At 8, Mohammad Azharuddin started playing hard-ball cricket. At the All Saints’ Missionary School Hyderabad, Brother Joseph honed his skills of seam bowling well enough to earn him a place in representative schoolboy cricket. He was never coached to bat. It is evident from his unorthodox, self-made technique. It just came naturally to him. So Azhar, who at 17 was a good seamer who could bat a bit made his debut for Hyderabad as a batsman who could bowl a bit three years later.
The debut first-class season was lackluste, but for a solitary fifty. Seemingly, the talent pool in Hyderabad was scant in the early eighties, and Azhar was retained for the next season. In that season, came the 1st first-class hundred, a double century in the Dulip trophy followed and then came the national call. Azhar was the twelfth man in the first and second test of the 1984-85 home series against England. In the third test, Kapil Dev and Sandeep Patil were dropped from the side for “Irresponsible batting” in the Delhi test, and Azhar came into the side as a replacement of Sandeep Patil.
He scored a century on debut. And one more in the next test. And one more in the test next to that. Three hundreds in his first three test matches and Mohammad Azizuddin Azharuddin was a world record holder at the age of 21. The performance in the second half of the 80s was nowhere near the promise shown in 84, yet he managed to perform well in the 1985 Benson and Hedges series in Australia, didn’t do badly in the 1987 Reliance world cup, and the other limited overs matches. Yet, Test cricket was an entirely different ball game for him.
He did well on spinning tracks, and tracks which didn’t offer bounce to the quick bowlers. He had an awkward method of ducking blindly in bouncers and it was his undoing in the away test matches. In the test matches in the subcontinent though, he was like a tiger. “Dada” batsman as is called in Mumbai cricket slang, a useful bowler, and a fielder, past whom it was impossible to get the ball, at any fielding position. He was actually playing for his place in the 1989 tour of Pakistan, which saw the emergence of Sachin Tendulkar.
In the first test in Karachi, he just managed to do enough to stay in the team for the next match, scoring a brace of 35s. Before the next test in Faisalabad, he came across Zaheer Abbas, who suggested that wrapping the right hand a bit more on the bat handle would help him score more runs against the pace bowling. Azhar scored a first ball duck in the first innings in Faisalabad but came back with a blistering 109 in the second dig. Then came a 192 against New Zealand in New Zealand, and the confidence in playing on seaming and bouncing wickets grew.
The 1990 series of England, under Azharuddin, was the one whom fans were actually expecting India to exceed all their past performances in England. They had an attacking captain in good batting form, the Lord of the Lord’s Vengsarkar was still very much there, Ravi Shastri had grown to be a very dependable batsman and a very miserly bowler, Kapil Dev was still in control of his all-round skills, Kiran More was one of the best wicketkeepers in the world at the time, and a young 17-year-old Sachin Tendulkar, with superhuman talent and promise, was in good nick too. The team would not be bogged down by the might of the English line-up. After all, they had won the last three-match series in England 2-0. And the combative Bhishen Singh Bedi was in the coach’s seat.
The first test started on an auspicious note for India, with Azhar winning the toss. And immediately Azhar made a huge blunder, by putting England in to bat. The weather, which was overcast at the time of the toss cleared up, and the Lord’s strip offered no juice for the Indian Seamers, Kapil Dev, Sanjeev Sharma and Manoj Prabhakar, each conceding over a hundred runs. It is history now, that Kiran More Dropped Gooch when the latter was on 36, and the blunder cost India 297 more runs. Allan Lamb and the Hard-hitting Robin Smith also peeled off centuries on the placid track, and England piled up a mammoth 653/4 in just under 2 days. Traditionally, India would have wilted under this huge score, but what was to come was an epic fightback led by one of the most aesthetically pleasing salvo by the Indian captain.
Ravi Shastri stoically held the fort for 4 hours to make an even hundred. His partners, Sidhu and Manjrekar were back in the pavilion when the score reached 102. When he was joined by his Bombay teammate and the Lord of Lord’s Dilip Vengsarkar, they added 89 precious runs and Shastri fell to the innocuous-looking gentle off-spin of Eddie Hemmings. At 3 for 191, the Indian captain came to the crease, India still in large arrears. He added 50 runs with Vengsarkar, and for the first time in 11 years in a Lord’s test match, Vengsarkar fell before reaching his hundred. He made 52. Young Tendulkar fell cheaply for 10, at 288, Prabhakar lasted only till the score reached 348, and India still had a 300+ runs deficit to erase.
