Around 20 years ago, in the dark dawn of the internet age, the cricket news website Cricinfo interviewed Mohammad Azharuddin on an internet relay chat (IRC) channel. The Indian team was touring South Africa, and the interview was conducted in Port Elizabeth.
Cricket fans from across the world asked Azharuddin several questions that day: what did he think of the youngsters Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman? Would Sachin Tendulkar (the then Indian team captain) open in Tests? How had he gone about changing his stance?
Towards the end of the interview, an IRC user named Vishal asked him, on a lighter note, to pick between an Armani suit and watching Tendulkar score a half-century. Azhar chose the latter.
“Ok — how about…say — a Lara 50?” Vishal persisted. “The Armani suit :-))))),” replied Azharuddin.
Mohammad Azharuddin was Indian cricket’s last great dandy. Cricket lovers might never forgive him for infamously letting them down, and resent him for his seemingly pathological lack of contrition about his alleged role in the match-fixing scandal, but nobody can deny he had a sense of style. Admittedly, with that popped collar, a fondness for expensive watches, especially Rolex, and Armani suits (and those hundreds of glares, fitted T-shirts, bandhgalas and sherwanis), Azhar’s sense of style, at times, bordered on the flashy, but it was wholly his style.
“Flamboyant. That’s the one word that comes to mind when I think of the way he dressed. And it wasn’t something manufactured by stylists like it is today,” says menswear designer Narendra Kumar Ahmed. “Has there been somebody like him after he stopped playing? No, I mean Virat Kohli looks good in a variety of things, but I don’t think anyone since then has been naturally stylish as Azhar was.”
Emraan Hashmi, who plays Azhar in the recently released biopic (sort of) by the same name, is not a naturally stylish man. While Hashmi, a limited actor at best, has put in a lot of effort into internalising the cricketer’s mannerisms — the shambling gait, the tentative reticence, the nervous gliding of the tongue over the bottom lip — and worn mostly the kind of clothes and accessories favoured by Azharuddin, he — and the makers of the movie — probably overlooked the fact that something peculiarly interesting happened to Azhar the cricketer and Azhar the man towards the second half of his career. He transformed himself, says writer Mukul Kesavan, from a quiet, wristy accumulator of runs into this demonically attacking batsman, and along the way, along with those suits and watches, he also acquired a swagger. (Something similar also happened to Navjot Singh Sidhu, who metamorphosed from a stroke-less wonder into a brilliantly clean hitter of the cricket ball, but it did nothing for his sense of style. He probably always dressed like a box of crayons.)
“Azhar probably adopted a cavalier attitude to cover up for his deficiencies against sheer pace, but when that happened, he turned into possibly the most attacking batsman I’ve seen,” says Kesavan, “The good thing was that the flamboyance on the field matched the off-field persona. Otherwise, it would have been a bit problematic.”
It helps to be fit when you are stylish, and the Hyderabadi, among the finest fielders ever, especially at cover, was possibly the first Indian cricketer to take fitness seriously. “He was very self-aware. He was fit in a very (Novak) Djokovic kind of way,” says Kesavan, who recounts a meeting with the cricketer in his 2007 book Men in White.
“The one subject that he was really forthcoming about in that entire conversation was his weight. And I was really curious. How did a man of thirty-seven arrive at a handspan waist?” writes Kesavan.“Between 1988 and 1994, he said, the dates tripping off his tongue, he had become overweight because he was eating just anything and drinking aerated drinks. But the main reason, he said, was that he was taking cortisone for a groin injury and the steroid speeded his metabolism up, so he ate a lot. It didn’t affect his batting, though it slowed him down in the field a bit. Then, in 1994, he began eating carefully. He cut out red meat and soft drinks, did sit-ups, played lots of squash and became fit again. Simple.”
Ahmed is probably right when he says that he doesn’t really find any current Indian player stylish, though, Kesavan feels, and rightly so, that with all their constant experimentation with their carefully trimmed beards and hair, there is a cutting-edge maleness to some of them. But to find men with real elan, we have to travel some 60 years back in time to, surprisingly, Hyderabad. “Pataudi (Mansur Ali Khan) and Abbas Ali Baig begot Jaisimha. Jaisimha (ML) begot Azharuddin,” says Kesavan, of the dashing Hyderabadi trio, all of whom were elegant both on and off the field. “But all of these guys were upper middle class, some of them were even aristocrats. Azhar, on the other hand, was a lower middle-class boy. He wore those shades, but he also wore the taveez. He was all about street-style.”
Are elegant, charismatic cricketers always men of style? We don’t know, though, the likes of Frank Worrell, Garry Sobers, Imran Khan and the bunch of guys mentioned above does make it seem so. On the other hand, David Gower, arguably the most graceful batsman ever to have played the game, was a dowdy dresser, and so was VVS Laxman. The alarming thing is that, either of these kinds of men are few and far between in today’s game. When I look around, I can only see Joe Root, and, to a certain extent, Rohit Sharma. And, that is sort of tragic.
They say that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. I am a lapsed cricket fan, but if presented with a choice on my deathbed, I’d spare myself the hyperlapsed banality of my own life and probably choose a David Gower cover drive, or Azhar beheading Lance Klusener with a casual flick of his wrists on a sunny day in Cape Town.