1984 was a forgetful year for India—Operation Blue Star, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the Bhopal gas tragedy. Cricket had its own share of lows. Kapil Dev was dropped from the team on disciplinary grounds and it was alleged that Sunil Gavaskar had a role to play. But at the cusp of 1984, India found hope on the cricket field: Mohammad Azharuddin.
India was due to play England on the last day of the year at the Eden Gardens. Azhar had fans talking even before he stepped onto the field. Many said he was an artist. I had seen the likes of David Gower and Zaheer Abbas and was curious to know how an Indian batsman could be different. What I witnessed next would go down in history, especially for the Indian fans, as one of the most memorable innings. Then on, Azhar for me would go on to become cricket’s Salvador Dali—the Spanish surrealist artist.
At Eden Gardens, the series was on the line, with both teams having won one test each. For Azharuddin, he began his cricketing journey with a century. And the man from Hyderabad did not stop there. He scored two more to become the first batsman in history to score three consecutive tonnes in the first three test matches.
It is said that Salvador Dali deliberately used irrational concepts to come up with great masterpieces of art. Azhar did something similar.
One such masterpiece from Azhar’s bat came at Cape Town in January 1997. Alan Donald was at his peak, bowling brilliantly outside the off stump. ‘White Lightening’ as he was called was one of the fastest of his era. He was accurate and would hit 90 miles per hour speeds. But Azhar was in a different touch altogether.
One shot is deeply ingrained in my mind 25 years after it was played. A pacy swinger of Donald was flicked on the leg side for four. The cherry was clearly moving away from Azhar, on the off, but the wristy right-hander managed to flick it on the leg side. That innings of Azhar was a masterclass in unorthodox batting. Balls were pitching beautifully outside the off stump and the Indian artiste was ‘irrationally’ guiding them to the leg. He scored 115 off 110. 82 of those runs came in boundaries and sixes. This against an attack comprising Donald, Pollock, Klusener and Macmillan.
Azhar played many such great innings. One against Pakistan, again at the Eden Gardens in 1987, is surely to be remembered. In that test, he scored 141 brilliant runs with ease against the likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Qadir. In Auckland in 1990, he missed a double ton by a whisker, but not before he had punished Richard Hadlee and Danny Morrison for more than 4 runs an over. His domination wasn’t restricted to the longer format.
In an ODI in Sharjah against Pakistan in 1996, Azhar hit 24 runs in the last over to take the team past 300—a first for India in ODIs. In an important match at the Benson & Hedges World Championship in 1985, Azhar scored an unbeaten 93 in quick time facing Imran Khan and Wasim Akram to ensure a famous win against the archrivals. In one of the most famous ODI matches in the four-nation Rothmans Cup in 1985 between India and Pakistan, Azhar scored 47 in a low-scoring match. India were bundled for 125 but dismissed Pakistan for 87 to register a famous win. In the 1992 World Cup in Australia, Azhar led from the front. Against Australia he scored 93. He then made 61 against the West Indies. This was followed by a half century against the Kiwis and a brilliant 79 against South Africa.
In an important match of the Independence Cup 1998, Azhar scored almost a run a ball hundred against Pakistan to seal a win for India. In the same year, at Toronto, he again scored a run-a-ball hundred against Pakistan. In the 1999 ICC World Cup, at Old Trafford, Azhar scored a match-winning half century against Pakistan. In the Coca Cola Cup at Sharjah in 2000, Azhar top scored against Pakistan to take India to victory. The Pakistanis often got a special treatment from the Hyderabad hero.
Special love for Eden Gardens
The ultimate tribute to Azhar came from the English fast bowler Angus Fraser in 1990. It was in a test match at Lord’s where Graham Gooch scored the famous 333. Gooch also scored a hundred in the second innings but it was Azhar who was the talk of the town. Gooch’s runs were huge in the context of the match but they were laborious in nature. Azhar’s century was anything like that. In response to England’s mammoth 653/4 declared, Azhar scored 121 off 111 balls. Fraser described it as one of the best innings ever to have been played at the Lord’s. Fraser confessed it was impossible to bowl Azharuddin. He summed up Azhar’s batting in a simple way: ‘Anything even a few inches outside off stump could go anywhere for four on the off side and anything outside the leg stump could go for four anywhere on the leg side. In other words, there was no room for error while bowling to Mohammad Azharuddin.’
Azhar’s class was also displayed during tough chases. In a test match at Adelaide in 1992, Azhar led one of the best chases in the fourth innings. He scored a brisk hundred facing the likes of McDermott, Warne, Whitney and Merv Hughes. India fell short by 38 runs but Ian Chappell was all praise for the Indian.
Azhar had a special love for Eden Gardens. In nine test innings here, he amassed 860 runs, including five centuries. One of those 9 test innings came in a losing cause against South Africa in 1996. India was tottering when Azhar came into bat. To make matters worse, he got himself injured and had to retire to the dressing room, only to return and score 109 off 77 deliveries against the best bowling attack of its time. He scored most of his runs with the tail. Rearguard action in test cricket requires a lot of caution, grit and determination. But not with Azhar. His counter attacks would take the bowlers apart. In that match, Azhar was harsh on Lance Klusener who returned bowling figures of 14(O)-1(M)-75(R)-0(W).
Azhar the captain
Azhar often came under the lens when it came to captaincy. But if you ask me, his contribution is under-rated. He captained India in three World Cups — 1992, 1996 and 1999 and led the team to victory against Pakistan in all three appearances. India were defending low scores in 1992 and 1999. Azhar captained brilliantly and set an attacking field. In the 1999 World Cup match against Pakistan at Old Trafford, he had three slips and almost all fielders inside the 30-yard circle throughout the 50 overs of Pakistani batting. In the 1996 World Cup, at Bangalore, Azhar didn’t panic when Pakistan openers Anwar and Sohail gave them a blasting start and were running away with the match. India slowly clawed its way back in the game to earn a famous victory.
But his fielding is one area which is appreciated by fans and critics alike. Even at the age of 37, when he retired, Azhar wasn’t among the lazy legs in the dressing room. It wouldn’t be a misnomer to call him one of the best fielders India had in that era. He was the best because he was equally good, both close-in and away from the wicket.
Mohammad Azharuddin was a visual delight on the cricket field. Was he better than the other stylish batsmen who played the game before and after him? Well, it is no good comparing batsmen. But famous English cricket writer John Woodcock once said: “It’s no use asking an Englishman to bat like Mohammad Azharuddin. For, it would be like expecting a greyhound to win the London Derby!”
In Azhar’s hands, the bat looked like Salvador Dali’s brush. Had Dali taken up cricket, he would surely have batted like Mohammad Azharuddin.
Kush Singh @singhkb is the founder of The Cricket Curry Tour Company. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)