The captain though seemed oblivious to any pressure despite this dire situation. He was stroking the ball merrily, playing delectable drives on both the sides of the wicket, cutting ferociously, and sending anything pitched on his leg-stump and around screaming past the boundary. At 348/6 he was joined by Kapil Dev, who was in his elements too. But the partnership didn’t last long, and Azhar departed for 121 glorious runs to his credit scored of just 111 balls. India- 393 for 7. Kiran More scratched around with Kapil Dev, and helped take the total to 430, 223 short of England. He fell to Frazer, and Frazer quickly also issued a ticket to pavilion, to the debutante Sanjeev Sharma, not allowing him to score.
Kapil Dev at one end unbeaten with a fifty-two off 70 balls with 8 boundaries. With India needing 24 more to avoid the follow-on, and with a solitary wicket in hand, in came Shri Narendra Hirwani, who looked extremely apologetic with a bat in hand. He was to survive 5 remaining balls of Frazer’s over, which he miraculously did, and Kapil took strike to face Hemmings in the next over. He played out the first two deliveries and suddenly realized that there is only one batsman remaining with him, and he too is highly incompetent. The jaunty Jat decided to take matters in his own hands. The next remaining balls of Eddie Hemmings’ over were sent packing out of the ground, 24 runs were scored, India avoided the follow-on, and promptly, Hirwani got out on the first ball of the next over. India finished at 454, 199 short of England, and the talk of the town was not Gooch’s 333 or the centuries of Lamb and Smith, but the elegant and audacious 100 of Azhar, and the daredevil manner in which Kapil Dev ensured that England had to bat again in the match. England were clinically efficient in their second innings, Gooch adding 123 off 113 balls to his first innings 333, and Atherton scoring a patient 72. England declared at 272 for 4, setting India 472 to win. India folded up for 224, the middle order making 30s yet no one being able to convert their starts.
India had revived the tradition of losing their first test of the England tour, but not without putting up a fight. And a gallant fight it was. Azhar was not an outstanding captain, he was unimaginative, but there was no questioning his supreme abilities as a batsman. With Shastri and Vengsarkar in good form, Tendulkar looking promising, and Kapil Dev striking the ball sweetly, India hoped to make a comeback in the series. Their bowling though, was a major worry.
England nearly repeated their first innings performance in the first test by posting a mammoth 519, riding on the centuries from both the openers and Robin Smith. Atherton was dour, but Gooch and Smith batted as if they were using sledgehammers instead of the bat. Indian reply was a treat to the sore eyes of Indian fans, even if they didn’t get a good start. Quickly reduced to 57/3, the Indian ship seemed to be sinking yet again, but when the technically correct Sanjay Manjrekar was joined by the unorthodox Azharuddin, things suddenly started looking better.
With Sanjay Manjrekar solid as the rock of Gibraltar at one end, Azhar could bat freely, and he made the most of it. The pair added 189 gorgeous runs, and Manjrekar departed, missing his century by 7 runs. In walked the prodigal Bombay Bomber, Sachin Tendulkar. With all the reputation he was gathering, he surprised his fans right from the outset. He took over an hour to get off the mark. Then he settled in and scored a resolute, Half century. In the meantime, Azharuddin departed for a masterly 179. This innings of Azhar was full of lyrical stroke play and quicksilver footwork. He hit 21 boundaries and a six. Once Azhar departed with the score on 358, wickets fell regularly around Sachin Tendulkar and when Sachin was the last man out for 68, India were 87 runs short of England’s total.
In their second essay, England scored swiftly, and declared on 320/4, giving India a target of 408 to win. Atherton scored 74, Robin Smith 61, and Alan Lamb an efficient 109. Indian second innings had a stuttering start, with both the openers back in the hut before the score passed 40. Then, the Bombay duo of Manjrekar and Vengsarkar steadied the ship a bit and took the score to 109 and both of them departed. The captain left soon after, contributing only 11, and the responsibility of saving the match fell on the 17-year-old shoulders of Sachin Tendulkar. He was the last recognized batsman to walk in, allrounders Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar were not in a very good batting nick, and all the onus was on Tendulkar.
