I just have to hear the words “Once upon a time in Hyderabad” for my grandparents’ voices to come wafting in. My brothers and I grew up listening to the many moral tales that grandfather, a retired Post Master, had up his sleeve each evening but my grandmother recounted more stories about Hyderabad. I can recollect her voice quivered every time she recalled the advent of plague and how she had to move her brood to a camp in Punjagutta. And, for that matter, when she told us with pride about how grandfather braved the Razakkars during Police Action in 1948 and guarded a sackful of cash to be able to turn it over to Government of India Agent General KM Munshi.
Yet, when I think of sports in Hyderabad, it is my father who stands out as a rich tapestry of images floats in the mind’s eye. I can see images of me holding my sports journalist father’s fingers when being introduced to a variety of sport. From educating oneself in the nuances of cricket at the Fateh Maidan – and posing for pictures with Sunil Gavaskar when he came back after success in the West Indies and England in 1971 – to watching diverse sports as football at Gymkhana ground, boxing in the Railway Recreation Ground and sailing on the Hussain Sagar made for a great childhood. Many conversations with him come flooding back to the consciousness. Why, even in the writing of this piece, he has been a huge help. Being N Ganesan’s son always opened innumerable doors, not the least when I returned from my desk job in Madras to Hyderabad as a sports reporter in 1986.
It seems like only yesterday that I left home but it is more than a decade and a half since I boarded the Andhra Pradesh Express at Nampally seeking greener pastures in Delhi. The heart beats with pride each time I see a Hyderabadi sportsperson give off his or her best at the national stage and for India. The Hyderabadi flavour returns each time I meet a champion – young and old – from the twin-cities. Why, when I start chatting with my friend Harsha Bhogle during my cricket tours, the years seem to fall by effortlessly. The romance with Hyderabad lingers. They speak fondly about Gandipet ka paani, don’t they?
Indeed, there are so many memories to choose from – my own experience both as a sportsman and a sports journalist – that one doesn’t know where to start. Perhaps it is easy to begin at the beginning – at least in the cosmopolitan locality where I began and spent much of life till I moved out of Hyderabad. Vittalwadi is a crowded area in Narayanguda and had its own share of heroes living there. National table tennis champion K Ramakrishna was a resident for many years but that was some time before I became aware of the beauty of sport. And when I was growing up, with Nagesh Kukunoor far from becoming the celebrated film-maker that he is now, the likes of table tennis player YD Upendernath, basketball player Mark Flynn and, most importantly, cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin were marking themselves out as special talent.
The amazing Azharuddin was the one who went on to make waves at the highest level for more than a decade and a half until he was discredited in the match-fixing controversy in 2000. We had an up-and-down relationship as cricketer and journalist but we have been able to paper over the cracks to be able to stay on one another’s phone book. I have many wonderful memories featuring Azharuddin but none more delightful than when I gate crashed into Azhar’s birthday lunch in February 1999 a day after Anil Kumble claimed all 10 Pakistan wickets in a Test innings at the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi. I am sure it was my Hyderabadi connection that helped me gain access to a delicious lunch. He was easily the most adored batsman of his generation and even the advent of Sachin Tendulkar did not lure his fans away from his elegance. I was not around in Hyderabad when Azharuddin arrived after scoring hundreds in each of his first three Test matches back in 1984-85 but I watched him for the first time in Test cricket in the Tied Test in Madras. His elegant knock of 81 against New Zealand in Hyderabad in 1988 more than made up for the pair that the debonair ML Jaisimha imposed on my impressionable mind at the Lal Bahadur Stadium nearly two decades earlier.
Jaisimha gave me one of my favourite leadership stories relates to this wonderful man. Back in January 1976, he made the mistake of choosing to bat first against a Railway attack on a track that had some wet spots. Hyderabad was quickly in trouble and Jaisimha declared after just 21 overs with the score at 50 for eight, Anil Mathur taking seven wickets. Hyderabad picked up seven Railway wickets for 67 before the visiting team stage a rally and finished with a lead of 220 runs in the first innings. Jaisimha’s team then made 376 for eight in 105 overs to set Railways a 157-run target in three hours. Syed Abid Ali and P Jyothi Prasad took five wickets each to bowl Railways out for 76 and pull off a dream win with minutes to spare. Only a brave captain would have risked a declaration before lunch on day one.
One of my lasting regrets is being unable to help Jai with his autobiography. It was in January 1998 that I visited him last in his Marredpally home. Towards the end of the conversation, he asked me if I would help him put his book together. And I told him that since I was leaving for Delhi in a couple of days, I would gladly take up his offer on my next trip. As destiny would have it, he passed away on July 6 the next year and I never got around to taking up what would have been an enjoyable, educative experience of helping him put together a book
Lazy elegance is what I may have suggested as the title of that book not just to symbolise the man but also the slightly laidback approach to sport in keeping with the ethos of the twin-cities. Jai will remain the first in a long list of wrist artists that I shall cherish as typically Hyderabadi. Azharuddin and VVS Laxman spring to mind as do volleyball genius Abdul Basith, table tennis maestro Mir Khasim Ali, hockey star N Mukesh Kumar and badminton ace Pullela Gopi Chand.
