Azhar eases into action

Ian Stafford finds an inspirational captain comfortable with the burden of expectation resting on India's touring cricketers
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It was either his idea of a joke or he had supreme confidence in his fielding ability but, either way, there were better places to talk than sitting, perched on a small board, at the end of the bowling run up in the nets when Sachin Tendulkar was batting.

During the course of the next three-quarters of an hour the ball left Tendulkar's bat and, a split second later, smashed against the board every minute or so, sometimes to the left, and sometimes to the right of myself and Mohammed Azharuddin.

Occasionally, the captain of the touring Indian cricket team stretched lazily down to my feet to stop the ball re-arranging my ankles. Each time he did this, he threw the ball back to his bowler, looked at me and laughed.

Hove, on a sunny May morning, just a few days before Thursday's first one-day international against England at The Oval. It is, in every sense, a long way from Calcutta, the scene of mass crowd malevolence following India's World Cup semi-final defeat to Sri Lanka.

"A few days before, we had beaten Pakistan in the quarter-final and we were the best team in the world," the man universally known in the game as Azhar says. "The next minute, after the Sri Lanka game, we are a disaster.

"That's the way it is in India. We all knew what would happen in Calcutta if we lost, but none of us expected to see the scale of the crowd's anger. There was no excuse for their action. It was totally uncalled for, and I was ashamed for my country that day, but expectations are always so very high in India."

Perhaps, then, this is one of the reasons why the 33-year-old captain of India, under as much pressure and fanatical scrutiny as, perhaps, the captain of the Italian national football team, appears so relaxed now after his torrid time back at home?

"Well, there's certainly more pressure playing at home," he admits. "Sometimes it can work in your favour, but most of the time it just makes the game very intense. What they have got to realise is that nobody wants to get out, or intends to bowl a bad ball, or drop a catch. I know that I am very, very proud to be even playing for India, let alone being the captain. I never dreamed I would end up in charge. I always try my best, and some days it works out well, and other days I fail. That is cricket."

They may be a long way from India, but Azhar can still fell the burden of expectation. The scene may be different, but the story remains the same.

"Oh yes, we are expected to beat England this summer, both in the one- day matches and in the Test series."

This may not be so easy in English conditions, which contrast so much with the spinner's paradise on the sub-continent. "It doesn't matter," he asserts. "We are a good side who, until the semi-final and the next couple of one-day tournaments, had done very well. If you score a century one day and zero the next, the people back home only remember the zero."

Azharuddin has made more centuries than ducks. He has led the side for nearly seven years and 34 Tests now and, in total, has accumulated more than 4,000 runs in 68 Tests at an average of 46. That is impressive by anyone's standards, but has resulted in a high level of expectation on the individual performance.

"I made a great start, and that was my problem," Azhar continues. "I made a hundred in each of my first three tests and, after that, everyone expected me to keep on scoring centuries. I felt anything less was failure.

"Then, when I became captain, I found it very difficult for the first two years. We did not play well, and I did not like all the attention on me. People used to follow me wherever I walked or whatever I did in India. I'm used to it now, and I feel I am a stronger person for the experience."

His rather acrimonious spell at Derbyshire also fell into this period. After a profitable first season, he walked out on the county the following year after falling out with the management.

"It was not a good experience," he recalls. "The management didn't look after me. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a very easy person to handle, but they weren't at all good to me. I never found out why, but I had to go home. Maybe, one day, I might play in England again, but not for Derbyshire."

To make matters worse, his grandmother died, but his commitments to Derbyshire meant that he could not attend the funeral. This memory remains deep in his heart.

"My grandparents brought me up," he explains. "They supported me in my cricket, and they also made sure I did not neglect my studies. My grandfather died six weeks before I made my debut for India, and just one day before I scored a century for the India Under-25 team against England. The two biggest regrets of my life are that I could not attend either funeral because I had to play cricket."

Meanwhile, it seems that relations with his parents have somewhat cooled after he left his wife by an arranged marriage before the World Cup for an Indian film star. Bleak times, then, for the man charged with succeeding the great Kapil Dev.

He could do with a successful tour in England this summer, both personally, where he has struggled to find his true batting potential in recent months, and collectively, following the one-day disappointments. But Azhar, despite his quiet, dignified demeanour, has proved himself to be a fighter before.

In the 1990 Lord's Test, when Graham Gooch scored 333, Azhar hit a century in just 88 balls in reply. In 1993, facing the English on home ground, and on the back of an unsuccessful trip to South Africa, he had been appointed only for the first Test. Azhar duly hit 182 in Calcutta and India went on to rout the visitors 3-0. Since then, India have not looked back, hence the assumptions back in Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta that this summer should prove an easy romp.

So what does he think of the much-maligned England team? "Every team goes through bad stages, and every team comes out of them," is his considered reply. "England have players who have done it all before, and they will be determined to prove people wrong. But so will we, following all the stick at the World Cup and afterwards.

"I really think it is going to be a close series, both in the Tests and in the one-day internationals. But I am very happy with my side and feel we can do well because we have a good mix of experienced players and very good youngsters."

At which point the "elderly" Sachin Tendulkar almost decapitates both of us with a powerful, if slightly uppish, drive, a shot witnessed by the Sussex captain, Allan Wells. This little picture, I suggest to the Indian captain, highlights the difference between our methods and theirs.

"I agree," he says, immediately understanding the point. "In India we believe that if they are good enough, they are old enough. We give young players, like Sachin, a chance. Now look at him. He is the best batsman in the world, but only because we stuck with him.

"England seem to give their players a chance when they are in their late twenties, or thirties, on past performances, when they were just as good at 20. By then it's too late, and when they fail, people say, 'Ah, we told you'."

He gesticulates over to the unfortunate Wells who, finally given a chance against the West Indies, recorded a first-ball dismissal.

"Good batsman," Azhar announces. "But he should have had a chance years ago. There are so many players in England who have only played one Test match in their careers. This just does not happen in India."

And with that he rises to his feet, a man, despite the obvious pressure, seemingly at peace with himself. There is a glorious summer's smell of freshly cut grass in the air, and a continuous sound of gentle banter between the Indian squad.

Tendulkar smashes a jug of water with his final shot of the net, and Mohammed Azharuddin smiles as he makes his way back to the dressing-room. "You know what?" he says. "I felt really good batting in the nets today."

Michael Atherton, take note.