Nawabi Cricket

by Abhijit Sen Gupta 3

Hyderabad was once synonymous with graceful, princely strokemakers, in keeping with the city’s aristocratic self-image. Abhijit Sen Gupta recalls lost glories

n 1972, my father, who worked for the Survey of India, was posted to Hyderabad and our family moved to the city. I was then a boy of 17, fresh out of school in Mount Abu where I had spent my entire adolescence, and all I knew about Hyderabad was that its most famous landmark was the Charminar. But in school I had read about the exploits of Hyderabad cricketers like ML Jaisimha and the Nawab of Pataudi and, being a big fan of the game, I was looking forward to seeing them play. I went through the grind of higher education—at Nizam College, alma mater to Jaisimha, and later Azharuddin. My own modest skills were not good enough to get me a place on the college team but fortune smiled on me later in life and I became a sports journalist. That career gave me the opportunity to witness many memorable battles between some of the world’s best players from the unique vantage point of the press box at the Lal Bahadur Stadium. Later the Rajiv Gandhi Stadium was constructed and is now the venue for international cricket.

        Over the years, I developed a great fondness for Hyderabad, its easygoing people, its food, and its language. The general attitude of the inhabitants of the city, not surprisingly, reflects strongly in the players who represent it. Seeing how the culture influenced their approach to the game has always been fascinating for a sports lover like me. 

        Going only by results, Hyderabad may not have a record as impressive as Mumbai or Delhi in domestic cricket. But the city has been the birthplace of some of the most loved and most colourful cricketers to have donned the India cap. There has always been a difference in approach between, for example, a cricketer from Mumbai, Kolkata or Delhi, and a player from Hyderabad. It may not be readily visible to a casual watcher but to anyone who has spent time studying teams and players from Hyderabad, it’s quite self-evident.

Crown prince  ML Jaisimha | Photograph: A Joseph Antony

Crown prince ML Jaisimha | Photograph: A Joseph Antony

        Take Mumbai, for instance. It has been the most dominant force in Indian domestic cricket (and in the initial stages in the Indian team as well). The Mumbai brand of cricket is well known throughout the country. The players tend to be very professional. The game comes first in their lives; everything else is a poor second. They have a reputation for possessing immense fighting spirit. They are always focused and always in a hurry. Like the city they live in. 

        In contrast, Hyderabad cricketers are often quite laid back. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine that has to do with the relaxed culture and traditions that the city of Nawabs has always been known for. The ambience has been changing over the last two decades—more on that later—but the old customs and attitudes have not yet completely vanished.

        When a Hyderabadi says that he will get something done “parsoon”, he doesn’t really mean that he will do it the day after tomorrow. He means that he will not do it immediately. He may do it after one week, or after one month, or whenever. In the culture of pre-Independence Hyderabad, the many Nawabs who used to be admired for their graceful manners and relaxed lifestyle held the view that it was bad form to show anxiety or urgency about anything. And since the hoi polloi tried to imitate the aristocracy, it became a tradition in Hyderabad to take a relaxed view of life. 

        That does not mean, of course, that Hyderabadi cricketers are casual in their approach to the game. Hyderabad has produced some of the best players in the country. But they have achieved success by following a different path. The game is important for them too but there is less anxiety in them, a greater sangfroid. A couple of decades ago, a typical Hyderabad player would spend the evening before a match sipping cups of tea in an Irani café and talking with friends about movies, music and food. Occasionally, cricket might also come into the conversation. One rarely saw players who were keyed up and tense prior to a big match.

        Besides it has always been important for a true-blue old-time Hyderabadi not just to complete a task, but to do it with grace and style. A Hyderabadi should be able to do—or at least appear to do— with ease what others struggle to accomplish.

         In many ways, Jaisimha personified that attitude in the 1960s and ’70s. Not only was he a fine all-rounder and an astute captain, but he had a flair for doing things differently. His swaggering walk, upturned collar and insouciant demeanour, both on and off the field, earned him a legion of fans all over India and especially in Hyderabad. In many ways he was the first glamorous star of Indian cricket, along with his good friend Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi.

        The Nawab of Pataudi, who was then at loggerheads with the cricketing authorities in Delhi, his home state at the time, transferred to Hyderabad in 1966 after Jai put the idea into his head. Both had the same attitude to cricket and to life. Pataudi was a man of many aristocratic passions, and Jai gave him the right kind of support to indulge them. 

        In the 1980s, Jai was living in a beautiful house in a quiet corner of a posh locality called Marredpally. The house had huge doors opening onto a spacious lawn where frequent parties were held. It was a favourite haunt for players and celebrities, who often gathered there to discuss cricket and exchange gossip, with the revelries lasting till the early hours of the next day.

        Jai was an excellent raconteur and had a razor-sharp memory. He could keep audiences spellbound for hours with his stories of unusual incidents on and off the field. One story he told us was about a prank that Pataudi played in which he arranged for some of his teammates to be kidnapped’ by fake dacoits in the forests of Madhya Pradesh.

