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October 24, 1997


Azhar goes for broke!

Harsha Bhogle

It had been simmering for a while. It seems to be out in the open now.

There was for a while a feeling that Mohammad Azharuddin wanted the captaincy back -- and if a Calcutta datelined report is indeed true, he has now admitted it to the media.

There were recent reports, admittedly unconfirmed, that two of the selectors wanted him back as captain. It is not always easy to believe such reports -- but then, very few of our selectors have any faith in the old school which thought that the deliberations of a selection committee should remain confidential.

The fact that the newsmagazine Week should make a selector's confession as its cover story was proof of two things. One, that the selector was extremely indiscreet and two, that rumours about the dissatisfaction with Tendulkar weren't completely wrong.

"If I am destined to regain the captaincy, I will get it", Azhar has been quoted as saying in Calcutta. More interestingly, he has taken a little potshot at Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri. "A couple of commentators who have played the game were trying to spread these things," he said in reference to the suggestion that he had a role to play in the running out of Vinod Kambli at Karachi.

And so, between now and the next meeting of the selection committee, the country will start the familiar debate all over again. It isn't a new phenomenon. Vijay Merchant vs Pataudi (sr); Ajit Wadekar vs Pataudi (jr); Sunil Gavaskar vs Kapil Dev. And now, Sachin Tendulkar vs Mohd. Azharuddin.

The problem with such debates is that they rarely produce healthy analyses -- and invariably lead to bitterness within a team. For a set of players who have so much to prove in a home series, this could be a disaster waiting to unveil itself.

There are two ways of looking at the captaincy issue. Will giving it back to Azhar mean taking a step back? And will it lead to the demoralisation of Tendulkar? Or, will it allow Tendulkar to feel his way for a couple of years longer, and regain the captaincy as a much better equipped individual? Should we therefore, be planning for the future or should we be looking at horses for courses?

Kapil Dev said recently that he was opposed to changing the captaincy around, because it is not good for the morale of the side. He got it in 1983 when he was just four years old in international cricket, and by 1987 when he had started becoming comfortable, he was sacked again. It led to an extremely turbulent phase in our cricket history, which only got sorted out once Azharuddin brought some permanency to the post.

Now Tendulkar has had a little over a year in charge. He has probably gone through the difficult part of adjusting to the demands of leadership. In fairness to him, he has only really lost overseas, and has emerged with a 5-3 away score against Pakistan which to my mind, is one of the more sensational results we have achieved in recent times. Why are we then, talking about a change at all?

I suspect that the move to sacrifice Tendulkar, the captain, has its origins in a desire to rediscover Tendulkar, the batsman. It is a noble objective, but one that belittles Tendulkar's ability to think his way through trouble.

Admittedly, Azharuddin's credentials to lead the country once again are excellent. When he lost the job after the tour of England last year, his personal life was in disarray and he didn't look like he would score runs again. Since then, he has made five Test hundreds and well over a thousand runs in one-day internationals. And more to the point, he has hardly ever failed at home -- which is where most of the cricket over the next two years will be played. And he has sorted out all his domestic problems. Indeed, he looks, more than before, like a man at peace with himself.

Except that he wants the captaincy back!

It is a very tough decision to take. In moments like these, you tend to take the path of no change, and that is what the selectors should do if they are unsure.

My only hope, though, is that the two captaincy contenders are rated on cricketing credentials. My fear, however, is that they will become merely frontmen in a much deeper struggle for power.

The sadness in this situation is that the changeover in captaincy, from Azharuddin to Tendulkar, represented one of the finest moments in Indian cricket.

It has taken less than thirteen months to change all that.

Harsha Bhogle

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