Posted by: nestaquin | October 25, 2008

Azharuddin: Tale of a Sultan

On the eve of Diwali, it is with some excitement that 99.94 welcomes our newest contributor, Kumar Pundita, a passionate Hyderabadi who soaked many a handkerchief and wore a hole in his shoes kicking the furniture while enduring the abysmal showing of his beloved Deccan Chargers during the inaugural IPL season. Continuing the theme on the frailty of the human condition, Kumar, as meticulous as he is passionate, has rummaged through his personal archives to present a portrait of his teenage hero, Mohammad Azharuddin, written at the turn of the millennium during the height of the scandal that led to his premature and permanent departure from the grand game.

1999

For those of us, Indian teenagers of the 1980’s, cricket really started after the 1982 Asiad. With color TV entering Indian households, India winning the World Cup, and youngsters like me coming of age, that is, starting to comprehend The Hindu’s sports page dialect and BBC’s fluid commentary, we the Andhra and Hyderabadi kids, longed for someone of our own in the national team.

Shivlal Yadav tweaking a few and being a brave tail-ender in Tests wouldn’t satisfy us. None of us had the pleasure of seeing Jaisimha and Abid Ali play. All over Andhra Pradesh hungry eyes scanned the junior cricket score sheets for upcoming stars.

Then he arrived with a difficult name to pronounce, Mohammed Azharuddin. Wasn’t he a leg spinner when we first heard of him when he was 14? Why then, when he started mesmerizing one and all with his wand, no one mentioned that he could bowl too?

Now in 1999, a full 17 years later, he has won and lost the captaincy, made a comeback, accumulated the highest number of runs in ODIs and stands accused by one and all in match-fixing and Income Tax illegalities.

Oh, Azzu Bhai never disappointed us those days. In 1983, while the West Indies, who were in revenge mode after losing the World Cup final, were mauling the senior team, our man scored 250 odd in the Duleep Trophy and a 228 in the Vizzy Trophy.  We all thought that it was only a matter of time before he made his Test debut.

To prove us correct, he scored a majestic 151 in an innings and 59 run rout under Ravi Shastri for the India Under 25 team against David Gower’s men at the beginning of the next season.

The selectors had also seen enough to grant him his first Test and he scored a century on debut in the drawn match at Calcutta where Indian captain Sunil Gavaskar was booed after Kapil Dev was dropped from the team after 65 consecutive Tests. It must have been a relief for Sunny that he was reinstated for the next match.

The outstanding knock and selection over Sandeep Patil was not just all about winning the match, but changing the mental make up of the team. Not withstanding Laxman Sivaramakrishnan who took 23 wickets and Azharuddin who scored 3 centuries in as many Tests, England outplayed the home team and Gower had kept his word when he said before the tour, “We will bat our way to victory in the series”.

And bat they did with 2-1 the final result and the squad went to the Kangaroo land under Sunny, with team morale at its lowest ebb.

Soon after his astonishing debut (his and Gavaskar’s debuts were much more explosive than Sachin’s, I dare say), he made mincemeat of Imran and young Akram scoring 93 not out to steer his team home in the lung busting opener of the B&H World Series Cup at the MCG, a tournament India went on to win by again beating Pakistan in the final, this time by 8 wickets.

Azharuddin’s sublime batting in those tumultuous days established him firmly in the nation’s mind and heart. Along with cliched headlines from leading newspapers like, “Mountain comes to Mohammed”, The Sports Star called him the ‘Messiah of Indian Cricket’ including facts like he performs Namaaz five times a day even during games, that he used to ride a cycle everyday to the stadium and was very close to his grandfather. He even appeared in a Sutings advertisement all gawky and self-conscious. Only the faithful noticed it; the brand name ‘Santogen’ sounded a little pharmaceutical.

There was not much on him, except for the lean and purple patches in his batting, for some seasons. Then, he became captain, married a Bollywood starlet Sangita Bijlani (does anyone remember which happened first?) and the news about the expensive watches and suits came trickling in.

We were all happy he was enjoying life. Often it was an unsaid but many people thought the same, “After playing so many entertaining innings in the most beautiful game, if he doesn’t deserve the good things in life, no one else does”.