There can be little doubt that the sporting ethos of the twin-cities was built by the annual coaching camps that the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad – and more recently, the Sports Authority of Andhra Pradesh – conducts each summer. It was, and I bet still is, a marvellous sight to watch scores of youngsters learning the fundamentals of a sport of their choice. It is a sure method to woo the young but the challenge has always been to sustain their interest, more so in the contemporary times when the thrust is on academics alone – and on tracking televised sport.
Thanks to the advent and evolution of satellite television that bring spectacular and high-class football action home from Europe, Latin American and European teams and players are the modern day heroes for the youngsters in the twin-cities. It would be a good wager that Hyderabad City Police and the names of players like S K Azizuddin, Noor Mohammed, T Balaram, Peter Thangaraj, Mohammed Habib, Mohammed Akbar and Shabbir Ali do not ring a bell in most minds. Then again, unmindful of that, the legend of Hyderabad City Police lives on.
S A Fruval would have become the first Hyderabadi to go to the Olympic Games had he been able to raise finances to travel to Helsiniki with the Indian football team in 1952. Four years later, six men –Azizuddin, Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin, SA Latif, SA Salam, T Balaram and Ahmed Hussain – gained that distinction as India finished a creditable fourth in Melbourne.
Coached by the redoubtable SA Rahim – who is still regarded by the knowledgeable as the best Indian football coach – Hyderabad City Police consistently challenged the supremacy of Calcutta’s Big Three. Mohun Bagan. East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting found the Hyderabad outfit a tough nut to crack and between 1950 and 1963, the policemen won the Rovers Cup in Bombay as many as nine times and the Durand Cup in Delhi four times. The team was identified as the side of the common man as opposed to the elite clubs of Calcutta. It captured the ethos, spirit of the age, the willingness to sacrifice, overcome odds and work for great ideals and its popularity transcended regional barriers quite easily.
One incident from 1950 will illustrate that amply. Hyderabad City Police was trailing Mohun Bagan by two goals in the Durand Cup final in Delhi but the team fought back to draw the game and earn a replay. Thousands of fans invaded the ground and Laiq, who scored the equalisier, was chaired into the team’s change room. Some football lovers kissed him and one very excited fan even bit him and left Laiq was bleeding from his cheeks.
One man was central to such reverence and domination. SA Rahim. He had turned up for the two best clubs in the city, Merry Go Round and Qamar Club in the 1920s and 1930s when the patronage of royal families like Nawab of Tarbund and Maharaja of Dhanrajgir helped spread the game in Hyderabad. He later went on to become Hyderabad Football Association Secretary, running it from 1943 till his death in 1963.
He introduced tournaments like Nizam Gold Cup and the Majeed Challenge Shield. A good indication of his vision and practical approach can be had from the fact that he conceived a non-dribbling tournament for youngsters to raise the standard of speed and one-touch playing style. He was twice coach of the Indian team that won Asian Games gold medals
Sticking with sporting history from before my time, let us look at how Hyderabad’s cricket came to be. Raja Lochan Chand was reported to be the first chief patron of the game in late 19th century and early 20th century Hyderabad established an early lead among India’s princely States to embrace cricket. Nawab Basalat Jah Bahadur and Maharaj Kishen Prasad, the Dewan of Hyderabad, led the way. Nawab Behram-ud-Dowla and Nawab Moin-ud-Dowla followed suit in creating greater interest in the game by donating two priceless cups to be contested on an all-India level. The Behram-ud-Dowla Cup started in 1928 and proved to be a great success, becoming the second most important competition after the Quadrangular tournament. Raja Dhanrajir’s team, with Prof DB Deodhar at the helm, won the trophy outright by winning the tournament three years in a row. It was then that Nawab Moin-ud-Dowla instituted another Gold Cup.
Thanks to the patronage and efforts of Nawab Moin-ud-Dowla, first class cricket came to Hyderabad in 1930-31 with the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup. Three teams participated in the tournament. They were Hyderabad, Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagaram XI and Nawab of Moin-ud-Dowla XI. The fans witnessed world class players for the first time in MCC Test stars Jack Hobbs and Bert Sutcliffe. A number of famous Indian players like CK Nayudu, Wazir Ali, JG Nalve, Amar Singh and Naoomal Jaoomal who went on to represent India in inaugural Test at Lord’s in 1932 also turned up.
Of course, by the time I was a young lad, princely patronage of sport was a thing of the past and a company like Vazir Sultan Tobacco became the pioneer of corporate sponsorship in India. It was at this time that Hyderabad cricket flourished with as many as seven cricketers who wore India colours. Later, of course, when left-arm spinner Venkatapathi Raju made his debut, I wrote about how Hyderabad could boast of raising a well balanced team for India. The charming Abbas Ali Baig and K Jayantilal as opening batsmen, Azharuddin, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Jaisimha and VVS Laxman would form a sensational middle-order. Leg-spinning all-rounder MV Narasimha Rao, wicket-keeper P Krishnamurthy, medium fast bowler Syed Abid Ali would share the new ball along side Jaisimha while off-spinners of the class of Ghulam Ahmed, Shivlal Yadav and Arshad Ayub would fight for one spot.
