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August 2, 1999

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The last hurrah?

Harsha Bhogle

The classic ending to most management case studies, and one that is most relevant to this article, is: what should person X do and why?

It has been a while since I have had to attempt a similarly academic exercise, but when `person Xí happens to be Mohammad Azharuddin, it makes the study a little more interesting.

The selectors have already passed judgement on Azharuddin as captain, though I suspect it had more to do with looking ahead than looking back. They now need to exercise a similar judgement over Azharuddin the batsman. It will not be easy, because his record is glittering and they perhaps need to look at three different kinds of statistics to discern any trends. The numbers are interesting:

Azharuddin in Tests:

6104 runs @ 44.88 with 21 centuries and 21 fifties. Number 9 among all players playing Test cricket today.

Last 2 years: 1093 runs @ 49.68. Number 7 among all those playing Test cricket today.

Last 6 Tests: 399 runs @ 39.90.

Azhar in ODIs:

9111 runs @ 37.34. Number 18 among all players playing in one-day internationals today.

Last 2 years: 2449 runs @ 40.82. Number 18 among all players playing in one-day internationals today.

Last 6 months: 408 runs @ 27.20 (17 innings)

There is nothing you can do on the basis of the numbers in the first two rows. Those are outstanding, and do not suggest an end in sight -- but the third row is a bit different.

Clearly, 1999 has not been very good for him because he only averages 27.20 in one-day internationals and if you take out his century in the Test match in New Zealand (which came just before 1999 started), his Test average comes down to around 30.

Those are the facts. You now need to read into them.

From the time he made his debut, Azharuddin has had a strangely cyclical career, plundering runs while in form and looking rather lost when out of it. That is why, over longer intervals, his figures will look good whereas viewed in short periods they will be skewed, either brilliant or poor.

It is something that he has learnt to live with and, in fact, it is his relaxed attitude to failure that has seen him come out of it so frequently.

In 1996, I watched him in England, unable to put bat to ball in the Test matches and coming out of the series with 42 runs in 5 innings. I thought then, as I did in South Africa in 1992, that his days of providing such absolute joy were coming to an end. I asked him about it and he reacted in exactly the manner he did last week; a vigorous shake of the head and a slightly mumbled ďNo, my career has been like that. I am fit and I think I can still play.Ē

After returning from England, he scored 3 centuries in the next 7 Test matches against high quality fast bowling. Two of those, the century at Calcutta in 1996 and the one in Capetown in 1997, were breathtaking and could only have been produced by a player of great skill. And in one-day internationals, he has made more than 3000 runs since then.

It has been like this from the time he was playing under-19 cricket as a scrawny, thin young man. And that is why I hesitate to assign the required importance to his performance in the last six months. With most cricketers, there would have been a strong trend there, but with Azhar you canít tell. I have burnt my fingers too often to hazard an opinion.

Remember, as you pass judgement, (and we have always been extraordinarily harsh to our heroes as they approach autumn) that retirement from an activity that is so dear to a person is the most difficult decision in the world. People struggle to come to terms with it in their fifties and sixties and yet, we expect young men at 36 to pick the right moment. If it was as easy as switching off a fan, everyone would get it right.

The key, I suspect, is to listen to two voices: the mind and the body. When Sunil Gavaskar played his last match, he was about a year and a half older but, by his own admission, kept waiting for the intervals on a long day in the field. That to him was the signal that the time had come.

With Sanjay Manjrekar, who was a little more three years younger, the desire went out suddenly and cricket became a compulsion. Once again the mind had passed its verdict. With Kapil Dev, it was probably the call of the body that had pounded so gracefully on hard Indian tracks.

Where is Azharís message coming from? Not from the body, because he is still taking wonderful slip catches in spite of being a reluctant slip fielder. And there is the small matter of being the fittest man in the team at 36. But the mind? I donít know. I think the question he needs to ask himself is whether it will last the probing of McGrath and Gillespie four months from now. And whether it can withstand being judged from series to series.

But the decision has to be his. And I donít think we can drop him from the team just yet. Another three months into that lean patch and maybe he will take the decision himself. Unless, of course, that patch vanishes.

The Sports Editor adds: Come August 6, the selectors will sit down to pick the team to Sri Lanka and Singapore. And another chapter in the career of Mohammad Azharuddin could well be written on that day.

Azhar is due to submit his fitness certificate only on August 12. Will the fact that the selection exercise precedes that date tempt the selectors into dropping him? Or will they keep in mind his track record, and take a chance on his being fully fit in time for the ODI triangular featuring India, Australia and Sri Lanka, beginning August 22?

You tell us -- what do you think the selectors should do, and why? Should Azhar be in the side? Or on the sidelines?

In passing, Sunil Gavaskar has charged us with conveying to all of you out there his sincere thanks for the enormous outpouring of mail wishing him for his 50th birthday -- the printout ran into 98 pages.

The Forum entries wishing Sachin Tendulkar are, if anything, more voluminous than the Gavaskar mails -- and Sachin will be given a copy of your felicitations later this week.

Now to hear from you on the Mohammad Azharuddin question -- is it yay or nay?

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