Very few cricketers’ lives have witnessed ups and downs to the extremes as Mohammad Azharuddin. The Hyderabadi batsman had been in news for both right and wrong reasons. After a fairytale debut in Test cricket, he went on to lead India in both the longer and shorter formats of the game. While he was at the pinnacle of his glory, Azharuddin was handed a life ban by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for his alleged role in match-fixing. He then successfully contested Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket but failed to get re-elected to the lower house in his next attempt. The BCCI revoked his ban in 2006 and the Andhra Pradesh High Court set aside his life ban.
But the 54-year-old stylish batsman stood unfazed at a time when the country was ripped apart by communalism in the aftermath of prime minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Babri Masjid demolition that took place eight years after his foray into international cricket.
Renowned journalist-author Rajdeep Sardesai in his upcoming book Democracy’s XI dedicates an entire chapter on the cricketer who played 99 Tests for India and his highest individual score stood at 199.
Sardesai, son of former cricketer Dileep Sardesai, writes:
The 1980s would be pockmarked by communal conflagrations from Bhiwandi to Bhagalpur, Meerut to Moradabad. As a cricketer, Azhar was insulated from the communal tension spiralling around him but as a devout Muslim he would become a symbol of Indian Muslim aspirations in a period of religious conflict. ‘I never saw myself as a Muslim playing for India, I was just like any other young man with a dream to play cricket for the country,’ he tells me.
Azhar, fondly known as Azzu, made his Test debut against England exactly two months after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. After making headlines with a century in his very first Test, he followed up with subsequent tons in the next two matches in the longer format.
Known for his wristy stroke play characterised by elegant flicks to the covers, Azharuddin was known for being agile as a fielder. He is remembered for his onslaught against Imran Khan in the 1992 World Cup. His majestic cuts off the legendary captain are still talked about by cricket fans to date.
‘Proving my patriotism again and again’
In his 16-year-long cricket career, Azharuddin played 12 Tests and 64 ODIs against arch-rivals Pakistan. He scored 769 and 1,657 in the Test and ODI format of the gentleman’s game. But whenever he failed to score against the neighbours, questions were raised over his patriotism.
“I had scored runs against Pakistan and yet every time I went out to play against them, I had to almost prove myself all over again,” he told Sardesai. He was a key member of the Sunil Gavaskar-led team that won the 1985 Benson & Hedges World Series in Australia in 1985 and captained India to their three victorious World Cup encounters against Pakistan in 1992, 1996 and 1999.
In this chapter of his book, Sardesai recalls an incident in 1991 during the Wills Trophy held in Sharjah. Azharuddin was dismissed for nought in two successive ODIs including the final. Whispers had begun to emerge that he failed because of his religion. The Hindu-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had tasted power at the Centre and its fellow right-wing party Shiv Sena had been spewing hatred against him.
Exactly a year later on December 6, frenzied karsevaks brought down the centuries old Babri Mosque in small town Ayodhya of Faizabad district. A few days later, Azharuddin was captaining India in South Africa, a historic series that marked the return of Proteas to international cricket after two decades of their boycott over apartheid. When asked by Sardesai, the Indian captain after much persistence said,” Jo hua achcha nahi hua (Whatever happened was not good).”
Azharuddin match-fixing scandal definitely led a huge dent on his career. Now the law has taken its own course and the man is free. But the boy who emerged from the congested lanes of Hyderabad to become one of India’s successful captains ought to be remembered as a person who rose beyond religious stereotypes to ascend new peaks.
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