Your ban was lifted after a 12-year legal battle in 2012. But your career was ended in the year 2000, at the age of 36.
As a cricketer, you still had lots to offer to the Indian team, but I guess your demise as a sportsman was being seen much before that. A season prior to the year 2000, a well-known cricket commentator who also opened the innings for India said, “I think he is running to the dressing room.” This was after you took off for a non-existent single in a nonchalant manner towards the dressing room end in Sharjah. He was right!
Tongues had already started wagging; whispers were doing the rounds in the power corridors. Sports journalists then were discussing the betting scandal which had broken out. After all, there can be no smoke without a fire. That the ban was lifted 12 years later ensured that you were “not guilty”. But cricket in that year (2000) had taken a heavy beating. Fans were left shell-shocked and most cricket aficionados like me, stopped watching cricket for a while.
But let's get back to the year 2000; the year you were banned by the ICC and the BCCI. India were to tour Australia and you had said: “I know for a fact, which has also been reported in the media, that the selectors had me in the side.” This clearly meant that the team management did not want India's most successful captain (then) in the team, in spite of the selectors' approval!
So, how did this slide come about? Once a shy, endearing teammate who went about his business of scoring runs and pouching catches with alarming regularity you suddenly found yourself in a Catch-22 situation; a situation into which you were pitchforked by the then chairman of selectors Raj Singh Dungarpur, who was building a team of the 90s. Captaincy was tossed to you by Dungarpur like a desperate captain tossing the ball to a non-regular bowler in the hope of getting a breakthrough!
From a shy, unassuming lad, you were suddenly thrust with the responsibility of leading a team loaded with four ex-skippers—Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Dilip Vengsarkar and Krishnamachari Srikkanth. The going was not exactly rosy in the early years as a skipper for you.
I saw you go through the motions of captaincy agreeing to whatever your teammates said. But that was soon to change. As responsibility dawned on you, you began getting assertive and aggressive, a trait, which none of your teammates liked. But you had to don that aggressive hat. Gone was that disarming smile. In its place was a worried brow. Azhar now meant business. Soon, you began keeping aloof. You were having problems with your marriage too.
Azhar the extremely likeable bloke had suddenly turned hostile. Even scribes began to feel the heat so much so that inspite of your tremendous record as a skipper, you were laid on the mat and stripped apart at every given opportunity.
You have yourself to blame there. At press meets you had turned arrogant. At impromptu press gatherings at the playground on the eve of a match [I don't know if this practice is alive anymore] you would prefer doing warm-ups as journalists asked you questions. Their Dictaphones followed your face like a Yo Yo! You even had the temerity to speak to your hangers-on whilst answering questions from journalists.
You rubbed us the wrong way!
But thanks to you, you highlighted the aspect of fitness in the Indian cricket team. You knocked off that excessive weight which prompted Wasim Akram to give you a second look at an exhibition soccer match. “Is that Azhar?” he was heard saying! At 36, before your ban, you were the fittest among Indian cricketers. And with your weight loss and focus on fitness you were sending a strong message to your teammates. Shape up or get shipped out!
It was no idle boast when you said then that you had two years of cricket still left in you. You began scoring heavily in Domestic cricket in the hope of making it back to the team. But that was not to be. You were left stranded at 99 Tests; just one short of having played 100 Tests for India. That hurt will always remain.
Once, whilst speaking with Vivian Richards, when I asked him to speak about you, he described your batting “As a breath of fresh air.”
Let's hope your biopic which releases this Friday is like that. It will be if it is boldly told.
Let's wait and watch.
God Bless You.
(This weekly column tries to be as honest as honest can be…)
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