Mohammad Azharuddin was renowned as one of the greatest batsman of the country, until the match fixing issue erupted and caused mayhem in his career and personal life. Here is a replug of our story from the April 2000 issue about the rise and fall of India’s former captain.
Since he became a fixture on our television sets a few years ago, Azharuddin’s shape has changed. He began public life as a stick-like figure, so thin that the only substance to him was the bulk of his protective gear. The things you noticed about him were the square amulet he wore round his neck and the way his lip curled lopsidedly over large incisors. He looked like Goofy padded up. In the middle years of his career, through his long tenure as skipper, he thickened. Azhar was never obviously overweight, but that whippet leanness disappeared. Two or three years ago, he began to pare himself down again, but nothing I had seen on television prepared me for the way he looked in real life when I flew down to Hyderabad in December to interview him for this profile.
In black dress trousers and a slick black tee-shirt that clung to him like Spandex, Azhar looked eighteen: his torso arrowed down to a tiny waist, his arms were taut with tubular muscle and if the point of the costume was to convince the world that he wasn’t too old for Tests at thirty-seven (he had just been dropped from the tour of Australia), I was convinced. The interview was blighted before it began. Azhar was moving house the day I was scheduled to meet him. From a mid-morning rendezvous, it got pushed further and further back. By the time we met it was seven in the evening and dark. I had been told to call before setting off to his new bungalow in Banjara Hills to check if he was home; when I did, he came to the phone and demanded in surly tones why I wasn’t there already. I left in a hurry. We talked sitting on two plastic chairs in the front yard of his new house. There was a silver Mercedes Benz parked in a corner and upended packaging marked ‘Fragile.’ There was no table to rest the cassette player so Azhar offered to hold it through the interview. He switched it off when his cell phone rang (which it did a lot), and forgot to push the record button on again. I found out when I got home after the interview and sat up till midnight transcribing from memory.
Every cricketer is two persons: one is his cricketing persona and the other is how the public imagines him in civvies, when he is not playing cricket. When he started his Test career, Azharuddin the cricketer was a wristy, consistent, one-paced batsman, who worked the ball around, kept it safely on the ground and ran like a deer. Azharuddin the man, was, by common consent, an unsophisticated, lower middle-class, family-loving lad from Himayat Nagar in Hyderabad and a devout, observant Muslim. When TV audiences saw him raise his head heavenward after getting to a hundred they nodded and looked knowing. Unspoilt he was.
In those days, there were two ways of being a Hyderabadi Muslim cricketer in India. You could be the aristocratic stylist in the manner of Abbas Ali Baig or, more famously, the Nawab of Pataudi. For this, you needed a family tree, an Oxbridge degree and reasonable amounts of money. You also needed to be from elsewhere: neither Baig nor Pataudi were natives. Or you could go the anonymous middle-class way of Abid Ali and Arshad Ayub. For Azhar, there wasn’t a choice. He attended the same school that Abid Ali had been to, a St. Something. It was a convent, Azhar impressed upon me. English medium. English medium or not, the early Azhar was famously inarticulate and universally liked. His good nature left him nicely positioned to be the compromise candidate when Srikkanth was sacked as skipper after a blameless tour of Pakistan. Up to this point in his career, Azhar was Mr. Nice Guy. The nineties saw his image go into free fall.
The following is a summary of the media version of his decline and fall: Azhar, after becoming captain, was spoilt by adulation. He became the flash, aggressive, brilliant batsman that we’re now familiar with: a sparkling blue gem with one flaw: a weakness against fast bowling. Instead of bidding for greatness, he indulged his genius and fell short of immortality. (Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist, said of himself that he was a writer of the second rank, but the front row of the second rank. This would be, for many cricket watchers, an appropriate summary of Azhar’s place in the game.) In the mid-nineties, the story went, he developed a new persona: he became the shades-wearing, Pepsi selling, starlet-struck, B-List celebrity that he now is. This is an old story and it is easy to tell. Because real life is seldom touched with originality or imagination, it is often depressingly true. Was it true about Azhar?
