It’s the 70’s. Collars up, high cheekbones, wavy hair, sparkling eyes, and a swooning smile.
“Hero banoge?” Dev Anand, the Bollywood icon and his friend, asks him. The “dashing” Parveen Babi would soon become his heroine in a movie, and later become a good friend. He mingles with Ashok Kumar and Meena Kumari. In Kolkata, Hemant Kumar, the famous composer, is his man. In Chennai, he is in the company of Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, and Savithri. From industrialists to politicians to maharajas, everyone wants a piece of him. Shopkeepers often refuse to take money from him. The aam janta loves him to bits.
It’s 2016. Creaking knees, sunken cheeks, receding hairline. He is 80 now; the captivating smile and naughty eyes still light up the room.
A bustling marketplace in an old neighbourhood of Jamnagar. Slush on the street, small eateries here and there, a cinema hall now defunct, ripped apart by cyclone, and paan-stained youth walking about. Adjacent to the theatre is a narrow opening into a building. You enter into this haveli-like old-world ambience, turn into a shaded walkway, go up the stairs and are led into a bare room where Salim Durani smiles.
It’s the house of his niece where he has been for the last year due to health concerns. “Market pahunchkar, kisi ko bhi poochna Iqbal Lala ka ghar,” Salimbhai had said. As it turns out, it would have been far easier if we had told the auto driver ‘Salimbhai’, but as we learn in the next few hours, he prefers talking about others. On November 9, he would be felicitated with other former Saurashtra players, an event he is eagerly looking forward to as it would allow him to meet his friends.
A flamboyant all-rounder
Salim Durani was a flamboyant all-rounder in the 70’s, known for hitting sixes on demand, a temperamental spinner who on his day could remove the best batsman — the story of him demanding Ajit Wadekar to give him the ball and proceeding to knock out Garry Sobers is often spoken about. More importantly, myths about him abound: from his insane popularity, his colourful personality that allowed him to be at ease with maharajas as well as the common man, his love for alcohol and the good life, his financial crisis in the not-so-distant past. “Voh na, natural aadmi hai,” Cheteshwar Pujara’s father Arvind says. “Unko kuch lena dena nahi yeh zindagi sey – samajh rahe hain aap mein kya keh raha hoon. Mast rehte hain hamesha.”
You nudge him about the story about how he once covered a shivering Sunil Gavaskar with his coat on a train journey, bore the cold himself but helped the young man sleep, and he shrugs and tells you another tale, with a self-deprecating twist. A old beggar woman had approached him on a winter night, and Salimbhai melted. “I removed my sweater, the official Rajasthan cricket sweater, and gave her 10 rupees, a sizeable amount in those days. As you smile, he reveals the end. “When we got into the cab, someone told me ‘bhai, you would be in trouble, you have given away the official sweater, the one in Rajasthan colours’. I was tensed, you know! And told them “gaadi ghumao” and actually went in search of the lady to get the sweater back! She had gone by then.” Laugher fills the room, a common occurrence in his presence.
He might be getting on in age but nostalgia, the greatest wrinkle-remover, takes him back to his youth. “There was this match against England. I hit Tony Locke for two sixes — First over deep mid-on and second I lifted him straight on to the first-tier balcony at CCI!” His right arm stretch out, eyes jerk up. “They had a fast bowler who bounced me with the second new ball.” The arms do a pull shot, the eyes roam again, and he says, “it went into the crowd”.
A crowd puller
His relationship with crowds is part of cricket lore. When the former chief justice of India — and the current tormentor-in-chief of the BCCI — RM Lodha was younger, he remembers a fun day spent in Kolkata, the crowd demanding sixes from Durani and being obliged. “My game was like that. Sometimes I would hear the crowd chant and get into the mood,” he laughs.
His niece comes with some juice and he declines “thodi sardi hai”. He lights up a cigarette, crosses his legs, and blows out more stories. “ I read, watch sports — cricket, football, and if any good movie is on.” The last one he saw on the telly had featured Akshay Kumar and Suniel Shetty. “Shetty accha aadmi hai, he drops by at times. Tom Alter bhi aata hai. The other day, Ajay Jadeja had come with Ishant Sharma. Pata hai, Ishant had chikungunya recently. Good bowler, he would be playing this Test.”
“I just went by the flow in life, Zindagi jaise chali, waise chalney diya.” There were a few crises in his life and he just shrugs at the mention. “Life matlab there will be challenges. I had a few but didn’t lose my balance.” The recent financial grants from the BCCI to former cricketers has been a help, and so does the pension he gets from the board.
In the evenings, if his cousin or grandson Yasin aren’t free, he would take an auto and go to Summair Club. When the knee was better, he would play billiards. These days, he likes spending time with old friends. “I can still walk, slightly slowly but there is no great problem. At times, I walk to the club; just that I need a break in the middle.” Sometimes, the legs take him to the Jamnagar cricket ground and he chats with cricket lovers there. Often, old cricketers call up. “The other day BS Chandrasekhar had called. I used to send cards to cricketers abroad, but not now. Many have died, you see!”
In recent years, he met an old friend — Sobers. “What a player he was. And itna simple aadmi. Rohan (Kanhai) I hear runs a pub. I haven’t seen him in a while; he used to come often to India before but no longer.”
Cricketing stories keep tumbling out. In his penultimate Test, played against England in Chennai, India were set a target of 86 but wickets started to tumble. When they were 51 for 4, he was joined by Tiger Patuadi and a small partnership built. Soon, he decided to go for some quick runs. “They had a spinner (Norman) Gifford. I lifted (he never uses words like hit, it was always ‘lifted’) him for a big six over midwicket. He was angry, walked across and said, “Duree, you hit a cross-batted shot. Play straight!” I told him, “Giffy, never mind if it was a cross-batted shot, we now just need 20 runs, go get the ball!” Though he eventually fell for 38, India went on to seal the game.
Back to the beginning
Another cigarette dies in his hands, the memories are fresh though, and we rewind to his debut days. On the instructions of Lala Amarnath, a selector then, Durani, and a few other youngsters, were travelling with the team to gain exposure. On one evening, Amarnath had a strange request. “‘Don’t stay out late tonight. Come back to the room’. I thought he must be telling me to stop going to parties, and I came back early. He came to my room, and said, ‘be ready, you will be playing tomorrow. Jasu Patel is not feeling well.’ I couldn’t sleep that night. I was tossing and turning till 4 am, and there were nerves when I took the field also. They sent me at No 10.”
He remembers the first run, off the first ball he faced. “It was the great Ray Lindwall and I ran a single. I remember how I got out also, I was playing well but went for a pull shot but didn’t connect well”. Later, as I returned to my hometown, people said, “arre Lindwall ki pehli ball mey run le liya!” Laughter.
The names reel out —legendary cricketers, club players, administrators and even kings — and there is not a single negative thing he has to say about anyone. It’s easy to understand why the cricketing fraternity loves and respects Salimbhai.
He moves with kings and paupers with remarkable ease. Sometimes in Jamnagar, he would be at the back of the Lambretta scooter of his cousin, at times in a local train in Mumbai, on a pillion of a bike of a local football coach in Ahmedabad, or in an posh car with the maharajah of Jamnagar. A genteel soul from a bygone era, and as that cliché goes, they don’t make them like him anymore.