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Friday, September 18, 2020

Wrist is history: Azhar recalls his 3 hundreds, and his Eden

It’s been 35 years since a young Azharuddin whiplashed a hattrick of hundreds to waltz into public imagination; his batting style was utterly original as he would conjure up angles hitherto unseen and it all started at his Eden Gardens.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: July 19, 2020 12:56:20 pm
Azharuddin debut 100 Mohammad Azharuddin scored hundreds in his first three Tests in the 1984/85 series vs England. (File Photo/AFP)

Third Test in Kolkata, from December 31, 1984 to January 5, 1985; Azhar 110, DNB

Fourth Test in Madras, from January 13 to 18, 1985; Azhar 48, 105

Fifth Test in Kanpur, from January 31 to February 5, 1985; Azhar 122, 54*

Calcutta was boiling with anger. ‘No Kapil, no Test’ was the call. India had lost the previous Test against England in Delhi and Kapil Dev’s second innings dismissal, which triggered the team’s collapse, was said to be the reason for the defeat. Sunil Gavaskar, then India captain, was at the receiving end of fan’s ire, as the selectors ‘punished’ Kapil by dropping him for the third Test. Later, even Kapil had spoken about how it was the then selection committee’s decision and the captain barely had a choice but at a time when a section of Indian cricket press was busy selling the Gavaskar-Kapil rift to their readers, the former became an easy target.

Sandeep Patil, a poster boy of Indian cricket then, too, was dropped for the alleged hara-kiri in the Delhi Test. Kapil was irreplaceable, but India had a ready replacement in the middle-order. In December 1984, Mohammad Azharuddin was a callow, 21-year-old. But he was with the squad and his form in domestic cricket made him a shoo-in at No. 5.

It wasn’t the ideal situation for a youngster to make his Test debut. His captain was being slated. India had surrendered the advantage and the five-match series was levelled at 1-1. England had Norman Cowans and Richard Ellison in swinging conditions and even on the eve of the match Azhar didn’t know he was playing.

“I only came to know about playing the match just 45 minutes before the start of play. So, I was very nervous. At the same time, I was confident that I had a very good run for the last three-four months (in domestic cricket). I came to the match after scoring hundreds in both innings in a Ranji Trophy game. So that was the confidence I had. But I think the selectors also had a lot of faith in me. Chandu Borde sir (then chief selector) insisted that I should play,” Azhar says, speaking to The Indian Express.

Gavaskar was having a poor series by his incredibly lofty standards. Inside the stadium, fans were booing the master, at times transgressing the line and calling out his family members also. From December 31, 1984 to January 5, 1985, when the Test was played, Calcutta was unkind to a legend and the whole team had to bear the brunt.

Batting first, India were under pressure at 127/4, when Azhar paired up with Ravi Shastri and stitched a 214-run fifth wicket partnership. Cricket was slow and boring. A turnout of 80,000 at Eden for Test cricket was customary those days and fans had been voicing their disapproval. But they were kind to the debutant.

“I was the 12th man for the first two Tests. So, I could at least gauge how Test cricket was played and how to make mental preparations. I learnt a lot by watching. I was a keen observer. (Also) I was very lucky to have played under Sunny bhai (Gavaskar). And there were so many great players in that team – Dilip bhai (Vengsarkar), Jimmy bhai (Mohinder Amarnath), Kiri bhai (Syed Kirmani). Kapil paaji was not in that game; but I had a lot of people who could advise me,” Azhar recollects.

Out there in the middle, England bowlers were asking tough questions. Thirty-five years later, as Azhar offers a throwback, he still speaks about the bend in Ellison’s deliveries. “For the first time I was playing in front of such a big crowd. The ball was swinging around. End of December, Calcutta is very cold also. It was dark. Light diminishes very fast during that time of the year. I was lucky to survive a chance when I was on eight or 10. I got my hundred (110) playing more than 300 balls. Conditions were not conducive for stroke-making. There were times when I was beaten twice or thrice in an over. I had to concentrate that much harder. At the end of the day, I got a hundred and it was very satisfying. It was destiny that I got a hundred in my first match.”

That was when Azhar’s love affair with Eden started. Over a 15-year period in seven Tests at this venue, he ended up scoring 860 runs at an average of 107.50 including five centuries. As Azhar would say, his love affair with Eden started in 1977, when he played for South Zone in the Cooch Behar Trophy. “The very first match I played at Eden Gardens, I scored a fifty. I came as a school boy to play at Eden Gardens. And I was very happy to make my Test debut there.”

Only a few months back before the Test series, Azhar had lost his mentor, his grandfather Mohammad Vajehuddin. “I missed him. He was my mentor and he helped become whatever I am today. He taught me to be humble. Those words, humble and humility, stayed with me. My grandmother also prayed for me a lot. When I used to go for practice in the morning, my grandmother got up at 4:30 am. I used to make tea and whenever I gave her tea, she held my hand and prayed for me.

“My father and mother never stopped me from playing. On his way to office, whenever my father (Mohammad Azizzuddin) saw I was batting in my college games, he used to come inside the Nizam College to watch the match. And invariably he used to get late for the office. My family always supported me, because I was very hard-working. They knew I was practicing or playing with some purpose in my mind,” Azhar says.