I didn’t want it to be true when I went to Hyderabad to interview him, because once upon a time I had imagined that there would be an era in Indian batsmanship that we would remember by his name; one that would succeed Gavaskar’s. Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar were splendid batsmen but they had the misfortune to play much of their cricket in Gavaskar’s shadow. They were batsmen of character and Gavaskar had enough character for ten.
Azhar was different. He was extravagant, wristy, light years from the orthodoxy of Bombay. People groped for precedents: some, desperately, came up with Viswanath. This was absurdly wrong because Vishy was compact and close to the ground while Azhar was all gangling elegance. It was only after a while that people saw Azhar as an original; untutored, therefore wholly himself — Suleiman the Magnificent with a light willow blade in hand instead of a scimitar. The loops and flourishes it described were so far removed from the disciplined arcs of Gavaskar’s bat that Azhar’s batting seemed scroll work — ornate, occasionally overwrought.
Gavaskar retired in 1987; soon afterwards Azhar succeeded to the captaincy. Vengsarkar and Mohinder bowed out, leaving him the major batsman in the side. He was a young man in his mid-twenties; captain of India and its best batsman. Greatness was within his grasp … but sadly for him (though he didn’t know it then) Gavaskar’s flame had already passed into the keeping of a rookie in Azhar’s squad, in every way his opposite: a Maharashtrian Hindu, an orthodox bat, squat where he was slender, all strength to Azhar’s grace. There never would be an era of Mohammad Azharuddin; the baton of Indian batting passed from Gavaskar to Tendulkar. Azhar should have been the Mohammad Rafi of Indian batsmanship, but he ended up as its Talat Mehmood.
What changed? You could argue that Azhar, like that other great artist, Zaheer Abbas, was pipped at the greatness post by an incurable defect: a weakness against quick bowling. Those of us who had the misfortune to watch the 1978 series against Pakistan on black-andwhite television saw Zaheer Abbas in his pomp make Gavaskar look like Ken Barrington, a dour accumulator of runs. Zaheer was invulnerable. He pulled, drove and cut our attack to ribbons. But no one will seriously suggest that he was, over an entire career, the equal of Gavaskar. Zaheer didn’t make the cut against real pace. It is, in the subcontinent, a terrible judgment. In Australia Doug Walters was suspect against the fast men yet he retained a substantial reputation. Mark Waugh for some years has been dodgy against the bouncer but you don’t hear commentators suggesting he’s a coward or a wimp.
But in India, being suspect against fast bowling isn’t just a defect; it is a moral defect, a stigma. Umrigar’s place in India’s cricketing pantheon has been unfairly diminished by this awful whisper. Contrariwise, Vijay Manjrekar and Vijay Hazare are worshipped— though their career figures aren’t better than Umrigar s — because they faced fast bowling without flinching. Viswanath, whose career stats are effortlessly surpassed by Azharuddin’s, will always have a shinier halo in Indian cricket’s special heaven because of that ninety he hit against Andy Roberts on a fast Chepauk pitch. I prefer to believe that Azhar pursued flamboyance not because reliability was beyond his abilities, but because he chose to. At some point, he decided to live life in the fast lane. As a man, this meant changes in his personal life that this article has no interest in; as a batsman, this meant abandoning the purist’s patience in selecting the right ball to hit: Azhar just hit more and more deliveries, disregarding the percentages. When his methods worked, he produced passages of such withering magic that bowlers like Klusener wilted.
Azhar and Tendulkar have been India’s best batsmen over the last decade. Tendulkar is generally regarded as the better batsman, as the one with a real claim to ‘greatness.’ This is true; but we lose something by this comparison. Tendulkar’s assault on Warne and the Australians in 1998 was more consistently devastating over a series than anything Azhar has ever managed. Tendulkar’s knocks had everything: he sorted out one of the greatest spinners cricket has ever seen and he did it via a combination of orthodox shots and improvised aggression. They were masterly, breathtaking innings; but they weren’t bewildering or magical. Tendulkar’s genius is wholly rational: even his novelties, those inside-out cover drives or those paddle sweeps, are considered solutions to bowling problems.
