A few people were outraged when tainted former captain Mohammad Azharuddin was invited to ring the bell at Eden Gardens during the India-West Indies match. Just as Azharuddin has always remained an enigma, his legacy too will be a complicated one.
If you grew up in the 90s, there aren’t probably too many happy cricket memories that you can recall. Most of the ones you have will probably feature Sachin Tendulkar trying to pull off a heist while you sat, hands clasped in prayer.
What else do you remember?
Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad bowling tirelessly on flat pitches at home. Sourav Ganguly coming in as the third seamer. Anil Kumble and co. who ruled the roost on tailor made pitches at home. The 1996 World-Cup semi-finals meltdown that made you sob uncontrollably. Desert storm.
Who else do you recall?
Wait, how can you forget Mohammad Azharuddin? Captain of few words but with an upturned collar to boot. Silken wrist play and fielding abilities that were light years ahead of most. The bitter team mate who supposedly thwarted Sachin Tendulkar’s attempts at a half-decent captaincy by constantly undermining him. The near legend who sold his soul, his achievements and immortality for greed and lust and crash-landed from grace, leaving a gaping black hole in Indian cricket.
If one were to sum up Mohammad Azharuddin’s in a sentence, it will simply be this – a fairy tale beginning with a tragic ending. He made his debut when most of us were probably taking our first steps and began his career with by striking three centuries in the first three test matches that he played, a record that has stood the test of time. Made captain in the early 90s, Azharuddin heralded a period of dominance at home where tracks were laid out for spinners. Remember the merry trio of Rajesh Chauhan, Venkatapathy Raju and Anil Kumble?
Understanding where Indian cricket was in the 90s is hard for most of us. Buoyed by the improbable 1983 victory in the World Cup finals, the Indian team lacked confidence and were still finding their feet. To see how far Indian cricket has come in terms of clout from those days of obeisance to now, here’s a small comparison – when India toured South Africa in 1992 after they were re-integrated into the cricketing fold after the apartheid years, Kepler Wessels apparently whacked Kapil Dev with his bat while taking a run. Reluctant to make a big deal out of it, Kapil kept quiet and the matter was given a quiet burial. Contrast that to the BCCI’s stance in 2007-08 during the monkeygate scandal, when it threw all its weight behind a temperamental Harbhajan Singh who was accused of using a racial slur against Andrew Symonds. If reports are to be believed, a plane was waiting at Adeleide to fly the team back at a moment’s notice if the Australian board didn’t drop their charges against Harbhajan. The bullied had become the bullies.
In the 90s, the team relied on sheer talent and the genius of a few players to eke out victories. There were no international coaches, no multiple coaches and the players weren’t offered contracts by the board. And there was no IPL. The practice methods were outdated and winning away from home wasn’t even a pipe dream.
I sometimes wonder how Azharuddin’s life and career would have played out had social media been around. This is a gist of what he did – at the height of his fame, he left his demure wife and two children for a B-Grade starlet. In that era, when someone like a Vinod Kambli fell out of favour with the cricket board because of his flamboyant lifestyle, Azhar’s escapades were sacrilege 101. According to Rakesh Maria, the then police chief of Mumbai, Azharuddin had a ‘criminal bent of mind.’ The most damning evidence against him are his own words, when he confessed to the CBI that he had helped fixed matches.
For a shamed sportsman, redemption seems always at large. Hansie Cronje, the other big name whose involvement in the scandal set off an earthquake in cricketing circles, was in some ways fortunate. He crashed and burned in a plane crash in 2002, taking his secrets to the grave and didn’t have to struggle to carve out his post match-fixing accused life. People forget that after the scandal, Azhar fell off the radar, his presence not welcome in any cricketing circles. In 2009, he rose like a phoenix, stood for elections on a Congress ticket and won, becoming a member of parliament. Only politics can rehabilitate the tainted.
A few years back, a crying Vinod Kambli made startling claims about the infamous world cup semi-finals of 1996 being fixed. If only Vinod Kambli had an ounce of credibility, people may have sat up and listened. Even then, no high profile member of that line-up – Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble or Javagal Srinath came to his defence or supported him in any form. No one wanted to be seen taking sides with a cheat. When he rang the bell before the start of the India-West Indies match, Gautam Gambhir immediately sent out a tweet expressing his disappointment. Sanjay Manjrekar, Azhar’s one time team mate turned commentator, sent out a tweet with a link to the CBI enquiry of the fixing scandal which states almost unequivocally that Mohammad Azharuddin had confessed to his sins to the CBI.
While Azharuddin served as a Member of Parliament, his rehabilitation and entry back into Indian cricket has been a mixed bag. For a long time, he was seen as a tragic figure who had scripted a sad ending to what could have been a legendary career. It was as if cricket was trying to erase him from its books and close a chapter that it didn’t want re-opened and every time he showed up somewhere, it was like opening a pandora’s box all over again. In 2012, his life ban was finally lifted but even that was bittersweet. He was 49, his glory days a distant memory, his cricketing legacy turned to dust. During the 2017 Champions Trophy finals that featured India and Pakistan, Azharuddin wasn’t given a ticket to watch the finals as the ICC deemed him as tainted. A former captain who had captained in 3 World Cups was still considered a fugitive at large in some circles.
A couple of years back, he attempted to repair his tarnished image with a biopic Azhar. In India, one of the best ways to resurrect and reinvent oneself is the biopic. Here, all mistakes are deemed to be misunderstandings and who we thought was the villain is actually the hero in disguise.
To me, Mohammad Azharuddin is and will always be a mountain of contradictions, a puzzle that can never be solved. He started his career with 3 centuries, scored a century in his last test match and was left stranded at 99 tests. Immortality, so near, yet so far. His successor, Sourav Ganguly, is heralded as someone who helped Indian cricket forget about the match-fixing era with his inspiring leadership. It was the same Sourav Ganguly headed CAB that invited Mohammad Azharuddin back to ring the ceremonial bell. His redemption, much like his life, is a jigsaw puzzle for which people are constantly trying to find the pieces.
Whenever I think of Mohammad Azharuddin, there is only one question that comes to mind. Why? He had all the money in the world but still lusted for more. He had all the fame and adulation that anyone could ask for, yet he went around seeking attention from dubious people. He could have an aspirational story but instead became a cautionary one.
My most abiding memory of him is his fielding and sublime use of his wrists. If he had simply focused on those, he would have had the whole world at his feet.