Kapil and Tendulkar added a further 56 runs, and Kapil fell with the score still 225 runs short of the England total. The pitch was breaking, and even the rotund Eddie Hemmings had started to look dangerous. But, Tendulkar was in a different mindset altogether. He didn’t scratch around like in the first innings, and attacked the bowlers, especially being severe on Eddie Hemmings. To add insult to the injury to his own bowling figures, Hemmings also floored a simple caught-and-bowled chance off Tendulkar. Maybe Sachin had got the luck he needed.
His first test century came by, and the tantalizing wait for his fans, who had backed him as the next Sunny Gavaskar was finally over. Sachin had come close to a hundred in Napier earlier in the year but was out 12 runs short of three figures then. Here, with a solid Manoj Prabhakar assuring him of not losing any further wickets, Tendulkar blossomed. He batted for three and three-quarters of hours and scored 119 punctuated with 17 sizzling boundaries. And he was there till the end with Manoj Prabhakar, steering India out of turbulent waters and bringing them ashore undefeated. The match was drawn, but a Genius had announced his arrival!
Having put up decent fights in the first and the second tests, despite being 0-1 down in the series, India were down, but not out. Their spirits weren’t damp. Azhar won the toss again, and without a second thought elected to bat. His batsmen responded admirably. Shastri made 187, Azhar himself made 78, Kiran More made 61, Prabhakar, Manjrekar, and Tendulkar all chipped in with useful 20s, And Vengsarkar made 33. Kapil Dev made a sedate century by his standards, scoring 110 off 142 balls. Even the rabbit Narendra Hirwani made 2 runs. India declared at 606/9, and for the first time in the series, England were under the pressure of a pile of runs.
Azhar’s bowlers too did a fine job, dismissing England for 340 in their first innings. Prabhakar, with 4 for 74 was the spearhead of the attack. Azhar promptly asked England to follow on, but the oval pitch had eased out. Gooch and Atherton put on 176 runs, scoring 80s, And batting at three, David Gower, who was playing for his place, played the grittiest innings of his life, making 157 resilient unbeaten runs. Allan Lamb and John Morris hung around with him, and England had made 477/4 by the end of the fifth day. The match was drawn and the rubber went to England 1-0. In the subsequent ODIs, India turned the tables defeating England 2-0. Azhar was not a great captain in the series, yet his side had not done badly too. Azhar remained the India captain for a long time after that. He led India to some spectacular victories, albeit in the subcontinent only and none overseas. Azhar would also come back to England in 1996 leading the Indian team.
As always, India lost the first test. Azhar won the toss, elected to bat and Indian batsmen proved him wrong. All got starts, but none were converted to substantial innings. India made 214, largely due to Srinath’s 52 and his 9th wicket partnership with Paras Mhambrey, who made 28 valiant runs. Dominic Cork and Left-hander Allan Mullaly didn’t allow the Indian batsmen to settle at all and claimed 4 and 3 wickets, respectively. England reply was moreover the same story, but Nasser Hussein made the difference capitalizing on his start and converting it to a class 128. England led by 99 runs. Both, Srinath and Prasad, claimed 4 wickets each.
In the Indian second innings, wickets kept falling regularly. Amidst all the ruins, one man, who so often has stood tall in the Indian innings for 24 long years did it again. Sachin Tendulkar scored a counterattacking 122 out of India’s 219. India set England a paltry 121 to win, which they made losing only two wickets. Captain Atherton made 53 and saw England cross the line. The captain failed in both innings, and his indifference against swing bowling was glaringly visible.
The second test at Lord’s was a southpaws’ match, so to say. Sanjay Manjrekar was replaced by Saurav Ganguly. Mike Atherton won the toss and England elected to bat, but the Indian pace spearhead Srinath and debutante Sourabh Ganguly reduced England quickly to 107 for 5, and England appeared likely to repeat the 1986 Lord’s performance. Thankfully for them, the doughty Graham Thorpe was around, and he was joined by the eccentric painter and England wicketkeeper Jack Russel. They added 136 to take the score to 243, and Thorpe departed, missing his century by 11 runs. Russel added a further 83 runs with the mercurial Bajan Chris Lewis, and Lewis departed with the score on 326.
