All Out Cricket editor Phil Walker goes ‘under the lid’ with Mohammad Azharuddin and confronts a childhood hero who’s somewhat fallen from grace.
Every lover of cricket experiences an awakening of sorts. A match or a series, a single session, a day, from which everything else concerned with life, love and all the rest of it just slides away on ripples of sweet irrelevance.
Cricket squarely took hold of me in the summer of 1990. It was hot, dry, laden with runs; I was 10, primed, available. New Zealand and India were the tourists. I remember little of the Kiwi series, save for Atherton’s maiden hundred at Trent Bridge and Hadlee’s straight sixes at Lord’s. India, though, was a very different story.
On the cusp of adolescence, I had no obligation to think about anything else. Gooch’s triple dominated the first days of my summer holiday. I watched every ball, every one, absorbing as best I could the remorseless technical soundness of this Essex exemplar whom I’d already spied over the road in Chelmsford, and was stunned and hurt when just after tea on day two he inexplicably played outside a Manoj Prabhakar inducker, 32 short of this Sobers chap they were all talking about.
On the third day, I saw something else. In an olive-green helmet more redolent of other Asian countries – the rest of his team wore blue or white – and billowing long-sleeved shirt, with a peculiar-looking amulet dangling provocatively outside of it and in his hands, those magical hands, that most feline of bats, the Slazenger V500, the captain and yet the only Muslim in the team, and the commentary box joke for the last two days because he’d won the toss and bowled. It was called Mohammad Azharuddin. Azhar.
That afternoon, in the face of 653-4dec, Azhar delivered the boldest one-man act of sporting genius this boy had seen since Maradona in Mexico. I had no idea it could be done like that. It would take him 88 balls in all, with 20 fours, to bring up the fastest-ever Test century at Lord’s. And the realisation struck for me, there and then, that in cricket, or at least my version of it, aggregates are only part of the story. So Gooch made the most, but Azhar made the best.
He did nothing for my technique, this alien, because for months thereafter, I’d dedicate hours trying and failing to jockey good-length balls through square-leg with strings of farcical wrist-crossing manoeuvres. It may have been garbage, but what bracing betrayals from the straight and true.
Azharuddin was once India’s favourite fairytale, if not quite Frontdog Millionaire then for sure a testament to the transcendental power of charisma over caste. “My early years as a player were tough,” he tells AOC. “Growing up, I often had to walk or run to get to practice. But I was very committed to the game. When I was young, there were many ups and downs. But I knew what I wanted. To play for India.”
The boy from the backwaters would get his wish, and when he did, the people were waiting for him. The sportswriter Mihir Bose observed that Azhar’s journey – from a “downtrodden Muslim mohalla-ghetto of Hyderabad into a world of celebrities and Bollywood film stars” – was of a kind to play powerfully with an Indian public ready for such stories. When in 1984 this sinewy 21-year-old peeled off three centuries against England in his first three Test matches, it was pretty much love at first sight.
England, incidentally, could never contain him throughout his career. But if that series in 1990 was peak Azhar – the 121 at Lord’s was followed by 179 at Old Trafford – the genius proved remarkably resilient across 99 Tests spread over 16 years. Take your pick from this dashing smorgasbord: 182 out of 371 against England at Eden Gardens in ’93; a 73-ball hundred against Allan Donald on the same ground three years later; the New Year’s massacre at Cape Town in 1997 (115 from 110 balls); 163* in 1998 against Australia, also at Eden Gardens (Warne 0-143), or the sign-off century at Bangalore, again against Donald, in March 2000.
That last hundred, the 22nd of his career, turned out to be his final Test innings. Because thereafter, very soon thereafter, Azhar’s story turned black.
A few months after that century, Azharuddin was sat in front of 10 officers from India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), having been implicated in Hansie Cronje’s devastating testimony to the King Commission in Cape Town in June of that year. Cronje contended that Azhar had introduced him to a Delhi-based “diamond merchant” called Mukesh Gupta – the now-infamous ‘John’ – in Kanpur in 1996, and that Gupta had subsequently paid Cronje for match information.
The CBI had then got Gupta to corroborate Cronje’s story, in the process discovering that Azhar and Gupta had stayed in adjoining rooms at a Kanpur hotel during the time in question. Under questioning, and confronted with mounds of evidence provided by Gupta relating to ‘fixer’ cricketers, punters and other bookies, Azhar finally spoke.
“Haan, maine match banaaya tha,” he told the officers.
Yes, I had fixed the match. Stranded on 99, Azharuddin was banned for life by the BCCI.
Dileep Premachandran, Wisden India editor-in-chief, watched events unfold and recalls the sense of horror and loss as revelations oozed from cricket’s filthy flannels. “From the time he made his debut against England at Eden Gardens, Azhar was adored as few Indian cricketers have been,” he says. “That was what made this eventual ‘betrayal’ so hard to take for most fans. He was perhaps the most stylish of modern Indian batsmen, and he was also superb at coaxing the best out of his spinners on favourable pitches. Even to the end, he was the great entertainer, as evidenced by that devil-may-care hundred in his 99th and final Test. As far as Indian cricket is concerned, Azhar is very much the sailor that fell from grace with the sea.”
