored in one day, the highest ever in a test match. England had notched up 398 and the two Indian openers, Mushtaq and Merchant remained unbeaten with 190 runs between them when it was time for stumps.
Some months back, one of Mushtaq Ali’s fans, the late Meraj Siddiqi of Washington, showed me a letter from him. He had written, “Yes, sir, I’ve played cricket for the cricket loving public. After all, they have purchased tickets, sitting in the sun all the time to see the cricket. After the game when they go home they say what they saw … Col. C.K. Nayudu batting, my hitting the ball from off to legside, Vijay Merchant off-driving Amar Singh.” The letter closes with a line in Urdu, a snatch from a film song: “Khuda hafiz: Jab yaad meri aye, milnay ki du’a karna.” Charming.
Ray Robinson, the Australian cricket journalist, writing about Mushtaq Ali in 1955 says, “The only thing that is still about him is the momentary pause to take guard from the umpire. Why he goes through this formality is one of the mysteries of the Orient because after making his mark, he takes no notice of it.” He wrote that Dennis Compton, compared to Mushtaq Ali “in full flow” made Compton look “comparatively a stay-at-home.” He said Mushtaq Ali epitomised the couplet of the great poet Iqbal: “And behold yonder the mountain stream leaping: Rushing forth in spite of many a curb and twist.” (In Urdu: Aati hai naddi faraz-e-koh se gati huwi: Sang-e-rah se gah bachti, gah takrati huwi) He also called Mushtaq Ali “the least law-abiding” batsman, “always delighted to break the rules of batting.” Mushtaq Ali could also be moody. After hitting a six over the minaret of the mosque overlooking the ground, wrote Robinson, he would pat back a few half-vollies. A half-volley is a well-pitched ball which is a batsman’s delight since one step out and it can be easily hit out of the ground.
Muni Lal, a Lahore cricketer, said of Mushtaq Ali, “He was no stickler for the grammar of cricket. He coined his own strokes.”
Mushtaq Ali who would be 88 in December this year lives in Indore. Some time ago, in an interview with Indian journalist Harish Pandya, when asked as to the difference he saw between cricket played during his time and today, he replied, “Not much. They still use three stumps, two bails and one ball. Everything is still there. But we used to wear white flannels. The shirts used to be invariably full sleeves. Many of them wear the hat instead of the traditional cricket cap. The helmet is also there along with so many other protective gears. They were unheard of in our times.”
He said he could never imagine that there would come something called one-day cricket. He called it a “big tamasha.” He said it was not “real cricket” because test cricket alone was real cricket, the true test of a player’s skills, ability and concentration. He was confident that test cricket would not only survive but was already getting stronger and stronger. He said he did not grudge the money cricketers made today, considering the hard life they lived, playing day in, day out, staying away from their families for long periods. He wished they would earn even more money, but also do something for cricket, help those who could not afford to play this expensive game. When cricket had given them so much, it was their moral duty to give something back to cricket, he said.
Well, one man has followed Mushtaq Ali’s advice. The great Imran Khan. I hope he becomes prime minister because then at least he would straighten out cricket and get rid of all those “jarnail ni, karnail ni”, in Madam Nur Jehan’s words, who have scored their sole military victory by overrunning Pakistan’s cricket establishment.
Asked if he had any regrets at not having had many playing opportunities, sometimes because of selectors, Mushtaq Ali’s gracious reply was, “I’ve no regrets whatsoever. I’ve no complaints, no grudges, no ill feelings against anybody. I’m quite happy about whatever I played, whatever I achieved. I many not have played too many tests for a variety of reasons but I don’t think I failed to make a lasting impression on the minds of those who know and understand the game well. If it had not been so, you would not have come from a far place to meet me. I’ve many fond memories of my career which I cherish the most. I’ve rubbed shoulders with some of the finest cricketers ever. They all rated me very high which was heartening indeed. If it was in my destiny to play only 11 tests, nobody could have changed it.”
What a guy Syed Mushtaq Ali!