He mentions about his cousin brother Khalid, who lives in Bahrain now, for his encouragement. “He (Khalid) was the only person who watched my first hundred in Calcutta live. Whenever I played a bad shot, he would shout from outside. He watched me play every game right from the school. He deserves a very, very special mention.” Azhar also speaks about his maternal uncle Mir Zainul Abedin who taught him the basics of the game. He offers his gratitude to all the coaches including Lala Amarnath, Mushtaq Ali and Vasant Amladi who helped him reach the Test level.

Mohammad Azharuddin, Mohammad Azharuddin Asia Cup 1995 final, Mohammad Azharuddin 90 vs Sri Lanka, India vs Sri Lanka 1995 Asia Cup final, IND vs SL Asia Cup 1995 final video, Navjot Singh Sidhu Mohammad Azharuddin announced his arrival in Indian cricket in his debut series. He built on that and gradually became the team’s batting mainstay. (Express Archive)

After negotiating the swing at Eden, Azhar went to Madras for the fourth Test – from January 13-18, 1985 – and scored another hundred. “That was a very good wicket to bat on. In the first innings also, I was batting on 48 and then I tried to play a ball through the vacant square leg region and overdid it. I was out bowled. In the second innings, the ball was turning a bit but the Chepauk pitch always had good bounce. When Neil Foster bowled, he was getting very good bounce. So, the hundred (105) in the second innings was very satisfying also. In the first innings, I had a 110-run partnership with Jimmy bhai. In the second innings, we shared a 190-run stand. He encouraged me a lot and it helped me a great deal. But, at the end of the day, we lost the Test, which wasn’t satisfying.

The fifth and final Test was at Kanpur, from January 31 to February 5, 1985. Green Park usually rolls out batting-friendly pitches, but in the winter, the nip in the air was helping the ball move prodigiously. “Yes, the ball moved a lot. The wicket was damp. The atmosphere was heavy. I was batting on 98 at the end of the day’s play (in the first innings) and a lot of hard work had to be done. I was batting at No. 5 and then suddenly I was asked to bat at No. 3. A lot of people asked me if I had slept well, batting on 98. When you score 98, you definitely sleep well. At least you know that you have scored 98, even if you don’t get to hundred,” Azhar recalls.

He went on to score 122, achieving the world record. Azhar was unaware that history beckoned. “Only after I got my hundred, I was told that I made a world record – three hundreds in first three Tests.” Celebration was basically restricted to many interview requests and a phone call that came from the then Prime Minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi. “During the lunch break I was taken from the dressing-room to the commentary box. Mr Rajiv Gandhi was on the phone. He wanted to talk to me and he congratulated me. He was a very nice man.”

In the second innings, Azhar was batting on 54 when Gavaskar declared, initiating the debate if he should have allowed the youngster to score his fourth century. “We were playing for declaration. A lot of people kept saying a lot of things. Sunny bhai always gave me a lot of encouragement. With Sunny bhai, you really had to go and ask him. If you approach him, he would tell you. He became very fond of me. He presented me a Fred Perry shirt when I went to Bombay for the first Test. I wore that in all the three Tests and then in so many other matches. A gift from Sunny bhai was a prized possession. Promoting me up the order was also his decision. He did it in consultation with the selectors.”

READ | The Forgotten Match: When Azhar hit 62-ball ODI hundred

Old-timers would recall Ravi Chaturvedi’s cultured elation from behind the mic, as a star was born. “Azhar ki wrists mein ball bearing laga hua hai (Azhar has ball bearings in his wrists).” He was a predominantly leg-side player then, who worked hard and became excellent on the off side, as years went by. His 121 at Lord’s in 1990 and 182 against England at Eden in 1993 had been filled with off-side gems.

Azhar announced his arrival in Indian cricket in his debut series. He built on that and gradually became the team’s batting mainstay. And when he didn’t score runs, he contributed with his fielding. Till this day, Azhar remains India’s greatest allround fielder. Someone who was so elegant with the bat and is an aficionado of Amir Khusro’s poem in Brij Bhasha off the field, his fielding, too, had a touch of romanticism – that one action pickups and throws from the deep, backhanded flicks from short mid-wicket and short cover… His fielding drills could serve as a manual to everybody who aspires to become a good fielder.

“If you want to be a very, very good fielder, you have to be supremely fit. You also need good reflexes and good anticipation. The most important thing in fielding is anticipation. If you want to become a good fielder, you have to read the batsman. I always wanted the ball to come (to me). I took 150 catches a day (in practice). Then I threw 50-60 balls at one stump. That’s how I improved my fielding.”

P.S. India lost the Test series against England 2-1, but the BCCI/selectors for once defied the tradition (of that time) and retained Gavaskar as India captain for the World Championship of Cricket in Australia. It was a different story that the BCCI had asked the skipper to take the back door of the team hotel to come and attend the selection meeting. Gavaskar led India to the World Championship of Cricket triumph before relinquishing captaincy. Patil never played for the country again in the long-form after the Delhi Test. Azhar went on to play 99 Tests and 334 ODIs, becoming one of India’s most successful captains.

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