How did the career of one of our greatest cricketers end in the tragic manner it did? Over two long articles in the space of four months, including the cover story in July 2000, writer MUKUL KESAVAN delved deep into Azhar’s psyche, trying to figure out why this small-town boy made the kind of glitzy life choices that took him down overnight and turned him into a cricketing pariah for nearly two decades.

 

For a shy man, Azhar loves the camera. He loves it like moviegoers do: in a star-struck way. Think of pictures of Azhar in civvies: shades, raised collar, generically expensive threads. When Sangeeta Bijlani figures in the picture, she is generally snuggled up to him but Azhar’s always looking directly into the camera, straight into it, oblivious of his wife except as a celebrity accessory (like his shades), hypnotized by the stardom it represents.

The camera doesn’t love him, but that, ironically, is because his on-field manner, the way he holds himself, is parody of filmi swagger, his sketchy stab at ishtyle. When I met him in real life I was struck by how built he was. It doesn’t show on the cricket field because the litheness and grace are obscured by Azhar’s patented shamble: neck telescoped into raised shoulders, slightly crouched, arms dangling at a distance from his sides like limp brackets, that asymmetric stiff-legged walk that looks like a limp but isn’t… it’s Hyderabadi hip, tapori chic, Himayat Nagar’s take on cricketing cool. When he runs between wickets, he holds the bat halfway down the blade, and when he runs in from close into the wicket on the off-side, he’ll pick up the ball and flip it, palm out, to the keeper. I’ve never seen him hit the stumps with it or even get it in quickly enough to threaten the batsmen trying to make the crease; he does it because it’s part of his cricketing manner, his trademark flourish. Style’s important in Indian cricket in a particular sense of the word. Style in this context doesn’t mean method or manner or way of playing. When an Indian commentator, fan, journalist or spectator says a player has style he almost always uses it in the other sense of the word: flair, dash, panache, elan. In this use of the word Vishwanath is a stylish batsman but Gavaskar is not. ‘Stylish’ in desi cricketing parlance has no room for the formal perfection that India’s greatest batsman embodied, for his classical strokeplay, his miraculous poise. Style here means flourish, that little twirl of Vishy’s wrists as he magicked the ball in the arc between square-leg and midwicket, the more extravagant loop of Azhar’s bat that helps massage balls from outside the offstump into vacant spaces on the leg-side, style means the firm-footed cover drive Ganguly plays, leaning into the ball so he completes the stroke on one knee… shot, sir!

Style also means swagger, extravagance, attitude… Salim Durani had style: he was attractive in a large, light-eyed way (so long as you didn’t hear his startling soprano voice), but more importantly he was an eccentrically aggressive batsman who took a disc jockey view of cricket: he gave his audiences the hits they wanted. So if you asked for a sixer when Durrani was batting, he’d oblige you with one… or perish trying. Pataudi had style too: the cap raked over his eye (to cut out double vision but who knew at the time), the Nawab thing, the Oxford thing, the romance of having wooed and won Sharmila Tagore, the piratical glamour of his one-eyed batsmanship… he had enough style for the whole team. And since he played for Hyderabad and captained India and is a Muslim, it doesn’t take much imagination to compare the two. But it’s a bad, unfair juxtaposition because Pataudi wasn’t a Hyderabadi and his wife wasn’t a starlet and for the middle-class readership of this magazine, Tiger’s career is a fairy story. While Azhar’s threatens to become a cautionary tale.