There was magic in every movement. The feet moved as if resting on a coil of spring. The bat flashed in arc and cadence that stretched grammar of batsmanship into realms of poetry. Then there were those wrists which came into play at the last moment, sending the ball streaking to unexpected corners across the green. The flick through midwicket could be played from way outside the off stump, and when the mood and field positioning demanded it, the same ball could be carted through the covers with an equivalent brand of panache. The body flowed into the stroke in a burst of energy that throbbed with the joyous mix of sport and melody.
And when the bat was left behind, the pads taken off and the man strode into the field in just his flannels, the delight continued unabated. Loose limbed and light footed, he covered the ground with quickness that was as ethereal as effective. He picked up and threw without a break in the full tilt of his motion. If just beyond his reach he flung himself, stopping and throwing while prone on the ground. The return whipped with a flick of the wrist, often over his own back to prevent the extra seconds of turning his torso, brought thunderous applause even when the cricket was at its drabbest with the opposition piling on runs. Close to the wicket he moved with electric anticipation and held on to travelling balls beyond mortal reach with an ease that was esoteric. And all through, while scripting the deeds of the greatest all-round fielder ever produced by the country, the actions spoke less of athleticism and more about artistry.
Mohammad Azharuddin was magical. Be it batting or fielding, his willow was a wand, his strokes cast a spell and his motion in the field was hypnotic.
And late in his career, the world realised with a shock that some of the wonder was perhaps steeped in black magic. He was not only proficient in conjuring up non-existent gaps and angles on the field, pulling catches out of thin air; he was probably also indulging in the dark arts — changing results of matches, transforming cash deposits in clandestine hotel lockers and ritzy Armani suits into victories and defeats on the cricket field.
The advent of a genius
Azhar entered Indian cricket on the last day of 1984, as a lithe slip of a boy, in the beautiful Eden Gardens — the ground where he was to play some of the most fascinating innings ever seen in the game. India lost that series against England, but the 21-year old from Hyderabad blazed his way into the record books with hundreds in his first three Tests — at Calcutta, Madras and Kanpur — demonstrating wizardry on the on-side, thrilling drives and cuts through the off and the ability to score quickly when the situation demanded.
When the focus shifted to the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup in Australia, he started with an unbeaten 93 against Pakistan, steering India to victory in their opening match. As was expected, the phenomenal run of success did not continue in the same vein. But, it was clear to the world that a great batsman had graced the grounds, who also happened to field brilliantly. Off the field he was disciplined, god-fearing and the picture of humility.
Down the years, he had his ups and downs — and ups and ups at the Eden Gardens.
He failed when the bowling was quick and the wickets bouncy, but more than made up for it at home. Once in a rare while the magic did sparkle even on foreign wickets against formidable attacks, but his best was reserved for the wickets of the subcontinent, the swinging conditions of New Zealand and one superb English summer.
The ascent to the hot seat
By the end of the eighties, Dilip Vengsarkar’s team had been routed in West Indies. Krishnamachari Srikkanth had taken over and led the side to a drawn series in Pakistan, but had a nightmarish time with the bat. Raj Singh Dungarpur, looking for his much publicised team of the nineties, approached Azhar with the now famous line, “Miyaan, captain banoge?”
The first days as skipper saw India lose in the distant island countries of New Zealand and England, but it also marked a rejuvenation of Azhar the batsman. His 192 at Eden Park, Auckland, was a glittering gem, perhaps influenced by the name of the ground. And when Graham Gooch scored 333 and 123 in two innings of Lord’s, the mountain of runs were put to shade by a miraculous 121 off just 111 balls by the Indian captain.
Bishan Singh Bedi, the team manager for the first couple of tours under Azhar, did not really enjoy the best relationship with the captain. But, he too came out gushing with effusive praise when Azhar followed up his Lord’s brilliance with a masterpiece in Manchester amounting to 179.
The journey at the helm continued to be arduous. India were beaten 4-0 by Australia and Azhar managed just one spectacular innings at Adelaide. The World Cup campaign ended early and in dismay. The team somehow managed to avoid embarrassment in Zimbabwe and lost both the Test and limited overs series in South Africa.
With a captaincy win-loss record reading 1-7, Azhar decided to turn his fortunes around at — where else — Eden Gardens. As Gooch brought over his English side for a three-match series, Azhar was back to his esoteric best at Eden, hammering 182 of the best. This was the start of the three-spinner system devised by the Indian think tank, and the team started out on a winning spree never experienced before by India. England suffered a 0-3 whitewash, so did Sri Lanka. A rare foreign series was won when India overcame the Lankan batsmen and umpires. The strong West Indian team, still unbeaten from 1979, managed to escape a series loss only because of a collapse of the Indian batting on the final day. New Zealand was routed. Azhar was among runs. He was the undisputed leader of the Indian team while Sachin Tendulkar was busy conquering worlds and winning matches with his brilliance.
And then the World Cup semi-final took place.
India, who had been pulverised by the assault of Sanath Jayasuriya in a group match, had recovered to beat Pakistan comprehensively in the quarter-final. On the hottest of afternoons, Azhar won the toss and elected to field at his favourite Eden Gardens. The tactics India had devised for the explosive Sri Lankan openers worked splendidly, both of them falling in the first over. But, Aravinda de Silva took the game away, and when India batted, the wicket crumbled and broke. The match ended in a disgraceful display of public anger, and Azhar — the hero of Eden who had often turned the ground into the stage of some of his most magical acts — had turned into the villain within one day. Abuses and accusations were hurled at the Indian captain, relentless, unfounded and unjust.
The blaze of glory
When he returned to the ground a few months later, a lot had changed. He was no longer the captain and a number of young batsmen had emerged in the middle. South Africa piled a big total and the Indian batsmen collapsed in a heap. Azhar, for the first time in his career, had retired hurt — with an injury to his forearm.