The accusations of non-communication with his team mates were met with, “Unooo!, hai aisaich! Kya kee?” (He’s like that only, donno what!) by loyal Hyderabadis who rarely questioned that he had almost stopped living in the city where he learned how to hold a bat. I am sure that it wasn’t only the locals who loved him but many fans right across the length and breadth of the country.

The serious allegations began slowly but surely like water dripping from a leaky tap. Still, as India won five tournaments in 1998, Azzu Bhai, with dark clouds circling, continued his captaincy for the third World Cup in succession.

In light of contact with bookmakers, the media now had a field day debating whether he should be captain or not and the public were almost indoctrinated to dislike him.

Losing and winning captaincy and again losing it, even making a comeback and then, even with a horde of allegations and his name linked with almost every fresh development, Azzu Bhai would not lower himself to cry on a TV show. (For those not familiar with the reference, Manoj Prabhakar alleged that Kapil Dev was the prima donna of match fixing, and Kapil wept on live TV while denying the allegations and tucking into a lamb biryani simultaneously).

In our hearts, we know he could have taken the money and would have been in the thick of it. Everything points to that, right? But we have to admit that not just Azhar, but several cricketing icons and a few filmi ones too, might have been on the take.

For that matter, the unmentionable foursome of Sachin, Saurav, Dravid and Kumble are also guilty of keeping silent, if they knew what was happening.

A huge media storm blew up when he said he was a target because he belongs to a minority community. Fortunately, he was smart all along, suddenly said something dumb, and Thank God, good sense prevailed, for he said he was misquoted.

In the Indian context, it means he was retracting his statement as he realized the blunder. One wonders if he knows that thousands of Hindu right-wingers in Hyderabad still swear by him and feel him as one among their own. Art may not cross all boundaries, but it sure can cross a few.

But what would you do if your childhood icon, a man that made you proud of where you are from, and proud of a sport that you love like nothing else in the world, proves to be a fixer, a liar, a fallen idol?

For 17 years, we have known the man; he’s a part of our boyhood and youth; a person you know too well to hate or idolise. You knew the tendencies could be there and given the nature of the system, a lone artist from the lower middle class might find it easier to adapt to it and continue playing and scoring than opposing and going forever into oblivion. There might be some that chose the idealistic way. Or did they really?

So, the only thing you can do is to pray that this Azzu Bhai of yours, mine and millions of others has not done any thing ethically wrong. If just in case, it is proved that he has done what they said he did, just to tell him, “Azzu Bhai! We will still love you. No matter what!”

2008

It is a fact that after more than a decade, none of the charges against Azhar have been proved in a court of law, even after federal investigations in India closely monitored by the media.

Some people say that Jagmohan Dalmia, the then current BCCI president and later ICC supremo, being so close to Sourav Ganguly played a major role in ensuring that Azhar was stripped of captaincy and then he was so badly maligned in public perception that there was no chance of Azhar ever playing cricket again, at any level.

Recent announcements about Saleem Malik being cleared of all match-fixing charges makes me hope that justice, though delayed, will not be denied for Azhar.

Azhar debuted with 3 successive tons against Gower’s men in 1984-85, and scored a fighting century in a losing cause in his last test innings, against Donald and Pollock in their prime. His average of 45+ and the fact that he played 99 tests to score 22 hundreds, shows that he is up there in the pantheon of great Indian batsmen.

As a fan of his sublime wrist-play and a fellow Hyderabadi, I only hope that his true cricketing successor, VVS Laxman, plays a few more gorgeous knocks and passes on the baton to another sultan of wrists. Rohit Sharma, please stand up.

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Responses

  1. Azza the batsman was a wonderful sight, playing some of his best innings in England against a seaming ball, all eye, wrists and balance. I was as heartbroken as any Indian when the allegations surfaced.

    That there was impropriety around world cricket in the 90s seems irrefutable. Who did what and whether clearing people as “not gulity” is the same as saying that they didn’t do it, is largely a matter for lawyers and historians. The game has always contained dubious conduct as its scope includes all humanity’s weaknesses as well as its strengths – to love the game is to accept men are (as Nesta points out on his Symonds Post) tempted and will fall short from time to time.