In contrast, Azhar’s century against South Africa at Eden Gardens, his hundred against the same team in South Africa in partnership with Tendulkar, his century between lunch and tea against the Australians in 1991-92, his 180- odd against England in reply to Gooch’s bludgeoning triple century, all induce in us a sense of wonder; they are magical because his methods are so unlikely, so contrary, so absurdly out of tune with the orthodoxy of the straight bat. Klusener, after being caned by Azharuddin, said ruefully that bowling at him was like bowling at a revolving door. Azhar plays with an angled blade; he whips his wrists through even the straight lofted drive, he is never back and across, his backlift wastes so much time.
If we are to find a parallel to him, we have to look outside of India, to that troubled West Indian genius, Brian Lara. Azharuddin is best understood as a right-handed Lara. Neither is orthodox in any recognisable sense, though Azharuddin’s shots are more idiosyncratic than Lara’s. Both have extravagant backlifts, the same visceral aggression, the same difficulty with the very fast short-pitched ball (think of Lara’s travails against McGrath) and superficially similar problems with their public image, though to be fair to Azhar, nothing he has ever said to the press has ever rivalled Lara’s famously offensive outbursts. Both of them are different from Tendulkar in precisely the same way: where Tendulkar has the full repertoire of orthodoxy, Lara and Azhar know one kind of music and they need to make the opposition’s bowlers dance to that tune. When they succeed, they’re likely to change the course of a match in a couple of hours; when they fail, they look reckless, irresponsible, silly. The cliche is true: brilliance is brittle. When Tendulkar isn’t timing the ball, he can change gears and bat himself into form. Lara and Azhar don’t have that option: for them, it is all or nothing.
When I asked Azhar about his best innings, he mentioned his lightning century against the Australians in Adelaide in 1991. His account of it is interesting. It had been a bad series for him till then. He had got into a front-foot habit during the English season, and his first move was forward. As a consequence, in Australia he kept getting out in the slips. He got out early in the first innings at Adelaide. But the second innings was different. He hit just everything. There were twenty boundaries in his century. Typically, Azhar offered no explanation of what he did right the second time round; he just hit everything. I asked him about his big century against Gooch’s men in England, hoping he would explain just why he played so well. “I was in very good nick,” he said simply. “I scored runs that entire tour.” Only once did he offer a comment on technique. Zaheer Abbas, he said, helped him with his batting at a low point in his career and helped turn him into an attacking player from the steady batsman he had been till then. His grip was wrong: his hand didn’t go far enough around the handle with the result that his right hand was coming off when he played onside shots. That adjustment, together with the hectic pace of one-day cricket, made him a dasher.
A maternal uncle introduced him to the game. He remembered being fascinated by the shape of a cricket bat. He was mad about the game: he would stand for hours watching senior boys play till they asked him why he was hanging around. He seldom said anything to them, because he didn’t want to impose. I was shy, he said. He began playing with a hard ball around the age of eight. The first Test match he ever watched was in 1969, in Hyderabad. He used to listen to radio commentary; he can remember Lindsay Hassett and Alan McGilray doing commentary on Radio Australia for the 1976 series. His heroes were all Hyderabadi: Ghulam Ahmed, Pataudi, Jaisimha. His first Ranji season was less than great. He got one fifty. But in his second season, he got a hundred in his first innings, and then a double century in a Duleep trophy match against Central Zone. That was his breakthrough game. Hanumant Singh, who was a Test selector, was watching. Azhar was 12th man in the first two Tests against England before he was picked for the third when Kapil Dev and Sandip Patil were dropped for playing poor shots. By the time he made his debut he had played every grade of cricket: he was emphatic that it was too easy these days for young cricketers—they got opportunities without consistently demonstrating their worth. There was a certain poignance to that: this wonderful cricketer consigned to the margins while young pretenders like Hrishikesh Kanitkar and Jacob Martin, without a smidgen of his ability, took his place on the Australian tour.
