“Dude, tell me something. Have you forgiven Azhar?” I asked this question to some of my cricket-addict friends.
The answers were mixed reactions like “Yes, long back,” “No. I will never forgive him. He broke my trust”, “Forgive? I was never angry with him,” “He was victimized by the system. Real culprits are still looming large.” As far as my answer goes, I have forgiven him long back.
For me, first remembrance of Azhar is from WC1987 in the match against Australia. For scoring 54 runs and taking three wickets, he was declared MOM. But what struck most to me was the way he was playing with the ball while discussing field placement with the captain – making it bounce again and again on the back of his palm.
During India’s tour to Pakistan in 1989, when I seriously started following the game, Azhar’s career was in doldrums. Faisalabad test was supposed to be his last chance. Azhar scored a century on this lifeline. He saved his career by turning it around when his opponent was serving on the match point.
I was impressed by his batting. “How can someone do it? Picking the ball from outside off stump and glancing it to fine leg? “I asked my father.
“Wrists” he responded.
Rajsingh Dungurpur’s famous “Miyan, kaptaan banoge?” resulted in Azhar being appointed as captain for the next series.
It was England, 1990 when I became his fan. Listening to commentary on radio, I was impressed with the ease at which he was batting in conditions supposed to be extremely difficult for the visitors. His 87 ball century in Lords was stated as one of the reasons because India lost the test – “He should have eaten up more time” was the argument given. He scored another century in the test series where he almost scored 100 runs in a session.
I became a big fan not just because of his batting but also fielding which made everything look so simple. To add to that, I had to bring the balance of power at home between fan-base of Sachin and Azhar.
Azhar’s batting was all wrists and timing. The flicks, the square cuts, the paddle sweeps, the on drives, the off drives, they all looked class apart. Very often, bowlers and the pitch didn’t matter to him. He could look like a lamb in front of a tiger while facing a pace attack, he could also tear apart the same attack with phenomenal ease.
People said he wasn’t good enough to score runs on fast bouncy pitches in Australia. He almost won a test match there on his own. People said he just cannot play the pace battery of South Africa. The protease may never forget THAT partnership of 220+ runs.
In one sentence, he was great. He was gifted. He was a hero.
But then, he would also get out in the softest fashion; often get out in a manner so soft that it would look like a meek surrender. After all, he was human.
To add to this class, there was an element of fielding. He was brilliant, simply brilliant. Every time modern day fielder’s make an ordinary catch look spectacular, I think of Azhar’s catches in slip which looked as if he was just catching a fly sitting on his nose. Modern day fielders think that the entire planet will move seeing their catch; Azhar just moved and caught it. He had amazing reflexes.
In a team which was never known for its fielding, Azhar was so good that he could have competed with anyone in the world.
But then, he would drop the simplest of catches. After all, he was human.
Azhar was never consistently brilliant when it came to run making. He would go terribly out of form, would be on the verge of being dropped and given lifeline of one match. But he was brilliantly consistent in utilizing that one match life line to revive his career. He did it in Faisalabad. He did it in Eden gardens. When everyone was ruing the fact that a captain cannot be dropped during a world cup, he revived himself in Brisbane. He was like a phoenix, always coming back to life from the ashes. Azhar even did so in his last test. But this is one life line which was termed invalid because just after the match, the cricketing world was hit by a monstrous tornado known as match fixing.
I do not know if he was involved. I don’t want to know it either.
Many a times Azhar got out in the most irresponsible manner at the most crucial juncture. Many a times he got run out when he ran from batting crease to mid off to complete a circle. “Perhaps nobody has told him that straight line is the shortest distance” was often said when he did so. Every time this happened, people said that he had been paid to do so. They said the same about anyone who committed such mistake.
Manoj Prabhakar had created a furor in 1997 but the issue was dying a slow death. But with confession of Hansie Cronje, entire world was shaken. Lot of heads got rolled.
Azhar, Jadeja, Mongia and even Nikhil Chopra’s name came up along with the others.
While public opinion remains hostile against each of them, not everyone hears “Here is he, the man who sold us to bookies” kind of comments. Tell me honestly – how many times you shout “fixer” when you see Ajay Jadeja giving expert comments on TimesNow or see Nikhil Chopra doing mimicry on star cricket? But every time Azhar is shown on TV, I hear people shouting “Fixer, Fixer.”
People seem to have forgiven or at least forgotten others but the same cannot be said about Azhar. Some say that his religion has got to do with it. I do not buy this argument. If there is one place in this country where an individual’s religion just doesn’t come to the mind is a cricket field. Did you not clap for Zaheer Khan when he was bowling those maidens in WC2011 final?
Yet Azhar is being looked as the biggest culprit, the only culprit. Even if he was a culprit, I am sure he wasn’t the biggest on, the only one. He was not the culprit.
Even if he was a culprit, he is done with his sentence. He never played in 100th test even though he scored a century in his 99th. Agreed that he was nearing the end of his career but he could still have played for a few more years. He lost on those years. And even after more than a decade to fixing fiasco, he continues to be known as the “fixer.”
One of the reasons to it that among all those who came under the scanner, Azhar was the biggest star. He was a hero. For lot of us, he was our first batting hero before Sachin replaced him. We all just loved his cricket. If Sanjay Banger’s or Akash Chopra’s name come up in some scam, I may not think about it for more than a day. But what if Sachin’s name comes up? I will erase the word cricket from my dictionary. Higher you rise, harder you fall in case you do fall. Azhar did fall. Cheating someone you don’t know may be a crime. Cheating some who trusts you is a sin.
Azhar was one of those brilliant absent minded students who would score 100 out of 100 in a written exam but falter when asked “Where do you see yourself in five years for now?”
When his form was questioned, he said “I am playing well in the nets” and we laughed. When he dropped Saeed Anwar in Eden-1998 (Anwar went on to score a match winning 188), Azhar said “I went for someone else’s catch” and he was ridiculed. He was a great cricketer but a bad orator unlike someone like tracer bullet who was ordinary cricketer but his oratory skills have earned him a great career in commentary. Azhar was never an image builder during his days or after that. He was just Azhar.
After years of appearances on TV, we have all almost forgotten that even Ajay Jadeja’s name had come up in that list. Too much of supply makes us forget that the same product was marred with below-quality allegations in the past.
But Azhar has never done that. Occasionally he has come on TV or sometimes in newspapers. Such rare appearances only refresh our memories of match fixing. They don’t make us forget that. They only remind that there is a cricketer who was alleged with match fixing charges.
Match fixing charges, to hell with them. No one knows how deeper they run. No one knows who all were involved or is still involved. May be he did fix matches, maybe he did not. We will never know the truth. But whatever he did, enough punishment has been meted with. It time to move on. After all, lot of us have moved on in the cases of other wrongdoers, haven’t we?