        The dacoits were Pataudi’s employees—gardeners, cooks, a watchman and so on. The party of cricketers was taken into the forest in jeeps and cars by Pataudi, ostensibly on a hunting trip. But once they had reached a remote spot, they were waylaid by the fake desperadoes, armed with kitchen knives, gardening sickles and a non-functional British-era rifle. The cricketers were convinced that their lives were in danger, and in Jai’s recounting of the story, several of them came out with egg on their faces. When Pataudi finally revealed the truth, after several hours, they were so relieved that they didn’t know whether to laugh or vent their anger on the perpetrator of the trick. 

        Along with Pat and Jai, there was the scintillating Abbas Ali Baig. He was a batsman with prodigious talent who, at the age of 20, scored a century on his debut for India. He came from a family of very accomplished cricketers. His brothers Murtuza Ali Baig, Mazhar Ali Baig and Mujtaba Ali Baig were well-known in Hyderabad cricket, but only Abbas got the chance to represent India. 

        The 1970s were perhaps the best phase of Hyderabad cricket. In 1971, when the Indian team toured the West Indies, it included five players from Hyderabad—Syed Abid Ali,
D Govindaraj, ML Jaisimha, K Jayantilal, and wicket-keeper P Krishnamurthy. That team made history by chalking up India’s first-ever series triumph over the formidable islanders, led by the legendary Sir Garry Sobers.

        Quite often, a Hyderabad player needs something to shake him up and get him going. Take VVS Laxman, for instance. If a match was plodding along, his approach was equally placid. But put him in a difficult situation or give him a tough target, and he would start firing with all the weapons in his formidable armoury. His knock of 281 when the chips were down against the Aussies, in 2001 at Eden Gardens, is regarded by many experts as one of the best ever played on that hallowed ground.  

But to see the complete picture of Hyderabad’s cricket culture and understand the approach of the players, it is necessary to also take a look at those who played only in domestic cricket.

        One player who was a perfect example of the easygoing Hyderabadi was Abdul Azeem, Hyderabad’s Ranji Trophy opening batsman for many years. At first sight, the tall and lanky Azeem seemed quite unimpressive. He would invariably be found sitting quietly in a corner, not speaking to anybody, content to go unnoticed. But put a bat in his hands and send him out to face the fast bowlers and he would be transformed into an amazingly confident stroke player. On his day, he could smash any bowling attack in the country. Azeem once scored a triple century in one day’s play against a strong Tamil Nadu attack. “Azeem miyan ka haath jum gaya toh Hyderabad ka jeet pukka. Usko pehle bahar nikalo” was the usual instruction from rival coaches and captains to their bowlers.

        At the beginning of his career, Mohammed Azharuddin too was the same. He loved to be left alone. Just a shy, skinny boy sitting in a corner. But unfortunately for him, his skills as a batsman ensured that he would be mobbed by adoring fans wherever he went. After three centuries flowed off his bat in his first three matches, cricket lovers followed him about, waiting patiently in front of his house to get a glimpse of him whenever he emerged. 

Mohammed Azharuddin, batting in an India-Pakistan match at the Sharjah Cup, 1990

Mohammed Azharuddin, batting in an India-Pakistan match at the Sharjah Cup, 1990

        When match-fixing allegations first cropped up, those who knew him from his college days were shocked. Many people in Hyderabad felt that it just could not be true. Ajju, as he was affectionately called, was such a quiet and modest person. He was not the type of person who could play tricks with anybody. But the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) banned him and though he was later cleared by the courts, it was too late to resume his cricket career.

        Pataudi’s nephew, Saad bin Jung, was another player who made a sensational start to his career. Playing for South Zone against the touring West Indies side, he faced the legendary Malcolm Marshall who was backed up by Vanburn Holder. In characteristic Hyderabadi style, Saad scored a century off this formidable attack, reminding all watchers of the grace and elegance of his uncle.

        If players from Hyderabad are different from others, so too is their language. Telugu is the most widely spoken language, but many residents of Hyderabad also speak the Deccani or Dakhni dialect. It’s a mixture of Hindi, Urdu, and words adopted from different languages spoken in the Deccan region. But there are some words and phrases which are spoken only in Hyderabad. The differences in language sometimes led to amusing incidents between players.

        Spinner Venkatapathy Raju was not only a player with plenty of talent but also a top-class entertainer off the field, blessed with a great sense of humour. Once, early in his international career, Raju was sharing a room with teammate Narendra Hirwani, the mercurial leg-spinner most remembered for the 16 wickets he took on his debut. Hirwani was born in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, but played for Madhya Pradesh. He spoke a very chaste Hindi, and Raju couldn’t understand much of what he was saying. Hirwani, in turn, was puzzled by the words and expressions that Raju used in his speech. Each unable to understand what the other was trying to say, they eventually decided to communicate in signs. “There we were—the two of us—speaking the same language but still unable to understand each other,” an amused Raju recalled later.