The rest of the wickets could count for only 18 further runs, and England was all out for 344. Srinath took 3, Ganguly 2 and Venkatesh Prasad mopped up the tail, ending up with a fifer. Russel scored a workmanlike 124. India lost Vikram Rathore early, and the makeshift opener Nayan Mongia too didn’t last very long. The newcomer Ganguly had come in to bat at three and was joined by Sachin Tendulkar who was fast climbing the summit to Greatness. Both put on 64 runs, and just when Sachin seemed to be settling in, he departed for a scratchy 31. Captain Azhar and Ajay Jadeja too didn’t last long, and fellow debutant Rahul Dravid walked in to join Ganguly. They put on 94, and Ganguly departed for a gritty 131 on his debut. It has been very often said (and I fiercely disagree with it) that Ganguly was all grace and no grit, but the people who say this should remember that Ganguly had started his test match innings with one of his grittiest centuries.
It was laced with 20 exquisite hits to the boundary, mostly between the arc of backward point to Mid-Off. The God of the off side had marked his territory in his very first salvo. Dravid at the other end was as solid as the rock of Gibraltar, and showing maturity beyond his years, farmed the strike beautifully. He added 55 with Anil Kumble, another 37 with Srinath, and 31 with Paras Mhambrey before losing his concentration and getting out 5 short of a debut hundred. The last wicket also added 10 runs and India was all out for 429. In their second innings, England trudged their way to 278 for 9 in 121 over to ensure a draw. Alec Stewart made 61, and the rest of the batsmen occupied the crease for a long time and little runs. Anil Kumble bowled 51 very economical overs to take 3 wickets, yet again proving his ability to bowl unwavering line and length, and his superb stamina. This match was the swansong of the umpiring colossus Harold “Dickie” Bird. He was an immensely popular umpire worldwide, but more in India, where a whiskey was named after him by some brewer.
After the spectacular debut of Ganguly and Dravid in Lord’s, the Nottingham test was set up nicely. Winning the toss, Azhar chose to bat first and was immediately disillusioned, when both the openers were back in the hut with the score in the 30s. Then, for the first time in international cricket, a partnership which went on to rule the world came together. Sachin and Saurav added 255 sparkling runs. Ganguly made 136, studded with 17 fours and 2 sixes. Sachin was then joined by Mumbai team-mate Sanjay Manjrekar, and the pair put on 89, and Sachin got out making 177. When he departed with the score at 377, the captain walked in but departed scoring a mere 5 runs. Manjrekar and Dravid added 61 more, and at 446/6, Dravid was left to do the job, and added 75 runs with the tail. He yet again got close to a hundred but missed it by 16 runs.
England replied with 564. Atherton and Hussain made centuries, and Thorpe and Ealham chipped in with useful scores. Nasser (Poppadum fingers) Hussain batted bravely despite a fractured finger. Ganguly was again amongst wickets, claiming 3 for 71. In their second innings, India made 211. Tendulkar made 74, Ganguly 48 and Nayan Mongia 45. But there was so little time left in the match that it was called off after the Indian second innings ended.
These were the stories of the two series Azhar led India in England. Two very similar stories. A loss in the first test, India finding their bearings in the second and third test matches of the series, on both occasions second and third tests drawn and England winning the series 1-0. India has never performed well in the first test match in England, barring the Lord’s 1986 Test. The cause has always been the same. Lack of serious practice matches. In 1996 though, India had good 7 practice matches before the first test, but the counties chose to rest their better players and played second-string sides.
Acclimatization to the foreign conditions has always been the problem for touring Indian sides. As for Azhar, he was never a good captain. He was captain for a long time merely due to an absence of anyone worthier for the post. If he put any thought in captaining the Indian sides, remains a mystery. When asked what his strategy for the match would be, he would say the much ridiculed, “we have to bat well, bowl well, and field well” on most occasions. Fundamentally correct, yet very casual. Never outside the subcontinent, it has been seen that he has been aggressive as a captain or has tried to make things happen. As a batsman, he was one of the finest though. His dazzling performances of 1990 speak for him. He was an artist, made to lead because none other would qualify. But as a leader, he reminds us of Nero, who chose to keep playing the fiddle even when Rome was burning. The 1996 tour was the beginning of the end of Azharuddin, and what a phenomenal beginning the man had had, and what a tragic end… Perfect plot for a movie which was eventually made, albeit badly.
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