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Published in the 1-15 July 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Grand old man of Indian cricket

The Milli Gazette Online

Legendary test cricketer Mushtaq Ali, who was the first Indian to score a century on foreign soil, passed way on June 18 in Indore. He was 91. Born on December 17, 1914, Wisden special awardee, he had more than 10,000 runs to his credit. 

Mushtaq Ali

A brilliant and artistic right-hand batsman, he scored India's maiden Test century abroad, in England, in 1936. “He was the Errol Flynn of cricket, dashing, flamboyant, swashbuckling and immensely popular,” Australian all-rounder Keith Miller once said.

Those who saw Mushtaq in England were in no doubt about his class. Neville Cardus wrote of his batsmanship: “There was suppleness and a loose, easy grace which concealed power, as the feline silkiness conceals the strength of some jungle beauty of gleaming eyes and sharp fangs. At times his cricket was touched with genius and imagination.”

In the second Test at Old Trafford, India started the second innings 368 runs behind. Mushtaq and fellow opener Vijay Merchant returned fire with fire. Batting in a cavalier fashion, Mushtaq repeatedly went down the track to upset the rhythm of fast bowlers, driving and pulling with lightning reflexes. When he was on 96, an English player patted him on the back and said: “You need only four runs for a memorable hundred. Don't throw it away.” He did not. He was eventually caught and bowled for 112, and presented with a gold watch by his captain, Vizzy (Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram).

Mushtaq had salvaged pride for his demoralised team on a difficult tour. So impressed was Cardus by Mushtaq and Merchant, who dashed England's hopes of going 2-0 up in the three-Test series, that he called them “the poetry and prose” of Indian cricket. 

Mushtaq had a gift for creating mayhem on the field. His popularity, especially in Calcutta after he smashed a century against Lord Tennyson's side at Eden Gardens in 1937-38, was amazing. He was also tall, athletic and handsome. Yet petty politics was rampant in Indian cricket then, and, despite his popularity, there was never a permanent place for him in the team. 

When the Australian Services team toured India just after the second world war, he was left out of the Indian XI for the second unofficial Test at Calcutta despite being fit (he had missed the first Test because of illness).

The Calcutta crowd would not accept this. Hundreds of fans walked in protest to the Eden Gardens pavilion, carrying placards and shouting slogans, “Bring Back Mushtaq. No Mushtaq, No Test.” Mushtaq told me what happened next: “Before anyone could understand what was happening, they broke into the pavilion. Their intentions were clear. They grabbed Duleep, the chairman of selectors, by his tie and began to manhandle him. Luckily, I was there to save him. I asked them not to be so rude and violent. In the end, Duleep had to give in.” 

Though compelled to play him at Calcutta, the selectors remained sceptical. Yet he made another comeback in the third Test against West Indies in 1948-49, where he played two majestic innings of 54 and 106, again at Eden Gardens. 

He performed consistently well against two Commonwealth teams that toured India before the five-Test rubber against England in 1951-52. The selectors brought him back for the fifth Test. But his dismissal for 22 in India's only innings meant there was no place for him in the squad for the 1952 tour of England. 

That was the end of his Test career: in 11 matches he had scored 612 runs at 32.21, including two centuries and three 50s. A batsman of his ability and productivity deserved many more Tests. 

In first-class cricket, Mushtaq represented Holkar, Central India, Muslims, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Bharat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and India between 1930 and 1964, scoring 13,213 runs at 35.90, making 30 centuries (the highest score was 233), taking 162 wickets at 29.34 and pouching 160 catches. 

Mushtaq was the son of a police inspector in Indore, He was educated in Indore and at Aligarh Muslim University. He was never short of princely patronage; Vizzy and the royalty of Holkar provided him with the means and encouragement to pursue cricket. 

He made his early impact as a left-arm spinner; his Test debut was against Douglas Jardine's MCC side at Calcutta in 1933-34, primarily as a bowler. Jardine was his maiden Test wicket. Although he batted at number seven in his first Test innings, he quickly graduated up the order. His association with Merchant as an opener in England made him a star. 

Mushtaq was sad that the Indian cricket authorities never allowed him to serve the game in any capacity after his retirement. A devout Muslim, he had taken the utmost pride in playing for India. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government in 1964; the MCC made him an honorary life-member; and Wisden recognised him with a special award in England in 2002. 

At 90, he was still towering and ramrod straight, and retained much of his enthusiasm and aura. His autobiography, Cricket Delightful, was published in 1967. He is survived by his two sons, one of whom had been a first-class cricketer, and two daughters.

Former cricketer Madhav Mantri who had played with Mushtaq Ali, condoling on his demise said, “His entry on the ground used to be greeted with a huge applaud. Tall and upright, he was an unorthodox opener who felt attack was the best form of defense”. Asian Cricket Council and the Board of Control for Cricket in India mourned the death of Mushtaq Ali. 

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