Any such walk down memory lane will be incomplete if I do not recall some sporting venues in the twin-cities. Much time may have passed – and the Musi may have become a drain – but images from Fateh Maidan will never acquire sepia tones. The last of the major events I watched at the Lal Bahadur Stadium was the Pre-Olympic football tournament in 1991 but I was privileged to witness many exciting Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup, Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy matches. I do not remember watching a football game in the famed Gosha Mahal Stadium, home of the Hyderabad City Police team. More often than not, circus tents would be pitched there but I remember dad talking nostalgically about Rahim and his team training there. Of course, I also remember going to a shot-gun competition there.
I am not sure if it has survived the ravages of commercialisation of education. But the cricket ground in Aizza High School, Malakpet, will be a very special cricket ground in my life. It was the venue of my only inter-school cricket match. Some of my schoolmates and I mustered courage to convince our school Principal S Udapachar that we needed to enter our cricket team in inter-school tournament so that we could further our talents. And in our final year of school, we managed to convince the stern soul that sport could also help build character. And as our luck would have it, we drew All Saints High School in our opening round Basalt Jah Trophy game. Abdul Azeem, later to scintillate as opener for Hyderabad in Ranji Trophy, demolished our dreams with a magnificent century, leaving us licking our wounds
The other ground that I remember from my childhood was a sprawling area called the Chintal Thota – or Imli Bagh – in Lingampally. As members of the Friends CC or Youngsters Sports Club, we used to walk some distance to play our own weekly Tests against a team from the neighbouring Venkateshwara Colony. It disappeared and blocks of apartments sprang up in its place. Similarly, each time we pass the Telephone Exchange in Musheerabad my father Mr N Ganesan, a sports journalist and administrator in his time, speaks wistfully about the Mehdi Nawaz Jang tennis stadium that used to stand in its place. He recalls how Ghaus Mohammed, the first Indian to enter the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, made Hyderabad his home.
YMCA is where I watched some great table tennis contests featuring the likes of Mir Khasim Ali, Yahya Khan, Subash Reddy and saw sisters B Usha and B Savitri dominate the women’s events. YMCA would be so full of life on Independence Day when dawn-to-dusk competitions would be held in many disciplines, DS Chinnadorai and Egbert Samraj establishing a fine tradition of encouraging sport. At a time when chess had not caught the imagination of people, Nasiruddin Ghalib and his ustaad Mohammed Hassan were regulars at the YMCA. We would watch in awe as Ghalib who won not a few awards of the best game at the National A Championship, and Hassan got immersed in a game.
I shall cherish my association with Ghalib, one of the bravest people I have met. Former India women’s cricket captain Purnima Rau is another such. She overcame personal tragedy and gave expression of her character in the kind of intense cricket that she championed. There is fairly long list of characters from Hyderabad sport that I can recall. Sayeeda Sultana, a national table tennis champion as well as cricketers Asif Iqbal and Waheed Yar Khan moved to Pakistan. Volleyball player Mulini Reddy became the first woman from the city to be honoured with the Arjuna Award while T Gopal and Venkatnarayana were in the forefront of the volleyball bandwagon. Basketball stars Mohammed Rizwan and Hari Krishna Prasad played for India with distinction as did women cricketers Sandra Braganza and Ranjini Venugopal. Davis Cupper SP Misra and his brother SS Misra set the tone for other tennis players like S Narendernath and Vasudeva Reddy. On the badminton court, Praveen Kumar and Manoj Kumar made a name for themselves as a champion doubles pair. Boxing coach E Chiranjeevi did a stellar job of ensuring that the city would carry the tradition set by pugilists like Dennis Swamy, Saleem Siddiqui and Saad Farooqi. Rami Reddy, Krishna Bose and Dhanalakshmi came to the fore from track and field while cyclist Maxwell Trevor was quite unbeatable for some years. CS Pradeepak did well for himself as a champion sailor in a sport that was dominated by the Services. My friend Suresh Kumar stared off as a basketball player at Victory Play Ground but rose to lead the India handball team.
I cannot ever forget that when Arjuna Award winning volleyball player Abdul Basith died of electrocution in 1991 I borrowed lines from a Mera Naam Joker song for use in the obituary. “Kal khel mein hum ho na ho, gardish mein sitare rahenge sada…” Many of Hyderabad’s heroes may have slipped from collective public consciousness but their contribution to Hyderabad and Indian sport at large cannot ever fade. Of course, there are others — Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Mitali Raj, Chetan Anand – who are in the process of adding to the pages of twin-cities’ sporting history. Some day, someone else would sit down with a cup of Irani chai and start by saying Once Upon a Time in Hyderabad…
(This was my contribution to a book, Hyderabad Haazir Hai, edited by Vanaja Banagiri, and published in 2008 by Rupa & Co.)