    Kumar – Thanks for a heartfelt piece on a batting great.

  2. His collar always turned up – Desi chic, as one writer described it as, his chain and tongue complementing the arc of his flicks and square drives, Hyderabad could not have asked for a more stylish and yet more representative than Azzu miya. His rubber wrists, cool fielding and his laidbackness had the mark of Nampalli and Old City stamped all over. All of us fortunate enough to see his 74 ball 109 against SA in Eden or his 87 ball 121 at Lord’s would gladly forgive all his sins.

    And in any case, our sentiments should not overshadow the basic norm that no one shall be condemned without a fair trial. All we ask for is a open and fair process and a defined penalty – not a lifetime of infamy and neglect.

  3. No matter what he did or could have done as a batsman. No matter how gracefully he played. Maybe he was the most stylish batsman ever.
    But he sold my country for a few pieces of paper with gandhi’s pictures on it. A player who does not even know how to hold a bat properly but plays his heart out for his country has more respect in my eyes. He should have been hanged to death for what he did. Style and grace my foot, we want loyalty to the country. Biggest cheat, right up there with cronje.

  4. He shouldn’t be hanged to death, but otherwise I concur with yad. There was widespread disbelief (no one suspected foul play) when Azhar inserted Lanka in in the ’96 semifinal, and when they were 1/2 after 1 over, he was hailed as a genius. Of course, the shit did hit the fan, leading to all thaose shameful crowd scenes and match forfeit.

    No one could have known better than Azhar about Eden’s nature. One just doesn’t chase there because the Hooghly river has a high water table which makes the pitch soften dramatically, rendering chasing very very difficult, and Azhar knew this, having been crowned unofficial king of Eden. Which is what clinches for me that he was a fixer.

    It’s a darned shame, because Azhar played arguably the most important innings in modern Indian cricket. It was Jan 1993, Babri Masjid had just been torn down and all of India was aflame. Against this backdrop, India’s Muslim captain plays a sublime 182 at the Eden to destroy England in the first test. Sport doesnt have the answers but that was no insignificant feat.

    Like I said, a pity.

  5. Nestaquin,

    Thanks for publishing the piece (and adding value with your edits).

    TTT,
    Warts and all, Azhar deserves to be remembered as the elder brother who showed the way to Fab Four.Thanks for reminding me about his innings in England.If memory serves me right, he played some of his best innings in the first half of English summers.

    Saurabh,
    Remember the way he hit Klusener for fours repeatedly through a packed offside field?

    Yes, old city charm definitely!

  6. Superb… I grew up watching him and by far till date, he has been my favourite Indian batsmen by a mile ahead of Tendulkar.

    The day I woke up to read in the paper on that match-fixing scandal, it was so shocking… this fantastic player who had everything from talent, performance and money could do this. And why?

    I was an out-an-out football fan and Azharruddin was the sole reason which got me hooked onto cricket… so much that football gradually went out of my window.

    Guilty or not none knows… we hope justice gets through quickly and hopefully he no longer gets discarded and gets back his respect.

  7. Azza averaged nearly 55 in county cricket for Derbyshire which is mighty impressive.

    In England, he played 9 Tests and scored two tons and two fifties. This knock http://content-uk.cricinfo.com/statsguru/engine/match/63535.html was superb, but the match is remembered for Sachin’s innings.

  8. Wow. Thanks for the memories.

    Rohit Sharma looks very promising – lets hope he turns out to be half the batsman Azhar was or Laxman is… we’ll be in for a lot of good knocks then..

  9. Azharuddin is one of the greatest batsman in Indian history, and some culprits does not want to digest his fame made a plot to trap him through bookies, and some does not want to see he is crossing 100 tests.

    People will understand whom I mean particularly.

    abc

  10. he should be remebered as greatest captain of india. becoz he made the team india which has fab four. his contribution is so immense in indian cricket that he will ever hailed as greatest batmen, fieldre and one of the great captain. i feel that there was a conspiracy against him to stop him. becoz at thattime he was in a good form.


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