Nearly 55 years ago, when India got down to take on their arch-rivals Pakistan in Bombay, there were two significant scenarios in the two dressing rooms.
While India was getting ready to take the field under their new captain Nari Contractor, their neighbours were hoping their star batsman Hanif Mohammad would not have to sit out. Contractor was the eighth Indian captain and the youngest, since the 1954-55 series — when they last played Pakistan.
“Hanif was battling a toe injury before the start of the series and was almost certain not to take part. However, when his name did feature on the team sheet, I walked up to Fazal (Mahmood) and told him I won’t allow Hanif to use a runner unless he’s hit on the same place again,” said Contractor in his Cusrow Baug residence in Colaba. “It was a strange scenario. I was appointed captain only for the first two matches. I didn’t know if I should speak my mind.”
Hanif Mohammad went on to score a staggering 160, helping his team reach 350 in the first innings. He was duly supported by Saeed Ahmed who scored 121. Pakistan could manage only 49 runs after Hanif was run out. He went on to become the captain of the Pakistan side in 1964. “We tried to hurl bouncers at him and he would simply guide them over mid-wicket and deep square leg. It was a flawless innings,” said Contractor. “You could probably bowl anything at him and he would simply collect runs. However, in Delhi, we bowled bouncers at him and got him out in a silly manner. It was, as if, he didn’t know how to play bouncers.”
Contractor’s mind has travelled so far back because his famous opponent, Hanif, is seriously ill and hospitalised. After a brief silence, the former India captain said, “I haven’t been able to meet Hanif recently, I really wish him a speedy recovery.”
Talking about the atmosphere he and Hanif played under, Contractor said:
“The second Test was in Kanpur. In those days, we used to travel by train and the Punjab Mail used to reach around 6.30pm. We reached the hotel and fans used to send greetings that would be kept ready for us. I picked up a card and the fan had written how he was a great fan of mine and the team and so on. However, the concluding lines were: Remember you are playing against Pakistan. If you can’t win, draw the game. If you lose, we’ll kill you. That was the level of fanaticism.”
None of the five matches in the series had a result. The matches were a part of 13 consecutive drawn games between the two sides.
“There was nothing new I could tell the team. I didn’t know for how long I would be at the helm. The message was loud and clear. Get out there and win the game. However, on the other hand, we did not chase scores of 350-400. We used to first try and match the score. So, a number of overs would be spent only in the first two innings,” said Contractor. “In our days, a batsman was judged on how well he left the delivery outside the off stump. That is where Hanif stood out. He was immensely focused regarding his game, knew how to build his innings and wouldn’t lose his concentration once he was settled. That’s probably what helped him leave a mark. That’s what made him one of the best in the world.”
The best example of Hanif’s grit and determination was probably reserved for the all-conquering West Indian side. In the first test during the 1957/58 series, Pakistan conceded the follow-on and were trailing by 473 runs when he went on to open the innings alongside Imtiaz Ahmed. With an innings-defeat looking imminent, Hanif scored 337 over the next 970 minutes to steer his team to earn a draw.