Mohammad Azharuddin: How India’s debonair duke went from majestic shots to dodgy flicks

There were many things to enjoy during India’s tour of England in 1990. Sachin Tendulkar instantly pierced home fans’ consciousness with a logic-defying, one-handed running catch at Lord’s in the first Test and a match-saving ton at Old Trafford in the second.

There was Kapil Dev’s no-nonsense approach to avoiding the follow-on: 24 needed in NW8 to make England bat again? The hirsute overlord of Indian cricket took just four balls from spinner Eddie Hemmings to knock them off. There was Manoj Prabhakar getting Graham Gooch - a man batting on the back of a triple and two tons in his previous three innings - with an inswinger that moved more in the air than a coke can in a hurricane. All this made the travelling Indian side seem incredibly chic to the teen home fan, but there was one figure who loomed like a suave totem above all these luminaries: The debonair duke that was Mohammad Azharuddin.

Former Indian captain, Mohammed Azharuddin. GettyImages

Former Indian captain, Mohammed Azharuddin. GettyImages

For the England bowlers, he was the man who put the ache in panache, repeatedly making them toil throughout the summer as he racked up 426 runs at 85. For us watching, though, the numbers were superfluous, as unnecessary as putting a price on a Monet as he bestrode the summer like a silky colossus. He seemed terribly glamorous solely in how he carried himself, smartly turned out but with that enigmatic, black amulet swinging from his neck, a cricketing shaman who inhabited a netherworld of greatness few were privy too.

He stood upright at the crease until the bowler was past the stumps, then would take his little trigger step across and unleash whatever shot he deigned to play. He could bludgeon, drive or caress straight, but it was the whips and stylish chops that mesmerised.

Sometimes balls outside off would almost seem to be past him, ripe for a cut or even a late one, yet somehow his wrists made of rockets and petals came through with such delicate ferocity he would pick up a boundary in front of square. Drift anywhere straight and Azharuddin would swish you through midwicket or, really, just anywhere he fancied. He was playing opposite David Gower and, right-handed, at times seemed his mirror image, just with even greater control and concentration.

For me, he was just a superhuman cricketer but for many — partly because of his relatively humble background — he was a great deal more. It would not be inaccurate to describe him as an inspiration, particularly to the community to which he belongs, especially in his position as captain of the side. He was a symbol of aspiration. A symbol of possibility. Yet after years and years of this grace and idolisation his career came crashing down in a graceless mess when he was named as a key figure in the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal. After his last Test in 2000 he became a relatively peripheral figure to cricket, drifting into politics and out of my own personal sporting world, while simultaneously battling on to clear his name.

It has thus been odd this last week or two seeing him pop up in TV studios to promote the new biopic of his life, Azhar, after not contemplating him for so long. He has, as most of us do, filled out a little and now appears more dimpled than dashing, holding the look of a kindly uncle once caught up in a financial scandal for whom you nevertheless retain a slight fondness.

He often played with his hands awkwardly in these exchanges, his wrists, once his elixir, rubbed slightly nervously as he fielded questions in a host of interviews. Some current players, notably Dirk Nannes, have openly questioned why a supposed match-fixer should be treated like George Clooney at Cannes?

The reviews of the film have not been overly kind, while noting that lead actor Emraan Hashmi’s performance as the former Indian skipper is rather more accurate that the general depiction of the facts. Ravi Shastri is meant to have been upset at being presented as a womaniser and the movie has certainly caused a few waves, if not waves of people to go and see it. It seems to somewhat suffer from the perennial problem of most sports films: Namely that, however much the actors strive for realism, the depiction of the action itself seems contrived. Perhaps this weakness could, for once however, actually be seen as some sort of clever post-modernist take on its subject: contrived scenes for a man who allegedly sought to contrive results.

It is appropriate - and doubtless no coincidence - Azhar has been released during the IPL. This tournament has itself had to seek reinvention after a disgrace, with the numbers attending even the latest patchy edition suggesting fans are more than willing to forget the wrongs of the past as long as the boundaries keep coming.

Azharuddin no longer has the luxury of being able to stride to the wicket to wipe people’s memories clean with his drives and cuts and runs, the way Kohli’s relentless genius chips away at the awkward remembrance of Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals. He is left instead with whatever his conscience allows and a lifetime of people’s distrust alongside the fading veneration. No matter how many sympathetic films of him are made, the shame and scandal of Azharuddin will sadly always loom large over the beauty of his whips and amulets.

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Updated Date: May 19, 2016 13:33:18 IST

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