Home >mint-lounge >features >Watching Azhar at play, again

In the middle of April, with English football club Leicester City leaping towards the most improbable achievement in sports history, Jamie Vardy, their talismanic striker, decided to try expediting the process by leaping forward himself and throwing his body to the floor. Vardy appeared to have deliberately stuck his foot between West Ham United defender Angelo Ogbonna’s in an attempt to con the referee into awarding Leicester City a penalty. He had dived.

This was not supposed to be part of the Leicester story. Theirs was a fairytale, one to inspire generations of sports fans to come. But diving? It is a loathsome practice, a morbid reminder that human-beings are not inherently fair creatures bound by an understanding that solidarity will benefit the entire species, but will, when they think they can get away with it, deliberately try to cheat thousands of other people for their own gains. Can we still celebrate Leicester City’s incredible crowning as English Premier League champions knowing that one of their stars may have dived?

Indian cricket fans found themselves in a more extreme version of this predicament in 2000, when Mohammad Azharuddin, then the most successful captain in Indian cricket history, was charged with something far more heinous than trying to fool a match official. He was 37 then, one match away from completing 100 Tests. Farewell parties were being planned, photo galleries being carefully compiled, odes to his wristy batsmanship being written, and then the headlines took on a much darker hue.

Twelve years later, Azharuddin’s ban from all cricket for match-fixing was lifted. Now, a film made with his blessing—and with his edits accommodated in the script—will seek to prove his innocence. Still, questions will always linger about why Azharuddin’s name popped up so many times during the police’s investigations of the links between cricket and bookmakers. There is a quiver of uneasiness that accompanies any memory of Azharuddin’s elegant stroke-play, a fear that by drawing pleasure from the skill of a possible fixer, we are somehow complicit in his betrayal. Search for news and feature stories about him on ESPNCricinfo. Nostalgia pieces, a favourite of cricket fans, are sparse when it comes to Azharuddin—there is one by Rohit Brijnath, written in 2008, but little else. It is as if we have tried to wipe him out of our cricketing history.

It is dangerous for us sports fans to tie our loyalties and passion to men. Men are fallible; even when they know their actions bear consequence on thousands of others, they are given to making impulsive, self-serving decisions. We must learn to separate men from their skills and the sports stories they script. Leicester City’s story belongs as much to us as it does to Vardy and his team-mates, and we must revel in it with them, but also, when necessary, despite them. Similarly, we must learn to embrace Azharuddin’s place in the story of Indian cricket, even if we choose to hold the man himself at bay. For the story belongs to us.

So let us not talk about Azharuddin the man—Emraan Hashmi and Co. will be doing enough of that—let us talk about his cricket. First, his backhanded throws. Watching sport is a great way to study human innovation. A leather sphere is hit at a man, and he is told to deliver it to three wooden sticks as quickly as possible. Cricketers have always struggled to perform this simple task when the ball arrives to their wrong side. When the ball is on a right-handed cricketer’s left, after picking it up, he has to either stop and change direction or swivel 360 degrees before being able to throw it with his right. Azhar solved this by simply picking the ball up with his right hand even when it was on his left and then throwing it backhanded, using his supple wrists to flick the ball in the direction of the stumps. He had become so adept at this by the middle of his career that he could regularly hit the stumps with a backhanded throw, making the batsmen think twice before attempting a cheeky single when the ball went to his left.

But he mostly did it because it looked stylish. The ball would trickle slowly to him at backward point; the batsmen would be firmly in his crease, not looking for a run; and Azharuddin would pick it up and casually backhand flick it to the keeper. The crowd would cheer, and he would grin. With Azharuddin, cricket was not just about precision; it was about doing things that were fun and letting everyone watching have fun too.

Let us also talk about Azharuddin’s bat. For his bat is symbolic of the place he occupied in Indian cricket. By the 1990s, heavy bats were quickly becoming the norm in cricket. Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards had both used massive bats during the 1970s and 80s, and in the 90s, Sachin Tendulkar’s bat weighed around 1.4 kilograms. Azharuddin’s bat weighed less than a kilogram. He and his bat stood for a resistance to change. Indian cricket was quickly becoming aggressive. The public demanded more than just a decent fight, and young players were not afraid of harbouring the loftiest of ambitions. By the early 2000s, there were bare-chested war cries coming out of the Indian dressing-room.

The lightness of his bat was also the source of a lot of his cricket’s beauty. Because he did not have a meaty bat, he had to make sure he timed the ball perfectly. He had to follow through on his shots too. He did not have the luxury of simply punching a ball to cover for four. After a cover drive, his bat usually ended up behind his left shoulder; when he stepped down the pitch to loft spinners for a six, you could see him put his entire body into the shot and his head tilt back a bit as he made impact; when he pulled, the bat whipped all the way around his back, and his feet sometimes left the ground. But what was incredible is that during none of this did it appear that he was straining himself. Everything, the movement of the elbow, the flourish of the bat, the twist of the wrists, was fluid, like his body was made of butter and was melting into the shape a particular shot required of it.

On Youtube, there is a video compilation of some of Azhar’s best innings. It begins with what can only be described as an off drive flick—the bat seems to start moving from gully to the leg side before a whipping motion pushes to ball to mid-off, all done off the back foot—against England, in Kolkata in 1993, when he scored 182. There are more delightful shots through the video, among them a square cut that almost looks like a late cut against Australia in Kolkata, a flick from wide outside off to the deep square leg boundary during his lauded century at Lord’s in 1990 and an on drive against Shane Warne in Adelaide, in 1992, that sees his back leg lift just as he lifts his arms skywards, making him look like an ice-skater landing after a triple-Axel.

These shots were played by a man who left Indian fans disillusioned in 2000. But they are also shots that exist on their own, in isolation from the man who crafted them. And while everyone is watching Azhar on the big screen, it might be worth sitting down and watching these three shots again.

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