Syed Mushtaq Ali

Fearless opening batsman for India
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The Independent Online

Deft footwork and superb strokeplay, backed by daring brilliance and a cavalier fearlessness, made Syed Mushtaq Ali one of India's most talented opening batsmen. He was also the first from his country to score a century abroad, against England at Old Trafford in 1936.

Ali was also the only cricketer ever to have been included in a playing XI on a crowd's demand, at the rambunctious Eden Gardens in Calcutta, in the Test against the visiting Australian team in 1946, some 13 years after his début. When he was dropped from the team following a misunderstanding with the selectors, the Test opened with infuriated fans chanting "No Mushtaq, no Test".

The agitated throng mobbed the chief selector Prince Duleepsinhji, forcing him to include the talented batsman in the team. "I had to pacify the fans, saying I would play," Ali said. Recalling this incident years later, the iconic Australian cricketer Keith Miller said that "not even cricket's most talked-about character, the bewhiskered W.G. Grace, could match this true story about Mushtaq Ali".

Ali's true genius, however, blossomed during the 1936 tour of England, when the visitors were 368 runs in arrears at Manchester. India faced an innings defeat at Old Trafford when the right-handed Ali opened the batting with Vijay Merchant and, in a scintillating rapid-fire session, put on 203 runs in a record 135 minutes, forcing a draw. Ali's 112 runs were ranked 18th of cricket's greatest hundreds by Wisden Asia Cricket last year.

Viewed at the time of Mahatma Gandhi's freedom movement against the British colonial administration, this achievement was also considered a subtle victory for the nationalists. The remarkable feat was bettered by another Indian opening pair four decades later.

The flamboyant Ali was prone to running down the wicket, even to pacers, to try and hook them aggressively over the ropes, even before he had few runs on the board or when he was at a crucial point in his innings. Many seamers felt that bowling to Ali was simply a "humiliation". On one such occasion at Old Trafford, when Ali was in the nineties, Wally Hammond came up to him and said, "Steady, get your hundred first."

Syed Mushtaq Ali was born in 1914, the son of a Muslim police officer, in Indore in central India, then ruled by the Maharaja of Holkar, an avid cricket patron. After the maharaja's death, in the 1960s Ali joined service with his widowed maharani.

Though a talented ground-hockey player, he was encouraged to concentrate on cricket by C.K. Nayudu, (the "Errol Flynn" of Indian cricket), following a ride in his Rolls-Royce around Indore when Ali was only 15 years old. Ali began as a slow left-arm bowler and was first invited to play for the All India team against Ceylon in Delhi in 1932, where he took 10 wickets for 129 runs.

At the age of 19 and by now a top-class, albeit unorthodox, batsman, Ali became the youngest Indian to play for his country against the MCC team led by Douglas Jardine in 1933-34 at Calcutta. And, although he did not distinguish himself in that match, he did succeed in dismissing Jardine for 61 runs.

Two years later, he created history at Old Trafford by scoring the match-saving 112. "His cricket touched the imagination," wrote Neville Cardus of Ali's breathtaking knock. "There was suppleness and lithe grace which concealed power, as silkiness of skin conceals the voracity of strength in a beautiful animal of the jungle."

Ali's biggest regret was missing the 1947-48 series against Don Bradman's team in Australia following his brother's death. But his final Test against England at Madras, southern India, in 1952 was historic, with India winning, for the first time, by an innings and eight runs to draw the series. Ali contributed 22 runs.

In 11 Tests, Ali scored 612 runs - including two centuries and three half-centuries - averaging 32.21 runs per match. He also took three Test wickets for 67.33 runs each and held three catches. And in his 31 years of first-class cricket, he scored 13,213 runs in 384 innings at an average of 34.40 and took 162 wickets for 29.34 runs each.

In his later years Ali lamented the crass commercialisation and politicisation of the "gentleman's game" of cricket. He said that players in his time did not play for money but for their country, and team- and match-fixing were "dirty words".

A fitness fanatic, Ali coached budding cricketers until recently and was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian awards, in 1963, for his contribution to sport.

Kuldip Singh