Mohammad Azharuddin – The Artist among the Housepainters
It’s the stuff dreams are made of. Near impossible to emulate, memories of such feats are passed through generations as folklore, etched into the books of history. What do you make of a Batsman who, in this generation when players are idolized for scoring centuries in their debut tests, scored centuries in his first three test matches? Do you call him ‘Special’? Do you call him ‘Gifted’? Who can you even compare him to, since he has no equal in this respect? The only thing you can do, the only thing that would do justice to his talent, is to sit back and enjoy the genius at display. You watch a perfectly pitched delivery outside off-stump flicked away through mid-wicket for a boundary. You applaud the subtle flamboyance and silken touch of the maestro– Mohammad Azharuddin.
It’s strange how a simple piece of wood can take so many different forms. Sir Viv Richards and Virender Sehwagused their bats as clubs. Mark Waugh and Rahul Dravid waved them like magic wands. Azhar, however, was an artist. His bat was his brush, which he used to paint strokes on the canvas of the cricket field.
In the modern era, batting is about thwacking the bowlers, helped often by bigger bats and small boundaries. Outside edges fly for sixes, and mishits run away for fours. But very rarely do we now find anything reminiscent of Azharuddin’s stroke play. It makes you wonder how a man, who used the lightest of bats, in an era preceding fielding restrictions and batsman friendly tracks, scored, what was then, the fastest ODI century. For the curious, he reached the milestone in 62 deliveries.
Growing up in India during the 90’s required us to idolize Sachin Tendulkar. Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly came close to achieving the God-like status Sachin enjoyed. Perhaps their status as the saviours of Indian cricket was accentuated, and to certain extent, perpetuated, by the explosion of cable television. But this mass explosion of public broadcasting missed the prime years of Azhar’s batting. How different would our perceptions of Indian batting geniuses have been had we been able to witness the most artistic exhibition of his batting, now only available on YouTube for those who are interested? For a cricketer who spent his early days in the shadow of Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar, and his latter under Sachin and Souravs, India’s youth has never, unfortunately, been exposed to his exploits in international cricket.
During one of the 2015 World Cup promotional events, which I was fortunate to attend, Gary Kirsten, then coach of the National Indian team, was asked who he considered the finest ever stroke maker in Indian batting. Many were thinking about the usual “Sachin as finest” answer, but he surprised everyone by naming Mohammed Azharuddin and Virender Sehwag and it doesn’t take much to understand why. During India’s tour of South Africa in 1997, when Gary Kirsten was a key member of the Proteas side, he got a first-row seat to one of the finest batting performances of the modern era. India were down in tatters against Donald & Co. at 58/5, staring at a first innings total of 529 put on the board by the opposition. What followed over the course of the next 40 overs was some of the most majestic batting against one of the best bowling attack of its times. Azhar, along with Sachin at the other end, put on a 222 run partnership to avoid a follow on. The bowling looked pedestrian among a plethora of boundaries in the session after lunch. Maybe a brief chat with ‘Madiba’ (Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa) was enough to boost the duo. Lance Klusner, who ended up conceding 88 runs in 12 overs he bowled, can probably testify that Azhar’s inning was the finest exhibition of cover drives and wristy flicks. Two months earlier, at the Eden Gardens, a ground where Azhar’s lowest test score is 52, against the same opposition, he conjured up one of the fastest 100s in test cricket. He followed up with another 163 in the next match in Kanpur to win the series for India. If this was not enough proof of his authority against premier attacks, rewind to England, 1990. At Lord’s, Graham Gooch, after being dropped earlier during the innings, had scored 333. Centuries by Allan Lamb and Robin Smith followed too. But anyone who was part of the game will probably tell you that the innings which stood out in this fest of run-scoring brilliance was Azhar’s 121 off 111 balls. John Woodcock, one of the foremost cricket journalists, said of Azhar, “It’s of no use asking an English Batsman to bat like Azhar, for it would be like expecting a Greyhound to win the London Derby”.
Azhar’s prolific run scoring was not just on display in tests. His record in ODI’s was equally admirable. Before Sachin surpassed him, Azhar was the highest run scorer in One Day International cricket. Nine thousand runs in an era of quality fast bowling was no mean achievement. His knock of 90 in the Hero Cup semi-final against South Africa laid the foundation of one of the most famous victories on home soil, where India were the eventual winners of the trophy. A captain made for 90’s, Azhar enjoyed success in both ODIs and Tests at Home. Teams like England, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and West Indies were at the receiving end of his captaincy.
If his conquests with the bat, and leading the country, weren’t enough, Azharuddin’s skills in the field, an area perennially neglected by Indian cricket, were a sight to behold. Azhar was the arguable India’s most dynamic fielder of his generation, laying down the foundations of the unbelievable display of athleticism we witness, and applaud, in the youth today. While there were fielders who were specialists in certain positions, Azhar’s fielding and catching abilities, transcended any one particular position. He was as sharp in the slips, as he was graceful at long on. The 250 catches in international cricket, along with the innumerable run outs he instigated, gave us a glimpse of his superior reflexes and the impact on the game.
As much as we can try to avoid it, no conversation about Azhar will be complete without addressing the elephant in the room. At the turn of the century, allegations of match fixing allegations were made against him, fuelled by Hansie Cronje’s (former South Africa captain) statement claiming that Azhar was the one who introduced him to bookies. He was handed a life-ban in 2000 by BCCI and ICC as a result of these allegations, and robbed of the opportunity to play what could have been his 100th Test Match. Since then, BCCI has revoked the ban and in 2006 even honoured him during the Champions Trophy which was being held in India. In 2012, Andhra Pradesh High Court lifted the ban too. We may never find out who fixed the match, but a lot of sentiments were hurt when the news broke out to the world. That one of the heroes of Indian batting was named in such a case didn’t go down well with the public. For if you take his name now and ask a random cricket follower what he could associate Azharuddin with, ‘Match Fixing’ is the only thing that this brilliant cricketer is associated with. Not his batting, not his fielding, not his captaincy but Match Fixing.
Yet for a lot of people around the world, who grew up while watching Azhar at his prime, he remains that special player who mixed art and pleasure with his batting. That people from that generation fondly recall his heroics in his debut test series and boast about being present at Green Park in Kanpur where he scored his 3rd of the lot, (two of my uncles keep quoting that match over and over again) talks about the impact he left on the fans. For someone who scored 22 test centuries, including in his first and his last match, and scored more than 15000 international runs, Azhar never quite enjoyed the respect as other former cricketers have from their peers and fans. It’s sad that one incident marred the legacy of 16 years of high quality international cricket.
And while we all can argue over the rights and wrongs of his career, today on his 53rd birthday, we can play those innings on loop in front of us and enjoy the lost art of batting. Some of my personal favourite ones are listed below:
1. 115 vs South Africa, Cape Town, 1997
2. 102 vs New Zealand, Basin Reserve, 1998
3. 163 vs Australia, Eden Gardens, 1998
4. 121 vs England, Lord’s, 1990
5. 109 vs South Africa, Eden Gardens, 1996
I hope you could find some time out of your busy schedule and watch these magnificent innings played by one of the finest artists of the game.
- with contributions from Nitesh Kumar
First published on www.followyoursport.com