Dubai: A slight quiver in his voice is the giveaway that Abbas Ali Baig, once the Prince Charming of Indian cricket, may be 81 years old - but the mind is still razor sharp. ‘‘Yes, it’s been more than a month that me and wife have been staying here, but there is option as the situation is the same everywhere across the world,’’ said Baig, who had been stranded in Singapore since early March ever since the COVID-19 pandemic spiralled out of control.
When the Baigs took off from New Delhi for one of their regular visits to Singapore to spend some time with his son in early March, the coronavirus threat had not yet reared it’s head in a big way in India. Singapore, which had the experience of handling the SARS menace in 2002, had maintained it’s calm till the authorities were forced to impose a lockdown from the first week of April - but it has not deterred the legend to adhere to his walking routine. Speaking to Gulf News in a telephonic interview, the suave Baig said: ‘‘Yes, I have been going out for my daily walks though there are certain restrictions now - like you cannot go beyond a seven kilometres radius of where you are staying.’’
Talk of Baig, a star of the 1950s and ‘60s when cricket in India was still considered a blue-blooded sport, and the folklore of him being the first cricketer to be kissed by a woman fan on the ground shows up upfront. It was during a Test series against Australia at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium when as Baig was walking back to the pavilion, he was kissed on his cheek by a young woman spectator who had ran onto the field - the watertight crowd security being an unheard concept those days. An incident like that would have gone ‘viral’ today, but it generated huge publicity and added to his fanfare - so much so that the incident was celebrated in a painting called ‘The Kissing of Abbas Ali Baig’, in Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’ (1995).
Vijay Merchant, one of India’s batting legends who was commentating, had apparently remarked: “I wonder where all these enterprising young ladies were when I was scoring my hundreds and two hundreds.”
Laughing off the incident, Baig said: ‘‘Yes, it was a memorable incident but I think I achieved more than just that. I had a very promising start to my Test career and ought to have played at least 40-50 Test matches.’’
A look at Baig’s international career will reflect the reason for his angst - despite being the youngest debutant then to score a Test century (20 years and 131 days) against England - he ended up playing only 10 Tests between the period of 1959-60 to 1967. He was a part of the Test squad to England in 1971 under Ajit Wadekar’s captaincy - a historic occasion as India had notched up a historic overseas series win there but Baig did not a look-in at any of the matches.
Doesn’t it still hurt Baig 50 years later, especially since he was such a prolific performer in the domestic scene where had piled up a whopping 12,367 runs in first-class cricket at an average of 34.16? ‘‘Yes it does...I think it was a combination of factors. There may have been a few occasions when I didn’t put enough price on my wicket, while I also did not get enough backing from the selectors,’’ he recalled.
Baig, his close friend and the iconic ‘Tiger’ Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and sylish M.L.Jaisimha - not to speak of the gutsy allrounder Abid Ali - were called the ‘Nawabs of Hyderabad’ when they played together for the state as well as South Zone for their combination of style, good looks and panache. ‘‘We really had our times in the sun. Those days, we didn’t play for the money as you can imagine - the allowance for playing a Test match was Rs 500 while for first class cricket, lesser said the better. The overnight train journeys which we took to criscross the country for playing Ranji Trophy or Duleep Trophy were occasions to remember.
‘‘Behind his reserved demeaneour, Tiger was quite a funloving character. He would get his Man Friday to travel with us to serve us food etc, while Pataudi would belt out Hindi songs by playing a harmonium, which was an essantial part of our travel kit. A hit number of those days, Hawa mein udta jaye, mera lal dupatta malmal ka (There goes my red scarf in the air) was a big favourite of his - as Tiger would break into some Bharatnatyam moves with his shirt acting a pallo (cover) to go with it,’’ the nostalgia was hard to miss in his voice.
Baig was also the manager of Indian team during the 1991-’92 tour of Australia and the ‘92 World Cup in Australia, where the team under Mohammad Azharuddin didn’t have an impressive campaign. ‘‘And yes, I had visited Sharjah as a guest of the Cricketers’ Benevolent Fund Series (CBFS) number of times and have great memories of some of the India-Pakistan matches,’’ he added.
Baig, a fan of Virat Kohli
Cricket continues to be a passion for Abbas Ali Baig, though it’s Test cricket which fascinates him the most - thanks to the generation he belongs to. ‘‘I feel Virat (Kohli) has to be the best batsman of this generation for his phenomenal consistency, temperament and the will to set the bar higher for himself. I also like Rohit Sharma’s style, though I feel he should have done better in Tests as well,’’ he said.
Looking outside India, Baig has a surprise choice as a recent favourite - Marnus Labuschagne of Australia. ‘‘I watched him in last Ashes and he is a very good Test batsman,’’ he added.