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November 17, 1998


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Simply, Azhar!

Harsha Bhogle

To experience the peaks and troughs of life is written in the destiny of every cricketer, and yet I know of no other human being who experienced those two realities more closely than Mohammad Azharuddin did.

From the time he made that unparalleled entry into international cricket to the time he stood on top of the world at Sharjah, every high has had a low as a neighbour and, luckily, every low brought with it the fragrance of a new achievement.

Careers such as those invariably belong to people of strong character, for it requires enormous courage and self-control to look at failure and to recognise it as just another season that will pass. Azharuddin did, and that is why he was able to bring dignity to just about everything he did on a cricket ground.

And that is also why it did not surprise me that there was no punching of arms, no wild celebration when he went past Desmond Haynes’ aggregate of 8648 runs. In fact, dignity is the word I would like to associate with Azhar more than any other, though “class” is his more preferred expression !

I think it is a truly monumental achievement, and I have absolutely no malice in saying that I didn’t think he would do it. But over the last couple of decades, since the first time I saw him bat for South Zone schools against the visiting England Schoolboys team, it has been my great joy to have been proved wrong a few times. My primary reason for thinking that way was that I have never seen him to be very achievement-driven.

Anybody who has played more than twelve years of international cricket and goes on to break a major world record has to have a deep inner motivation, maybe even an obsession with a target. At no stage did I see that with Azhar, and as late as the Sahara Cup of 1996, when I badgered him for it, he screwed up his face, looked away and said “ .....7000 runs in one-dayers, maybe...”.

He has always been like that, always quite happy to take what life served up for him. If he had finished with 4000 runs rather than 9000 or 10,000, he would still have been the same, for that is what he would have said the Gods had ordained for him.

It is a philosophy, a state of mind, that has allowed him to handle success and failure with a similar spirit of detachment -- and I think there is a huge lesson in it for young men who ride the high winds with success and find themselves completely unprepared when they are dumped on firm ground. The fear of failure in so many of our cricketers is so strong that I suspect it actually ends up driving them there. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the stunning success of Mohammad Azharuddin, it is to balance success and failure and never to allow either to rule your life.

I must admit I didn’t think he would last fourteen years either, and that is perhaps our Hyderabadi ghar ki murgi daal barabar syndrome. When you know someone well, you tend to look at his inadequacies rather than at the other skills that can cover up for them, and that is why I allowed myself to think that he didn’t quite have the grit to survive till the 1999 World Cup.

But Azhar today is a far stronger person than he was, even till as recently as the early nineties. In South Africa in 1992 and a year earlier in Australia, he was an island, lonely and isolated. His scriptures were his best friends, and he seemed to create around him a shield that would prevent sunshine from reappearing. Over the years, I have realised that loneliness is his worst enemy, and I still think that if he had remained lonely through the turmoil of 1996 and early 1997, he wouldn’t have been playing today. Ironically, he scored three Test centuries and averaged above 40 in one-day internationals in that period, but it was the strength of companionship more than anything else that carried him through.

Now he seems to get over things much quicker, because with Sangeeta he has a fulfilling life outside the game. Her presence on every cricket tour ensures that loneliness will never return to haunt him, for he now has none of his contemporaries alongside him. Ironically, I get the feeling that Sangeeta, born and brought up in Mumbai’s achievement-oriented climate, is actually encouraging him onwards and that if he is contemplating life in the game, as he is, beyond the age of 36 (which he will reach on the 8th of February), she has a significant role to play in it.

And play on he must, for he is still playing some very good cricket, a tribute to his unbelievable ability to stay fit. Again, this is an example that is being lost on some of the younger cricketers, not just in the Indian team but across the country at all levels of the game. Far from being a polite mid-on or short mid-wicket, positions that are often concessions to age and the gentler movements that accompany it, he stands at slip, at backward point, at cover, anywhere. He remains the finest interceptor of the moving ball in the side and, at an age when he should be staying away from the 25 year olds, he is in fact showing them the way.

That is a tribute to the discipline that he has forced upon himself. Hyderabadis are avid eaters, and the food that emerges from the traditional Muslim kitchens there is difficult to push away. But it is rich and heavy, and to forego it for rather more spartan fare must have been a difficult decision; one that he probably could not have made, or may not have had the vision to make, at 25. There is no red meat in his diet anymore, sweets are viewed rather than digested, and on a flight recently, I saw him carefully pick pieces of paneer and stock them on the side of his plate.

His average is looking up as well, and that is a wonderful sign for Indian cricket for it means that autumn is still far away. He now averages more than 38 in the one-day game and his average in the last couple of years, which is perhaps more significant, is much higher. And Dilip Vengsarkar thought his 94 against Sri Lanka in the first game at Sharjah was one of the best one-day innings he has played.

And what a year he has had so far. He has gone past 300 one-day internationals, which is a tribute to his longevity; he has a score in excess of 150 in the one-day game, has a world record partnership for any wicket, as captain he has brought wonderful success to the team and now he stands alone. Indian cricket should have been delighted, and that is why I thought his record deserved more. I was terribly disappointed at the muted reaction to it. Given that it is one-day cricket which now drives the game, you would have thought there would have been a far greater level of celebration.

Are we as a country getting stuck in this ghar ki murgi syndrome all over again?

We’ve got a jewel. Let’s wear him with pride.

Tailpiece : Even as Mohammad Azharuddin stood atop a mountain of achievement, a young man was taking his first steps in the game. After Nikhil Chopra took 2 for 21 against Zimbabwe, he was being interviewed on television and you could almost sense his excitement at the fact that someone like Michael Holding was talking to him, was “interviewing” him.

It was a very very happy moment, and you could see that the young man was bubbling with joy and pride. I felt the goose pimples rise on me, for this was probably a childhood dream come true. It is small occasions like these that define sport and make television such a fantastic medium. But a couple of minutes into the interview, and bang in the middle of a sentence, poof......we were given some more commercials to see.

Now, ask Nikhil Chopra’s family what they think of a faceless man in a studio who stole them of their boy’s moment of glory !

That makes a few priorities pretty clear, doesn’t it? That also tells you why we are condemned to the kind of television we get. And for that reason alone, Nikhil, I wish you another great performance and hopefully this time, nobody will steal it from you.

Harsha Bhogle

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