It was hard drawing him out about the current game. It wasn’t just the ordinary caution a player would show while speaking of his contemporaries — he just seemed deeply wary of journalists. It got to a point that when I asked him to name the best Indian batsman he had played alongside, he hesitated so long that I qualified the question: excluding the present bunch of players. He thought for a while: Gavaskar, he said finally. And Mohinder Amarnath. The best fast bowler? There was no hesitation on this one. Wasim Akram, for his amazing variety; he could do anything, he said. The toughest team to play was the Australians: they never stopped coming at you. Best umpires? Dicky Bird, David Shepherd and Venkatraghavan.
I could have got this for the price of a postage stamp on a printed questionnaire, I thought in quiet despair. Then he began to talk about his seasons with Derbyshire and became more animated. He played for Derby in ‘91 and ‘94. Kim Barnet was his captain and he loved it there. The start of his first season wasn’t great but things improved and he scored two thousand runs. Everyone went out of their way to be friendly: the committee, his team mates, everyone. He loved the long bus journeys to away matches; he liked touring. Derby town was two hours from London and it didn’t worry him that it was a small provincial town. Hyderabad was like that too.
The one subject that he was really forthcoming about in that entire conversation was his weight. And I was really curious. How did a man of thirty-seven arrive at a handspan waist? Between 1988 and 1994, he said, the dates tripping off his tongue, he had become overweight because he was eating just anything and drinking aerated drinks. But the main reason, he said, was that he was taking cortisone for a groin injury and the steroid speeded his metabolism up, so he ate a lot. It didn’t affect his batting, though it slowed him down in the field a bit. Then, in ‘94, he began eating carefully. He cut out red meat and soft drinks, did sit-ups, played lots of squash and became fit again. Simple.
He was willing to talk about the way he had been dropped. He had read about it in the papers. They should have had the courtesy to call him, he thought. But there was a symmetry to selectorial behaviour. He had read about his selection for his debut Test in the papers too. He thought it was immature of the selectors not have told him personally. He thought Indian crowds were immature too: they didn’t understand the work, the pride, the pressure involved in playing for the country. Modern cricket spectators didn’t understand the game at all; maybe ten per cent did, the rest were there for a good time.
The interview petered out as I ran out of questions. All the while, Azhar had been carrying on a parallel conversation made up of asides to the workmen who were making his new house livable and little chats he had with friends on his cellphone. The contrast in his manner, as he alternated between these two conversations, one in Dakhni, the other in English, was striking. He was fluent in both languages, but where he was guarded and wary in English, he was bonelessly relaxed in Dakhni. When his electrician finally arrived to fix his geyser, he was reproached with a smile. Azhar spoke to all the workmen without airs, with easy charm and camaraderie. On the phone he chattered happily and I had the sense of a man wholly at home in his skin. English is his language of business, the language he transacts Pepsi contracts in, the language he speaks to journalists. It is in English that he stipulates that any interviews he grants should be cover stories. Don’t run it at all if you’re going to do it on the inside pages, he told me. If it isn’t on the cover, there’s nothing in it for me. In retrospect, I can see that he was within his rights to ask, but at the time it seemed vaguely repellent that someone as celebrated as Azhar should ask to have his face on a cover. Surely the point of celebrity was that it happened unbidden. He looked shuttered and assessing as he led me through his ground rules, light years from the lithe, smiling man on the cricket field that my son worshipped.
Months later, as I watched him play a brilliant comeback innings in the Test against South Africa in Bangalore, my son and I clapped for his century till our hands ached. After watching dour roundheads like Tendulkar and Dravid struggle through that disastrous series in Australia, it was wonderful to watch a cavalier bat. On the whole, meeting him had been a mistake, for the same reason that it is a mistake to watch great sportsmen on television doing commentary. They’re mostly not as good talking into the camera as they were playing into it, unless they’re exceptions like Boycott or Amritraj. In person, Azhar was a bit like modern Hyderabad: once provincial, but now celebrated and very nearly metropolitan. Back in flannels, though, he was that singular, dashing, wholly original batsman we had all known and loved on the telly and at cricket grounds for a decade and a half — the One and Only, New and Improved, Mohammad Azizuddin Azharuddin.
This article first appeared in the month of April, 2000.