"We used to play for the sheer love of cricket. There was little money then," says Abdul Jabbar, coach of the Assam Ranji team
THERE IS a certain honesty on Abdul Jabbar's face; something that reflects his commitment to the game. In his playing days, Jabbar was a tenacious left-handed middle-order batsman. Today, he is a dedicated coach.
Jabbar was back at his hunting ground, the M.A.C Stadium, here in December, as coach of the Assam Ranji Trophy team.
Predictably, old memories flashed back. "You know, in my time, there used to be about 20,000 spectators for the big matches.The pressure to perform was immense.
"There used to be a build-up for these matches, much like the international matches now. There was so much interest in domestic cricket then."
A trace of anguish crosses his visage. "Those days will never come back. We used to play for the sheer passion of the game. There was little money then."
Jabbar, now 53, says cricket taught him lessons about life too - "It taught me to be level-headed at all times, during moments of success and failure, to appreciate the other person's performance and give hundred per cent on the field." Known as a player who put team over self, Jabbar makes a pertinent point, "You do not complete a single unless your partner runs too."
Though Jabbar played all his first class cricket for Tamil Nadu, from 1972-73 to 1986-87, scoring 3610 runs in 72 Ranji Trophy matches (ave. 44.56), often excelling in crisis situations, he hailed from Hyderabad, and, in fact was spotted by Man Singh, who was the manager of the Indian World Cup winning team in 1983.
Jabbar remembers those days in Hyderabad well the manner in which he would sneak out of school during the last hour so that he could help star players such as Jaisimha and Abid Ali at the nets.
"You know Madresa Aliya, my school, produced so many fine cricketers Ghulam Ahmed, Abbas Ali Baig and Asif Iqbal, who went on to become the captain of Pakistan. We had a good cricket culture in our school," Jabbar recalls.
Gradually, he began to climb the rungs in Hyderabad cricket and soon became part of the Hyderabad Blues team that visited East Africa in 1970. Despite a string of good scores on that tour, Jabbar found it difficult to break into the Hyderabad Ranji Trophy side, and in 1971, joined the State Bank of India in Madras. Soon he made his debut for Tamil Nadu in the 1972 Ranji Trophy side against Kerala. "It was a team of stalwarts S. Venkatraghavan, V.V. Kumar, Michael Dalvi, Satwinder Singh, P.K. Belliappa and others."
Given his batting qualities, he settled into the side soon, being the link between the first half and the lower order of the line-up at No. 6. A chunky figure, Jabbar was strong on the cut and the pull, and used the sweep stroke well against the spinners. "I played my normal game in pressure situations. I think I was mentally strong."
He also had the reputation of being a brave customer, who would never flinch against pace, and field at short-leg with great courage. "For 12 years, I stood at short-leg and those were the days when there were no helmets."
Jabbar learnt his cricket on matting wickets and this explains his strong back-foot play against pacemen. Jabbar was also competent against spin. Some exemplary innings marked his career during his stay with the Tamil Nadu team. One was his double hundred against Karnataka in 1975-76, when he was pitted against two legendary spinners, E.A.S Prasanna and B.S. Chandrasekar. He considers Prasanna the most challenging bowler he ever came across. "He had every possible delivery, and was thinking all the time. Every ball would be different." Chandrasekar was always dangerous. "Against Chandra you just hoped for the best when it came to certain deliveries. They would just take off!"
Sadly, despite being one of the most consistent and respected cricketers on the domestic scene, big breaks continued to elude Jabbar. "I only played for the South Zone in the latter stages of my career."
Three years, from 1982 to 1984-85, Jabbar played for South Zone, his best effort being a hundred against Central Zone in 1983-84. He hardly received any opportunities against the touring sides.
Jabbar's worst moment came when South Zone captain Brijesh Patel told him he would be part of the playing eleven against the touring West Indies for the match in Hyderabad, only to find Narasimha Rao, who was not part of the original squad, win the nod over him at the last moment. "I learnt to take disappointments in my stride because I loved the game so much," he says.
After retirement from first class cricket in 1986-87, when he emerged the top-scorer for Tamil Nadu, Jabbar has been actively involved in coaching. He has been coach for the Kerala and Tamil Nadu Ranji Trophy sides, and has been assisting Assam this season.
He has also coached his employer Chemplast's cricket teams. "I have enjoyed every moment of it. Jolly Rovers has had such a fine run in Chennai's first division league that it makes us all proud. It is a well balanced side and the youngsters have taken on the responsibility. The encouragement from employers forces cricketers to give their best. You know, I missed a guiding hand doing my playing days. The boys these days are so lucky to have a coach."
However, Jabbar makes it clear that emphasis should be on skills rather than physical fitness alone. "These days we find cricket is becoming more of a physical game than one involving skill and endurance." Abdul Jabbar's cricketing journey continues.
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