The next day, he re-emerged at 161 for 7 and hammered a 74-ball hundred, blasting debutant Lance Klusener for five boundaries in an over. People saw a different Azhar. The artist had withdrawn with his injured arm. The paintbrush had been exchanged for a sledgehammer. The Protean fast bowlers bounced, and Azhar unfurled a devastating hook shot again and again. Even strokes through the mid-wicket off full deliveries were punched to the boundary, without the caress generally associated with the man. The stadium went into raptures of ecstasy, each stroke of this belligerent counter attack celebrated with rousing cheers. The full stands rose as one to applaud the breathtaking century. And Azhar did not acknowledge them. The trademark white helmet remained fastened on his head and the bat hung from his hand, pointing downwards. Neither was the headgear taken off nor was the willow raised.The Eden crowd was paid back for atrocious misbehaviour in the best possible display of disdain.
The rebuff of greatness. The thumping strokes that reverberated around the great amphitheatre bore the signature of anger. Mohammad Azharuddin had changed.
In the following Test match at Kanpur, Azhar played one of the best innings of his life. On a difficult pitch where spinners turned the ball and the fast men bowled bursts of reverse swing, he was back to his artistic self, sending balls from wide outside the off stump past the hapless mid-on and mid-wicket. The 163 unbeaten runs propelled India to a resounding series win.
Less than a month later he scored another murderous hundred, this time in the far shores of Cape Town, in a fearsome counter attack launched with Tendulkar, a duet of destruction seldom witnessed in Indian cricket. Coming together at 58 for 5, the two sublimely gifted men put on 222 in 174 minutes before Azhar was out in the only manner that seemed likely, caught short of his ground attempting a single to short third-man.
The waist had been filled up by the years, the top was thinning fast. But, Azhar was batting as well as ever — piling runs at home and as usual failing in West Indies. Neither age nor mortal flesh weighed down on his fielding. Michael Slater, who had slashed fiercely at a wide David Johnson delivery at Delhi, would testify to his continuing agility. Time seemed to have given extra quarters to this ageless master, but had it asked for his soul as barter. There were some whispers already doing rounds about his commitment, his immensely expensive wardrobe. But, he batted on.
And after two drawn series against Sri Lanka, the Indian selectors demonstrated their faith in Azhar by reappointing him as the captain.
It started with aplomb. A visibly-relieved Tendulkar mastered Shane Warne at Chennai and Azhar himself scored a masterly 163 not out at the happy ground of Eden. India won the series against Australia with ease. Azhar was back to the bliss of romantic association with Eden, raising his bat to acknowledge applause yet again on reaching his fifth century at the ground. India lost in New Zealand, but he scored a battling hundred of high quality and fought hard.
Finally, the story nosedived into the murky chapter of squalor. India, having squared a hard-fought series against Pakistan, lost the inaugural match of the Asian Test Championship amidst controversial run outs, questionable decisions and another instance of crowd misbehaviour at the Eden Gardens. Azhar, for the first time in his career, failed in a Test match at the ground. What pained many was the tame nature of his dismissal in the second innings. Just before lobbing a return catch to Saqlain Mushtaq, he had made a great show of acknowledging cheers on reaching 6,000 Test runs. As the day neared its end and India slipped towards defeat, the television camera focused on the captain in the pavilion. The world saw Azhar wearing a flashy red T-shirt, eyes hidden behind sunglasses while the rest of the team looked on pensively in their cricketing whites. Mixed with the growing whispers about match fixers and shady meetings, it went down pretty badly.
Finally when India crashed out of the World Cup in England, he was removed as captain, and under a cloud of uncertain but growing allegations, lost his place in the side.
Brought back next spring for the final Test against South Africa in 2000, Azhar was the only Indian batsman to get runs as he scored a well-paced, mature 102. It was the 22nd hundred in 99 Test matches. Mohammad Azharuddin never played for India again as the allegations of involvement with match-fixers became too loud to ignore.
Later that year, BCCI banned Azhar for life. The report of the investigation conducted by CBI smeared his sterling career, spreading stains of ignominy across many glorious deeds. The ban was contested, finally removed by BCCI, and the removal in turn questioned by ICC — but it did not matter to the bottom line. Mohammad Azharuddin’s career had ended.
In some ways, it concluded as it had started — with a hundred, emulating the feat of Greg Chappell. His tally of 6,215 runs at 45.03 makes for proud reading, especially when seen in the context of one of the more difficult eras for batsmen. The numbers are garnished by 105 catches, several of them spectacular.
In other ways, however, the end was as diametrically opposite to the beginning as conceivable. The man who arrived as the great hope of Indian cricket departed after bringing the country’s reputation to the rock-bottom.
During his early days in the team, Azhar was known to avoid even the friendly card games that involved money, even when other teammates indulged in this harmless pastime. What made this man, a picture of modesty, simplicity and his humble roots, tread into the grubby world where matches, country, honour and claims to sporting greatness were all put on stake? Was it the lure of untold riches that clouds the reason of those who have seen too much struggle? Was it compounded by the hurt experienced by a noble soldier of the country, who was accused and abused relentlessly at the same venue where he had scripted several of his virtuoso masterpieces — the same throbbing wound that kept him from raising his bat after the most ferocious century of his career?
Whatever is in the CBI report cannot be condoned. At the same time, no damning evidence can tarnish the memories. Of the prancing rock onto the front foot as the over pitched ball was caressed away, the streak of white across the green as a flashing stroke was retrieved and returned. Azhar may have sinned, he may have had feet of clay. But those who have seen him on the field will remain forever blessed by the experience of artistic genius.