Azhar: The wizard who fell short of being a cricketing God

It was Decision Pending for the longest time ever: 12  years, to be precise. Finally the 'Third Umpire' - the Andhra Pradesh High Court - stepped in on Thursday and ruled Mohammed Azharuddin not out. The court's decision was obviously based on action replays that were inconclusive and did not establish that Azhar indeed deserved to be 'out'.

But was the 'howzatt' claim of the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) - that Azhar was short of his crease - suspect in any way? Turn back the pages of book of history to 2000, and you will recall that ever since former South African skipper Hansie Cronje opened the can of match-fixing worms in world cricket, with India as the epicentre of it all, Azhar had the tag of a 'traitor' attached to his name.

For the captain of the Indian team to be accused of match-fixing was too huge a taint to ignore, and the Board banned Azhar for life, prohibiting him from associating with the game in any official capacity, including taking up any cricketing assignment. It did not however, prevent Azhar from occasionally walking into Hyderabad's Gymkhana grounds to offer a tip or two to young cricketers.

When it came right down to it, Mohammed Azharuddin shamefully played the minority victimhood card. Reuters

In the wake of the court order, Azhar who was run out at 99 Tests and 334 ODIs, can now legitimately, in his very own typical style, raise his shirt collar and walk with a spring in his step.

In the manner in which he breezed into international cricket, Azhar has always been destiny's child. Remember it was Sunil Gavaskar's decision as captain in the 1984 India-England series to drop Kapil Dev and Sandeep Patil from the line-up at Eden Gardens that opened a window of opportunity for the Hyderabadi. And he blazed his way into the record books with three centuries in his first three Test matches, a record unbroken till date. He did not look back after that.

"Miyan, captain banoge?'" That question from the late Raj Singh Dungarpur catapulted Azhar into the captain's seat. And Azhar had a successful stint as captain, helped to a large extent by spinner-friendly turning tracks at home, coach Ajit Wadekar's guidance and two Indian cricketers in their prime - Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble. The 90s were largely Azhar's show.

But Azhar is also controversy's child. His love for a flashy lifestyle and his second marriage to actor Sangeeta Bijlani were the juicy fodder for a large section of people who wanted to pillory him. When the scandal broke, his critics concluded that the proof of the match-fixing was in the Armani-powered platter.

I must add a caveat here. I have been personally a huge fan of Azhar's style of batting. In full flow, there are few sights more graceful than Azzu bhai. At the risk of offending VVS Laxman, I would say they do not make wrists like those anymore.

But 2000 was also the year when fans like me discovered that our hero had feet of clay. The CBI, which investigated the case, concluded on the basis of statements given by bookies like Mukesh Gupta that the likes of Azhar and other cricketers like Ajay Sharma had shamed the country by agreeing to fix matches for a consideration. Given the stink that the entire scandal raised in the country, the BCCI had no choice but to act firmly to clean up the mess. It would be unfair to blame those heading the body at that time. In fact, if they had not acted, they would done a bigger disservice to Indian cricket. Because it is the clean-up after that that helped the sport prosper in India in the first decade of this century.

I remember meeting Azhar several times during those days when allegations were flying thick and fast. In one of the interviews, Azhar alleged that he was being targeted because of his minority status.

"Azzu bhai, aisa mat bolo. It will be misinterpreted,'' advised one of his friends who was present at the interview. But in those days, when Azhar was fighting with his back to the wall, and hitting out seemed like the only way out, he ended up holing out to the boundary with that reckless comment in that interview. In one stroke, he lost the adulation of millions of Indians who had not seen him as a Muslim cricketer but an Indian cricketer. By bringing his faith into cricketing matters, Azhar defiled the religion of 22 yards that India worships.

Azhar is now a Congress MP from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, and it will be surprising if the BCCI actively contests the High Court decision in a higher court. Given that most BCCI office-bearers are politicians, Azhar only needs to wear his political hat to ensure that the toss of the coin is in his favour.

But in the court of public opinion, Azhar will always walk as a man who could have been God but chose to be very mortal. He went through a huge personal tragedy last year, losing his 19-year-old son Ayazuddin in a motorbike accident in Hyderabad. Somewhere up there, young Ayaz would be happy to see his father has finally come home, a clean man.