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October 6, 1999


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Killing them softly?

Harsha Bhogle

In my heart, I have often written the cricketing obituary of Mohammad Azharuddin. Each time he has reached inside and torn it.

In his early years, I had thought of him as a fragile cricketer, a slender flower that would not be able to withstand the buffeting of the winds. But amidst the swirling of the cyclones in his life, that stalk grew stronger, it outlived a few oaks. There was more strength in him than people imagined and there were a few digging at the roots and plucking at the stems.

And now the time has come again. The storm is upon him and in my heart I am writing another obit. Will he tear this one?

He is 36 now, an age that tests the resilience of most men who need to live in a young world. But he, more than any other contemporary cricketer, has resisted the ruthless advance of age and sent it scurrying back. He has plucked catches off his eyebrows and sprawled on the turf and none can deny that he is the fittest man playing cricket in India today. And what a sad tale that his only competition should come from Robin Singh, another strong and admirable man, who just turned 36 himself. Are the erasers going to be out for him as well?

So if it wasn't age, and I hope it wasn't, then what was it? He hasn't had a very exciting time in 1999, but at the turn of the year, he produced a brilliant century in New Zealand ( his 21st incidentally) and his last Test innings in Sri Lanka produced 87. With most cricketers, you could look at recent trends and draw results; with the gifted and the proven, you look deeper.

Throughout his career, the runs have come for Azharuddin in floods and droughts; but each barren period has been followed by one of plenty. A terrible run against the West Indies in 1988 was followed by centuries in Pakistan, in New Zealand and so dramatically in England; three of those four were breathtaking. Then a poor run in South Africa led to perhaps his best innings, the 182 at the Eden Gardens. And after perhaps his worst tour, to England in 1996, he responded with three centuries in six Tests against South Africa.

There was no guarantee that he would do it again but you had to back him to succeed against New Zealand; that is an allowance you make to the very special. I can see though, since we are talking of looking deeper, that he has struggled overseas in recent times and India would like to have someone ready for the big tour to Australia. But whoever that person is, he must prove that he is better than the man he has replaced, for you put eleven men into a Test match, not ten men and a hope.

I thought he deserved to get two Test matches against New Zealand to allow the selectors to assess his form and current ability. But they have been hard on him and I cannot see how they can make place for him again without being hard on someone else. And you don't commit a wrong to redress another.

With Azharuddin it was a question of whether or not to stay a little longer, to debate whether he had a few drops left to squeeze out, but with Nayan Mongia, even that did not enter the picture; for if Azharuddin's omission is painful, Mongia's is staggering.

Over the last couple of years, Mongia's work behind the stumps has not just been good, it has been outstanding. I remember talking about this to Sunil Gavaskar on air in England during the World Cup and he thought that on prevailing form, Mongia was the best keeper in the world. Very little has changed since then and though MSK Prasad is a very good young keeper, it must tickle him greatly to think that he has already become better than Mongia. He was very good in Toronto and Nairobi and one day he will keep wickets for India with distinction in Test cricket, but it is criminal to pass over a man who has done no wrong.

In my personal set of highlights from the nineties, Mongia standing up to Kumble on a vicious turner will occupy a very high position. But unlike Kiran More, who struggled a bit in his last year and a half, Mongia is keeping as well as he ever has. But hang on, doesn't he average only 9 in his last few Tests? Hasn't he struggled with the bat in the last few one-dayers? Yes, he has. So have Kumble, Srinath and Prasad. So who are we picking first? A wicket-keeper or a batsman? If the answer is wicket-keeper first, then I would like to see a few tapes with the selectors. If the answer is batsman, then I am afraid it doesn't say too much about the pedigree of the batsmen that precede the wicket-keeper.

Tell me honestly, on slow tracks in India against New Zealand, would you need additional support for Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Bharadwaj, Jadeja and Ramesh? And remember, we are not talking of Courtney Walsh keeping wicket, just a good batsman who is going through a lean run?

These are exciting times in our cricket, there is a wonderful new crop of cricketers like Mohanty, Chopra, Bharadwaj and Prasad but the waters aren't strong enough to sweep us off our feet just yet.

Let us not write our obits before they become due.

Harsha Bhogle

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