Yet nothing in the dark, paranoiac and extravagantly unrevealed world of cricket match-fixing is ever quite as it seems. Six years later, a newly configured BCCI – the organisation which had issued the life ban in the first place – sought to rehabilitate their fallen idol on the somewhat flimsy reasoning that he’d suffered enough.
The wheels were in motion, and six further years on from that garbled reintegration, following a campaign to clear his name and a possibly not-unrelated foray into local politics, the disgraced former darling of Indian cricket emerged once more, now fragrantly pristine, his life ban freshly quashed by a court in his hometown province of Andhra Pradesh, which declared the ban to be ‘illegal’.
The groans could be heard all around the cricket world, not least in the ICC’s despairing offices. Premachandran is by no means alone in arguing that all this should have counted for little in the court of public opinion. “Among those that played with him and those that chronicled that era of Indian cricket, there’s little doubt that Azhar was up to no good in those final years. The Bollywood lifestyle, the watches worth thousands of pounds, and a new-found arrogance all spoke of a man living beyond his means, at a time when even Sachin Tendulkar hadn’t become a multi-millionaire. Sadly, when most people think of him now, that’s the image they summon up. The genius of his strokeplay comes a distant second.”
And now there is another image to contend with, because Azhar is back in the news. Last summer the biopic Azhar was released, fuelling another merry-go-round of talkshows and interviews which prompted Dirk Nannes, amongst others, to posit on Twitter the question: “Why is a confessed match-fixer welcomed on a cricket show and treated like royalty? How is that even possible?”
It was AOC’s fate to tumble into this maelstrom of strained revisionism when, out of the blue, we got a call from a PR exec saying that they have Mohammad on the line from Dubai and would we like to talk to him?
I took the call. Instinctively, I saw not the headlines, but the wrists. We were put through.
OK, Mohammad, tell us about the film. “The film is very positive! I want people to understand that it is a celebration; I think you will really enjoy it! I want people to understand it from my perspective. It spans from when I was born to 2000, detailing how I was playing when I was playing well, and what the problems I dealt with were like. We have used cinematic methods to make it dramatic, such as the fitting music. As most of my life has been documented already in the public domain, I wanted to show my point of view on screen.”
It’s true that we weren’t expecting a savage critique – such a function would be amply served elsewhere – but was that really it? Cutting off the story in 2000, the year his life collapsed? A celebration? Perhaps Azhar 2: Fixing The Hole will fill us in on the next part.
Does he regret the mistakes he’s made in the past? “There is a lot of responsibility and expectation that comes from being a cricket idol in India, and you have to deal with this all the time, making it quite tough. Cricket players command a great deal of respect in India, so although it is difficult, at the end of the day I also enjoy it. With some players I think this adulation can go to their heads, with the belief that they are the No.1, that they are the best, so I believe the problems for ex-players start with their ego. As a result, I think the most important quality when you are doing well is to stay humble and to control your emotions. Showing humility to the people as a star is what proves your success.”
Pick the bones out of that. Can he describe his relationship with the Indian public now, in light of the events that brought about the end of your career? “My relationship with the Indian public has always been very good! There are times when people approach me and say, ‘So, when are you going to play again?’ And although I cannot play because I am in pain, people still feel that I can play. Even when I wasn’t able to play I still felt the love and affection from the Indian people. I try to remain positive through things like this.”
‘This’ being the life ban from all cricket after confessing to fixing international matches for money.
“The public helped me through it! They helped me stay patient. Although it was quite hard to stay positive throughout my ban from involvement in cricket, trouble was bound to happen in my life, I feel like it was destiny. At the end of the day it was very pleasing, as we had worked very hard to get through this. You can only look to the future and be positive. I still love cricket. It has given me everything, without it my life would have been entirely different.”
Cricket, it’s fair to say, has been beset by scandals relating to match-fixing in recent years. Does Mohammad feel the game’s reputation has taken a hit due to the number and scale of the revelations coming out?
“These things happen every day! And not everything will go your way. The game will always pull through; I think the game will continue forever. People will always believe in the game that they are watching! You can’t think whatever game you’re watching isn’t a fair game. You see so many great innings played or stunning catches taken, that you have to believe in it. You have to believe in it.”
And so on.
A very prominent figure in English cricket said to me recently that there’s an envelope sitting in a judge’s drawer in India, and inside that envelope is a list of people’s names that are so powerful in cricket that it will never be released. Hanging up on Mohammad Azharuddin, an authentic childhood hero, I thought of that envelope and, if it exists, what secrets are stowed within it. And then I thought how heavy it must be, dragging all that past around, day after day, night after night, whatever the world outside is told.
It’s ironic, perhaps, that in the season that Azhar was released, another Mohammad, this one from over the border, completed his rehabilitation on the world stage, doing his thing with the ball in an enthralling Test series. And the truth is, while I could well understand the arguments of those who weren’t, I was happy to see Amir up there. He put his hands up, he served his time, he’s a persuasive deterrent and sincerely contrite.
The fact that he fessed up helps cricket come to terms with itself. The fact that he moves alone shows how far we have to go.