The lost legend of Mohammad Azharuddin

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Selling your soul makes for good storytelling only in rock ‘n’ roll folklore. In the real world, it makes for a cautionary tale. One that bears timely repetition.

When Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamir received their sentences, the long walk to the pavilion would have seemed tolerable, enjoyable even, when compared to the onerous walk to the jail cell, where feet suddenly become saddled with lead weight. It wouldn’t have hurt to sit them down and narrate a story. Of a legend lost to time, of a king who abdicated his own throne and is yet to return from his exile.

Imagine a chill Lahore night. Kebabs are skewering and a hookah is being passed. A fire burns bright, dispelling the darkness and the chill. Seated are 3 young cricketers, their ears perked up, attention unwavering. A forlorn figure seated in the middle takes centre stage, much like he did years back, before he threw it all away in exchange for a life of anonymity, unfinished business and disgrace. To tell his side of the story.

Back in the day, the game didn’t pay much he said. Most cricketers played for the sheer love of it. He was a junior bank clerk, half resigned to leading an average existence, a far cry from the life he would ultimately be thrown into. But he possessed a gift few cricketers have. His wrists, much like another understated legend from his state, were that of a magician. Many cricketer’s wait years, decades even, to score their first century. He strode in, nonchalantly, and scored one on debut. If that weren’t miraculous enough, he went on score 3 more in his first three test matches. And he then leaned forward and said that in hindsight, it was his first big lesson – all fairy tale beginnings don’t necessarily have fairy tale endings.

Suddenly, he was the talk of the town. Suddenly, his middle class upbringing was at odds with the life he was thrown into. Suddenly, he was considered good enough to inherit one of cricket’s most thankless jobs in a country where cricketers were placed on the same pedestal as gods. He led the team in 3 world cup campaigns and he grew in stature. He then found himself in the news for all the wrong reasons – who were they to comment on his personal life he thundered. And suddenly, the night got a little chillier.

The hookah is now being passed and the kebabs are being dug into. He pauses between bites to take a sip of sulaimani chai. And resumes his tale as a gust of cold wind blows on their faces.

At around the same time, another cricketer was making his mark. He would go on to ultimately (and arguably) become the greatest batsman ever. Their relationship would never be a bed of roses and a lot is still unresolved. By now, he had attained a status a few players are accorded with. Young boys wanted to be like him when they grew up and his athleticism was a refreshing change in a team not known for fielding prowess.

And then came a twist so cruel that it turned a success story into a cautionary tale.

Another well respected, adored and glorified cricketer who went by the name Hansie Cronje was caught in a scandal that threatened the very foundation of the game. Erroneously, his name found its way into the mess. Though he vociferously protested his innocence, there was enough proof to hand him a life ban. One of the game’s most celebrated captains, relegated to a life of anonymity.

And then he breaks down.

If there ever were a seismic shift in a person’s life, this was it. There were no standing ovations for his 100th Test match which he would never play, no felicitations by people in high places. He would never be hoisted by his teammates after playing his last test match on his favourite ground. No tears would be shed after he announced his retirement, no reams of paper dedicated to his genius. Here was someone who fiercely guarded his privacy and thought to be aloof, forced to go in search of anyone ready to hear his side of the story. Someone people couldn’t get enough of was someone people didn’t want to have anything to do with. The messiah turned a pariah.

The fire is slowly ebbing and the young player, whose silky hair keeps falling over his forehead stifles a yawn.

He inches in closer. Never, ever, put anything above the game he says. Dedicate yourself to the game and the money will come. When the money comes, a lot of unsavoury people come along with it. Be guarded and never take your eyes off the 22 yards. Fame is a two sided coin. Never take your cap for granted or even think of putting a price on it. It is priceless. Never sell your soul for mammon. For it is one of the few things you can never get back.

The darkest hour comes before dawn. And when that moment came, the three young cricketers arose, much wiser than they were when they sat down, each having resolved in his own way to put the game first.

Of course, none of the above occurred. If it had, we would not have witnessed the sad scenes that have been thrust upon us, of Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Aamir and Salman Butt being sent to jail, each leaving behind unfulfilled potential and careers that will never play themselves out on the cricketing field. What will happen of Mohammad Aamir when he returns, if he ever should? Will he be given a second chance or will his every move be monitored like that of an ex-con? For this is a lesson every young cricketer must study the moment he gets his cap. It entails finding out who your real friends and discovering that the road to success, glory and fame lie within the playing arena, not out of it.

And hopefully, we’ll witness more fairy tale endings and not just fairy tale beginnings.

P.S. This piece was written after the spot fixing scandal broke out. Mohammad Azharuddin has since joined politics and has had his life ban revoked by the High Court and has also expressed a desire to work for Indian cricket. Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt are appealing their bans.

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