        Evidence of Hyderabadi culture at work can also be seen in the stands. Hyderabad’s spectators are friendly and forgiving. When a home team player drops a catch in the outfield, the shouts from the stands are all aimed at encouraging him and sympathising with his bad luck. I have never seen the spectators vent their frustration or anger upon any player. Instead, mishaps are met with responses like “Bad luck, boss” or “Good try, brother”.  Not everywhere are the crowds so forgiving and sympathetic. Sledging and barracking by spectators in Australia is something that many cricketers have experienced. But running down an already dejected player is not a done thing in Hyderabad. There’s an appreciation that sportspersons on the field give their all, and it’s usually not unpreparedness or laxity that is to blame, but the rub of the green.

        That attitude doesn’t, however, extend to everyone. The exception that used to be made on the stands was for policemen. If by chance a khaki-clad keeper of the law happened by he would be peppered with peanut shells, banana skins and orange peels by every young person in the crowd. Shouts of “Aarey dekho—khatmal, khatmal” would resound across the stands, and everyone who could lay his hands on some garbage would hurl it at the hapless cop. The experienced ones soon learned to stay away but would send out the rookies without warning. 

        Nowadays, though, at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium, there are no such scenes. This is the venue where IPL matches are held. The T20 format of the IPL has been a great success and young people decked out in the orange and black colours of the SunRisers Hyderabad throng the venue. Many of the fans are female, a welcome change from the old at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, even though Hyderabadis have historically been much less macho and sexist in their attitudes.

        The changes in stadium culture are reflected in the city. It is shedding its image of casual gentility, and becoming a bustling, economically ambitious IT hub. When Chandrababu Naidu was Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh at the turn of the millennium, he had enticed software companies to set up offices in Hyderabad by offering good infrastructure and tax breaks. Industry mushroomed and the city grew in size and population. The boom provided many young people jobs and decent incomes. But the old Irani cafés began to shut shop. Their ambience was no longer in keeping with the times. No longer could four friends order two cups of tea and linger in a café for an hour or two of conversation. Instead, ‘tiffin centres’ sprang up on every street corner. Most of these tiffin centres do not have chairs. You are expected to stand and gulp down your cup of tea, stuff in an idli or two, and rush to work, not hang around shooting the breeze over chai.

        The effects of these changes have been felt in the way cricket is played, and managed. Some players and coaches want success at any cost. This hunger leads to malpractice, and there have been several allegations of favouritism and bribery in the selection process. On occasion, promising players have failed to progress in the sport because of matters unrelated to their abilities. The Hyderabad team’s performance in the Ranji Trophy has plummeted to abysmal depths.

        The decline of the Moin-ud-Dowlah Gold Cup is a microcosm of the decline of Hyderabad cricket. The tournament was begun in the early 1930s by Nawab Moin-ud-Dowlah Bahadur, one of the city’s principal patrons of sport. It afforded the Maharaja of Vizianagaram and the Maharaja of Patiala an opportunity to field their own teams against each other. Both vied to rope in the best players in the world and, as a result, top-drawer players left their mark on Hyderabad, treating local spectators to excellent cricket.

        Players like Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe, the England openers who were regarded as the best opening pair in the world, played in the tournament. So did the infamous Douglas Jardine, inventor of bodyline, and his executioner-in-chief Harold Larwood, along with Indian stalwarts like CK Nayudu, Lala Amarnath and Mohammad Nissar.

        The tournament used to be classified as a first-class fixture in the 1960s and early ‘70s, but has not been held in recent years. To add insult to injury, in 2011 the original gold-plated trophy, donated almost a century ago by Nawab Moin-ud-Dowlah Bahadur, mysteriously vanished. Its disappearance seemed symbolic, though the era was already long gone, of the passing of the splendid age of languid, aristocratic Hyderabad cricket.


cvrThis essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was ‘Sport’.

3 Comments

  1. Prasad Alvakonda October 13, 2019 at 7:22 am - Reply

    Excellent piece on Hyderabad cricket. As a kid growing up in Habsiguda, I have lots of memories of watching all the famous Hyderabadi cricketers ply their trade in the Hyderabad A league at the Osmania University A ground & Gymkhana ground. Got

    Had the pleasure of watching players like Narsimha ‘ Bobby’ Rao, Shival Yadav, Abdul Azeem, Arshad Ayub and many more.
    Got a chance to catch up with Azzem Bhai and Noel David along with my good friend Sheik Riazuddin in Nagpur ( where I am working since 1997) in 2011 when Hyderabad played Vidarbha. I drove Azeem Bhai around Nagpur on the final day of the match.

  2. Chakravarthy Bhagvati October 14, 2019 at 7:47 am - Reply

    Wonderful article flooding this Hyderabadi’s thoughts with the now fast-disappearing magic of Hyderabad’s grace and charm! Hyderabad cricket is now almost an anachronism in this age of of in-your-face aggression and exhibitionism in cricket. Cannot think of a more striking contrast than VVS in a team comprising Jadeja, Hardik Pandya and Viirat Kohli. How I miss the elegance in cricket!

  3. Meghana August 19, 2020 at 10:52 pm - Reply

    Lovely piece! Even more of a delight for us Hyderabadis…

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