May 21, 2009 2:14:30 am
Last month,in dusty Moradabad,where narrow by-lanes mingle homogenously with crowded,open markets,I rediscovered a forgotten subject from almost a decade ago.
In a tight T-shirt and black jeans,his hair thinner than I remembered,thicker than I imagined,Mohammad Azharuddin sat in a roomful of starched kurtas,gold chains,and gleaming Blackberrys. He seemed vaguely uncomfortable,like Id always known him to be,and his warm hello after years of no contact was somehow as surprising as it was expected.
Images from the past flashed before my eyes. Raised collar,mumbled quotes,182 in Calcutta,trapped lbw for 199 in Kanpur,stretched forward at slip to dismiss Andy Cummins,and then,denying fixing charges,being banned for life,appearing in a court in Hyderabad,not answering his phone anymore.
As we started chatting in the next room,away from the local netas who had assembled to help chart out his campaign,it was clear that Azharuddin was seeking more than an election to the lower house of Parliament. It was his last attempt at redemption,at finally putting the match-fixing nightmare behind him by seeking acceptance from the people he had once wowed with his finesse at the crease.
To this day,Azhar says he had no involvement in match-fixing,but his denial never really counted for much. The media,his former fans,the court which is still hearing his case did not give him a reprieve despite numerous dates and repeated appeals.
After what happened back then in 2000,I wanted to see if people would still come out and support me,and yesterdays rally here was an eye-opener, he told me,talking about the record-breaking public reception he had been given in Moradabad. There were one lakh people on the streets,surely that must count for something. It means that the public still loves me. All the hard work I had put in as a youngster was not in vain. He was seeking agreement,but it was the most coherent Id ever known him to be.
Contesting from Moradabad a constituency from where the Congress had not won since 1984 rather than his home town of Hyderabad seemed like an odd choice. But a walk around the city made it clear that the former Indian cricket captain had stepped into the fight as one of the favourites,particularly because of the regions substantial young Muslim population.
Twenty-five years ago,his arrival on TV sets across India had been accompanied by strong social implications. Having grown up in Lucknow,I had seen first hand how he seeped into conversations in school and at home as a rare Indian hero who was unassuming and elegant traits that particularly my city,famous for its tehzeeb in the days gone by,liked to identify with.
With the passage of time,as his aura grew,Azhar emerged as a unique icon of our times. The concept of a Muslim superstar whose heritage wasnt masked Yousuf Khan became Dilip Kumar and Mahjabeen Bano became Meena Kumari was still alien in those pre-Shah Rukh Khan days,and as was pointed out to me recently,Mohammad Azharuddin was the first of his kind in modern India.
But the match-fixing scandal changed the perception of cricketers in general and Azhar in particular. The aversion to him was more emphatic than it was for the others because,one,he was the only true legend found guilty by the BCCI inquiry into the CBI report,and two,what the report said he had done was so unbecoming of his public image. Et tu?
Azhars career stopped at 99 Tests,and what followed was a complete boycott voices were raised even when he went to the stadium to watch a match. Soon,he retired into his shell,keeping away from people,spending time in his gym,at home with wife Sangeeta. Thats where he stayed until the announcement of his comeback in the most difficult of all the public domains.
On winning the election,he reiterated his campaign slogan. I felt I finally got to play my 100th Test, Azhar said this week,in a field where the grass is not always green. After nine years of trying,life has come full circle for Mohammad Azharuddin,MP. And who wouldve thought it,hes started with another century on debut.
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