About a year ago, Hyderabad lost one of its famous cricket personalities, namely fast bowler Habib Khan. In his heyday, the towering Habib Khan, standing 6 feet 6 inches, was reckoned to be the fastest bowler in India. When this correspondent met him in the 1980s, he was no longer a player but some of his fans used to refer to him as the Joel Garner of Hyderabad.
Why he was not given an opportunity to represent the country at a time when India had very few fast bowlers of note, is one of the mysteries of Indian cricket.
Former national badminton coach S.M. Arif used to be a good cricket player in his college days and had also played in the local leagues. He had faced Habib Khan when the fast bowler was at his best. Arif sahab recalls that Habib Khan was almost unplayable. “The ball used to come in a flash. Delivered from that great height, it often kicked up terrifyingly. And you must remember that back then we had no helmets or good quality protective gear. So it was very difficult to face him,” said Arif.
Since the badminton coach was an opening batsman, one can imagine that coping with the new ball in the hands of the fearsome Habib Khan must have been a daunting prospect. With his great height and burly physique, he truly resembled the famous West Indian fast bowlers who wreaked havoc in world cricket in the 1980s and 1990s.
Habib Khan was also known for his phenomenal strength. Umpire Swaminathan told this correspondent once that if Habib Khan gripped a bat with one hand and if you tried to wrench it out of his grasp with both your hands, using your full strength, you would never be able to pull it out of his grasp. Such was the strength of his grip.
But at the same time the huge fast bowler was always smiling and jovial. Moreover, he was humble and friendly. When interacting with him, you never got the impression that he was a reputed fast bowler. He did not get the rewards that he deserved in his game but he took the ups and downs of life in his stride and did not put on any airs.
P.R. Man Singh who was the Secretary of the Hyderabad Cricket Association for many years and had managed the Indian teams on some occasions, has written in a book:
“Even today, Mohammed Nisssar and Amar Singh are talked about as the greatest fast bowlers to have played for India before the advent of Kapil Dev. During the 1950s and 1960s anyone with a bit of pace could have played for India, such was the dearth of fast bowlers in the country.”
Man Singh adds: “One may recall that India’s number two wicket-keeper Budhi Kunderan once opened the bowling for India in a Test match. Once M.L. Jaisimha opened the bowling wearing tennis shoes. The whole concept of opening the bowling for India had become a joke. It was during this period that Habib Khan of Hyderabad came onto the scene. It is unfortunate that despite such a shortage of fast bowlers, he did not play for India in Tests.”
Habib Khan belonged to a family of cricketers. His father was Ibrahim Khan who was also a good fast bowler who played for Hyderabad in the Ranji trophy with great success. Ibrahim Khan who was affectionately referred to as Bade Khan Sahab was a very intelligent bowler who could spot and utilise the rival batter’s weaknesses. In this respect he was even superior to Habib Khan, say the old timers.
Habib Khan showed promise in his early years and went on to play for Hyderabad juniors and then made his Ranji trophy debut against Madras. Apart from Hyderabad, he also represented Services and Railways in the Ranji Trophy. In a career spanning about 15 years, he played 40 first class matches and finished with 114 first class wickets. For Hyderabad he played 22 Ranji trophy matches and took 70 wickets.
After Retirement he offered his services to Hyderabad cricket in various roles, but is most fondly remembered as a popular cricket coach. He passed away on 10th January in 2021 mourned by thousands of cricket fans and people who knew him and loved him.
Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.