Cricket: Azharuddin hits out at critics' sharp deliveries

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The Independent Online
SEASON of goodwill? Not, it seems, for Mohammad Azharuddin, who responded bitterly in East London yesterday to criticism of his captaincy in the wake of India's 5-2 caning in the one-day series against South Africa.

Time was when limited-overs results ran a distant second to the main five-day course, particularly in India, so long a bastion of the traditional format. The World Cup victory of 1983 changed all that, however, and the invective heaped upon Azharuddin and his colleagues over the past week has underscored the change in attitudes. The Test series is only halfway through and both games so far have been drawn, yet the hills around New Delhi are already alive with the sound of high dudgeon. Yesterday's draw against an innocuous Combined Universities side is unlikely to improve matters.

One of the world's most elegant and fluent batsman, Azharuddin has yet to convince his critics that he has the wherewithal to lead India out of the doldrums. Kewal Mehra, the vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, moreover, has described the team's display as 'pathetic', accusing them of going 'through the motions'. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, a former captain, jabbed even harder, alleging that the players were more interested in money than defending the realm. Azharuddin, he was sure, would return to the ranks against England.

'It's all very well for those watching the game from outside to say that we were pathetic,' Azharuddin retorted. 'One-day cricket is important, but it is a game of chance. You win a few and lose a few. But we still have two Test matches to play. This is where skills and performances are judged.' Pataudi? 'If he is short of money and if he feels we are making too much for his liking, then the team is prepared to play a benefit match for him.'

Notwithstanding all this wintry discontent, another former Indian captain, Ajit Wadekar, has been retained as team manager for the visit of Graham Gooch and company. Whether this serves as a good omen for Azharuddin is another matter. 'I did not decide to become captain,' he snapped. 'The selectors had faith in me. It's up to them to sack me if they wish.'

On a happier note, Chandappa Nagaraj, the BCCI secretary, announced that Zimbabwe had been invited to India for a one-off Test - their first overseas - and three one-day internationals in March.

In Melbourne, Australia are expected to field all three of their fast bowlers in the second Test against the West Indies on Boxing Day while their opponents seem set to drop one of theirs. The MCG pitches have been uneven of late, yet while the home side are likely to omit the leg-spinner, Shane Warne, from their appointed 12, the tourists may drop Patrick Patterson, whose pace won the corresponding match four years ago with nine wickets. This could let in another Jamaican, left-hander Jimmy Adams, whose presence would lengthen the batting order that folded so alarmingly on the last day in Brisbane and almost donated the first Test to Australia.