Azharuddin brings his Cricket / First Test: gifts to bear: England bowlers toil for few rewards as the Indian captain provides a glimpse of his batting genius with a brilliant century

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WHETHER it was the Calcutta smog that made the Eden Gardens electronic scoreboard nigh on invisible, or merely a lack of voltage (when you have a candlelit dinner in this city, it has less to do with romance than a power cut), it was no regret to Graham Gooch that he was scarcely able to read it.

The first day of the England captain's 100th Test match turned out to be far more memorable for his opposite number, Mohammad Azharuddin, who has been so heavily criticised for his leadership here, that he would have been hard put to walk around his native Hyderabad without a false beard and dark glasses before yesterday.

The mountain having been placed before him, Mohammad went to it with a century of rare brilliance, an innings uncannily reminiscent of his 87-ball hundred at Lord's on India's last tour of England. On that occasion, having committed the minor indiscretion of inserting the opposition and watching Gooch make 333, Azhar saved himself with his unique genius for batting.

Yesterday, having completed his century at almost a run a ball, and in fewer deliveries than it took the hyper-talented Sachin Tendulkar to make 50, the Calcutta crowd celebrated in the traditional manner of setting fire to newspapers. As most of them have been carrying 'Azhar Must Go' headlines since the England tour began, this made it even more appropriate.

Azharuddin's 12th Test century, and his sixth against England, might have been greeted by raptures from the crowd, but, as is his custom on these occasions, he preferred to doff his helmet to the celestial seats. A deeply religious man, Azhar carries a pouch containing verses from the Koran around his neck, and a failure here might have seen it substituted for a rope. 'God helps me when I am in trouble,' he says, but yesterday he batted as though he was God, and, in more ways than one, helped himself.

Gooch looked a trifle weary even before play began; the legacy of his recent illness perhaps, or maybe he was simply snowed under with 100th Test presentations. He would certainly not have been overjoyed about losing the toss.

It was not so much that England minded bowling first (after all, their much vaunted pre-tour plan of bewitching the Indians at their own game disappeared at the first hurdle when they omitted Philip Tufnell from their 12) but more that they will be worried about the home side bowling last.

While England are clearly hoping that the dry, cracked, and newly relaid surface will provide movement for the seamers (and not much moved for them yesterday) India have thrown enough eggs into the spinners' basket to make a decent sized omelette. They have no fewer than three twirly men in their armoury, and in opening the batting with Manoj Prabhakar, they have clearly not come here with their eyes on a draw.

England's prospects of a big first innings total of their own have not been greatly enhanced by losing Michael Atherton to the recent dose of viral infection around the camp, and, at least as far as yesterday was concerned, the decision to give Paul Taylor his Test match debut at the expense of Tufnell has not been an unmitigated success.

The pitch was a touch bouncier than most in India, but it has little pace, and once the hardness had gone out of the ball, it sat up like a cocker spaniel taking to its hind quarters in anticipation of a walk. However, it was not from watching Taylor's first spell that the pitch revealed its nature, as the poor chap was rarely able to locate it.

Several deliveries had Alec Stewart hurling himself across in front of the slips, and one almost missed the cut strip entirely. Taylor can be excused an attack of nerves at a venue such as this, although the crowd was around 40,000 short of the 92,000 capacity, and relatively quiet by the standards of a ground that normally requires a megaphone to communicate with the bloke in the next seat.

England's bowling was adequate, without ultimately being able to cope with some sublime batting, and their fielding, apart from one dreadful (but inexpensive) miss by Mike Gatting at slip, was exemplary. All four of the other outside edges flew to the safest two pairs of hands in the side, and Graeme Hick's are as close to fly-paper as makes no difference.

When Chris Lewis snaffled up Prabhakar off Ian Salisbury's fifth delivery, England were in business at 93 for 3, although why Salisbury did not come on until five minutes to one was a mystery. This is the traditional time for a spinner to have a pre-lunch trundle in England, but in India, it is almost half-way through the day.

However, there then followed a stand of 123 in 127 minutes that was such poetry, that only the most one-eyed English patriot felt like celebrating when Tendulkar, immediately after reaching 50, played an awful shot to edge Devon Malcolm to Hick.

Tendulkar looked furious, as well he might. He had clearly booked in for bed and breakfast, and a cool accumulation that includes the best on-drive in the game provided a nice contrast to his captain, who launched into good balls and bad ones just as the mood took him.

Azhar may captain the side as though he is in a dream, but when he bats like one, as he did yesterday, there is no one in the world who is more delightful to watch.

Clem Driver, England's 72-year-old scorer, fainted during yesterday's play with suspected dehydration. However, he has a history of angina, and spent the night in a Calcutta nursing home as a precaution.


(First day of five: India won toss)

INDIA - First Innings

M Prabhakar c Lewis b Salisbury. . . . . . . . . . .46 175 min, 120 balls, 3 fours N S Sidhu c Hick b Taylor. . . . . . . . . . . . . .13 101 min, 73 balls, 1 four V G Kambli c Hick b Jarvis. . . . . . . . . . . . . 16 43 min, 28 balls, 1 four S R Tendulkar c Hick b Malcolm. . . . . . . . . . . 50 158 min, 118 balls, 6 fours * M Azharuddin not out. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .114 190 min, 124 balls, 19 fours P K Amre not out. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .7 57 min, 42 balls Extras (b2 lb2 w8 nb5). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17 Total (for 4, 367 min, 83 overs). . . . . . . . . .263

Fall: 1-49 (Sidhu), 2-78 (Kambli), 3-93 (Prabhakar), 4-216 (Tendulkar).

To bat: Kapil Dev, K S More, A Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju, R K Chauhan.

Bowling (to date): Malcolm 17-2-46-1 nb3 w1

(5-2-7-0) (4-0-8-0) (4-0-13-0) (4-0-18-1); Jarvis 18-5-49-1 w3 (6-3-9-0) (5-0-19-1) (3-2-2-0) (4-0-19-0); Lewis 18-3-54-0 nb2 (6-2-10-0) (5-1-12-0) (3-0-13-0) (4-0-19-0); Taylor 15-2-56-1 w4 (8-1-25-1) (2-0-10-0) (5-1-21-0); Salisbury 13-2-45-1 nb2 (7-2-16-1) (6-0-29-0); Hick 2-1-9-0 (one spell).

Progress: 50: 105 min, 24.3 overs. Lunch: 61-1 (Prabhakar 32, Kambli 8) 29 overs. 100: 191 min, 42.3 overs. Tea: 144-3 (Tendulkar 25, Azharuddin 33) 57 overs. 150: 266 min, 62.1 overs. 200: 295 min, 68.4 overs. New ball taken at 225-4 after 75.1 overs. 250: 357 min, 81.2 overs. Bad light stopped play at 4.21pm.

Tendulkar's 50: 157 min, 117 balls, 6 fours.

Azharuddin's 50: 99 min, 79 balls, 8 fours. 100: 174 min, 114 balls, 17 fours.

ENGLAND: * G A Gooch, A J Stewart, M W Gatting, R A Smith, G A Hick, N H Fairbrother, C C Lewis, P W Jarvis, I D K Salisbury, J P Taylor, D E Malcolm.

Umpires: P D Reporter and S Venkataraghavan.

(Photograph omitted)