A swing bowler of excellent ability, Abdul Ismail, who had a deceptive action, played the Ranji Trophy from 1969-70 to 1977-78, without missing a single season. He ended with 244 wickets from 75 first-class matches at a frugal rate of 18.04. Along with Padmakar Shivalkar, Ismail was responsible in a big way for Bombay’s supremacy in the 1970s.
He served as the Mumbai selector for Under-22 and senior sides in early 200s, and also held coaching camps for young kids at the Khar gymkhana. Now a contented 72, Ismail devotes all his time to his family and occasionally catches up with his former teammates.
Memories of Ranji debut
We played against Maharashtra at the Brabourne stadium, I loved bowling there. I took two wickets and bowled quite well for a debutant. I would have bagged another wicket, but Farokh Engineer dropped a catch off my bowling. I was really upset, but I couldn’t say a word as they were all very senior players and I was just making my debut. I went to bowl with just one feeling that if I perform well in this match, I will be chosen in next game. And that became my mantra for every single match after that. It certainly helped as I was never dropped from the 14-member squad till the day I retired.
I have very fond memories of my first-class debut as well. It was shortly before my Ranji debut and I was chosen in the Bombay team that played against Rest of India in the Irani Cup [in 1969-70] in Poona. I didn’t expect to be picked in the XI, but when I got to know that I’ll be playing, I just gave it my all. To get the wickets of great batsmen like Nawab of Pataudi, Surinder Amarnath and Ambar Roy on debut was a dream come true.
My father drove a rickshaw and was the only earning member of the family. So my parents were completely against my cricketing ambitions, but I somehow wanted to make it big in the game. So I started playing a lot of tennis ball cricket at a local club, and gradually rose through the ranks by playing Kanga League and Times Shield matches. Although my family never supported my decision, there was a Maharashtrian family, the Kerkars, in the chawl that I was staying in. They encouraged me a lot and whatever I’ve achieved in cricket is mainly because of their support only.
Turning point of his career
In 1970-71, when six of our Bombay players went to West Indies, we were forced to field a second string side, led by Sudhir Naik, in the Ranji trophy final against Maharashtra. Despite that, we ended up lifting the trophy. That final also served as the selection match for the England tour which was scheduled next. I had taken seven wickets – four in the first innings and three in the second – and everyone had expected that I would get an India call-up. Unfortunately, I wasn’t selected. Irrespective of that I have enjoyed my career with the Bombay team a lot, we were all together like a family.
Most cherished win of his career
It was the 1975-76 Ranji Trophy quarterfinal against Hyderabad at Wankhede. We had conceded a first-innings lead and on the last day when we were batting in our second innings, Ashok Mankad, our captain, told me that as soon as Rahul Mankad gets out, you’ll be sent out to bat. I had never batted in the middle order, but Ashok Mankad said that we’ll have to take chances to set a good target. Ashok hit a century, I made 37 and we had a partnership of about 82 runs before declaring. That turned everything in our favour, we got Hyderabad out just before tea, Rakesh Tandon got six wickets and Shivalkar took the rest. It was even more special because I contributed with the bat, something which I hadn’t done very often in career.
Favourite Ranji moment
This was in the 1970-71 season against Baroda, we were 87 for 8 [Bombay were 81 for 8] at lunch. Ultimately we got out for 129. During the break we got a dressing down from Dileep Sardesai, our captain, and it worked. We bowled Baroda out for less than 50. Ajit Naik got five wickets and I got four. In the second innings, I took five wickets and we finished the match in less than three days.
Then there was this semifinal against West Bengal in Calcutta [1975-76 season], I had got eight wickets in that match. In the next match, the final against Bihar, that we won outright, I ended up taking ten wickets in the game – that was also very memorable.
The toughest conditions he has played in
Delhi was one of the toughest conditions I’ve played in. The wicket there was usually dead, the ball wouldn’t reach the wicketkeeper. It never used to move too much, so I hardly bowled above three or four overs, I was not able to perform well. I could only contain the runs, but there were not too many wickets to show.
The toughest opponents
It was undoubtedly Karnataka. I never thought I could get their batsmen out, especially GR Viswanath. In the 1974 semifinal against Karnataka in Bangalore, I had got Vijay Kumar out off the first ball with an outswinger, Vishy was the next batsman, he left the first ball he faced and was plumb out in the second ball, he almost started walking off but the umpire said he’s not out and he went on to score a hundred. During the break, Vishy came up to me and said “Sorry Abdul, I was out,” and we just laughed it out. We ended up losing the semifinal.
Most fun-loving teammates
Ajit Naik, the fast bowler, was a very good friend of mine. We ended up being room partners on tours every time. We became such good friends that everyone in the team joked that we were a couple. We were a bunch of five to six players who used to go out for movies before a match, it was good fun, we used to sit down and discuss what to do after the match next day. I’m looking forward to meeting most of them and relive the good old days at the function to celebrate Mumbai’s 500th Ranji match.
Sultan of swing
I used to swing the ball a lot, it used to move so much…it was fun to make some batsmen dance on the crease. They used to keep guessing what’s headed their way. But a lot of hard work and practise went into that, and the credit also goes to our famed slip cordon – Ajit Wadeker, Eknath Solkar, Sunil Gavaskar. Once it went to the slips, I knew I’d get a wicket. Once the ball used to get old, after ten overs or so, I never got to bowl till a new ball was taken. So in those ten overs I had to do most of the damage.
Secret of his economy rate
I used to practise a lot in the Khar gymkhana nets. Back then we didn’t have specialised support staff or coaches like we do now, so I used to just take a stump and kept bowling at it the whole day. I maintained the same length in the matches too. My outswingers were very lethal, there have been many instances where I’ve got a wicket off my first ball. Especially a couple of players whom I used to dismiss invariably; as soon as they came to the crease, I used to think “ye toh apna bakra hai.” [He’s my bunny]
Life after retirement
I was a Mumbai selector for eight years, I served two terms. I was also a coach in Khar gymkhana until last year. It’s only been a year since I quit cricket coaching, that too after my family objected that I don’t spend enough time with them. Both my children are well settled now. My son, a national level tennis player, works in Hong Kong [Asif Ismail, his son, has the rare distinction of representing two different countries in Davis Cup – India and Hong Kong]. Cricket coaching is my passion, I’ve done that for almost 30 years, but it was important to stop from my health perspective too.
I have no regrets at all with how my career shaped up. Although I didn’t play for India, people still remember me for my bowling. Just a couple of days ago, there was an article in Mid-Day about how I missed the India bus. I never felt bad about it. It’s not my fault or the system’s fault, it was just that four spinners [BS Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi, EAS Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan] were dominating that time and India benefitted a lot from them.
On the legacy of Mumbai cricket
Mumbai as we know it now is the mecca of Indian cricket. We’ve produced so many talented cricketers who did well for India and are still doing well. Now with the advent of IPL there are lot of chances for players to break into the side also. Sometimes we feel that we were born at the wrong time, the game has advanced so much now.
Bombay has always produced some of the top batsmen, but not too many bowlers went on to play for India. One of the reasons for that could be the fact that the focus is more on the bowling speed than the variations. Bowling to the best batsmen in the nets helps develop that aspect. I used to bowl to five-six of the best batsmen of Bombay, Gavaskar was the toughest to bowl at in the nets. Bowling to them all day in the nets made me better.