Strength of a silent type

Simon O'Hagan meets the Indian captain, a cricketer unjustly held responsible for his nation's World Cup downfall; close-up; Mohammad Azharuddin
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The Independent Online
His stance is surprisingly hunched. A tall man, he has to reach down a long way as he rests his bat on the crease, his head appearing to weigh heavily on drooping shoulders. But then the shot takes shape: his lithe frame straightens without loosening; quick and delicate feet move back into position as the bat is raised.

There is a barely perceptible pause. Mohammad Azharuddin is waiting as the ball lands on a length and rises towards his midriff. It's one to play defensively back along the wicket; that's what the textbook would say anyway. But Azharuddin doesn't do this. He brings his bat down and at the last moment whips it across his body with a flick of the wrists that sends the ball speeding from his left hip towards the square-leg boundary - or it would do if this was not a net on the Nursery Ground at Lord's last Thursday.

Few cricketers in the world can play this shot. Bat and ball are moving through two planes which intersect so fleetingly that the timing required to pull it off is extraordinary - far exceeding the limits of what would be regarded as naturally gifted hand-to-eye co-ordination. Azharuddin's trademark shot shouldn't work, but it does. But then, as John Woodcock wrote in The Times when he saw Azharuddin ignore orthodoxy to make the most dazzling entry into Test cricket in the game's history 11 years ago, "genius makes its own arrangements".

On this grey and cold morning, Azharuddin's batting brings its own form of sunshine. And as the captain of the Indian team whose tour of England officially begins today at Arundel, the 33-year-old Azharuddin needs to lift the clouds that have hung over him since being forced to lead his men from the field in Calcutta seven weeks ago as rioting fans brought their team's World Cup semi-final against Sri Lanka to a bitter and premature conclusion.

Four days earlier the nation had been in rapture after India had beaten Pakistan in the Bangalore quarter-final; now, as they headed for certain defeat against a team Indians were historically inclined to dismiss out of hand, it all became too much. Needing a focus for their grief and anger, the Indian crowd went straight for Azharuddin.

His captaincy had been a shambles, they felt. How could the players he presided over produce such an inept batting display? Effigies of Azharuddin, once a God among Indian cricketers, were burnt in the streets; he could barely show his face in public. For this gentle, shy man whose aggression as a player is almost wholly concealed under a veil of artistry, such violent recrimination was not only personally hurtful but offended the principles of gracious behaviour by which he is known throughout cricket. If the Indian public saw indifference in his langour they were surely mistaken.

During a break in the Lord's practice session, Azharuddin walked to the edge of the field, crouched down over a cardboard box of drinks and sandwiches, stirred some sugar into his tea and in a futile attempt to shelter from the cold remained in this position while talking softly about his World Cup experience.

"Up to the semi-final we had done very well," he said. "But what happened against Sri Lanka was terrible. I've no words to describe the feeling. I think nowadays crowds are more critical. They expect everyone to perform. This was not the first time this sort of thing had happened to me, but it was certainly the worst. What you have to remember is that nobody tried to get out. Sometimes it happens like that. You cannot put all that blame on us for one bad performance. The way the crowd behaved was very disappointing. There were millions of people watching on television and it put the country in a very bad light. It was very uncalled for."

For a while it looked as if Azharuddin's six-year tenure as captain - the longest in Indian cricket - might end, even though he had already been appointed for the England tour. He took the team to tournaments in Singapore and Sharjah, where they failed to distinguish themselves. It did not help Azharuddin that his own form had deserted him during the winter, and in Sachin Tendulkar there was a player whose succession was, and remains, purely a matter of time. But the only change made by the Indian Board was at team manager level, where the former Test player Sandeep Patil came in.

"We looked not at what Azhar had done in the previous three months but at the previous 10years," said Patil, who was also a member of the selectors' panel, last week. "Having reached a very high level, Azhar is going through a lean patch. Overall I think we had a pretty good World Cup, and Azhar surely led from the front. Sachin is still young. Let Azhar carry on and maybe we will decide at the end of the summer whether Sachin can take responsibility."

Azharuddin is special to Patil because it was he who took his place, never to be regained, in the Indian Test team in 1984-85 when England were on tour. What followed passed into legend as the liquid shot-making of the 21-year-old from Hyderabad brought him centuries in each of his first three Tests, a feat never achieved before or since.

With his classical back-foot play, there is no finer sight in cricket than Azharuddin in full flow. England have witnessed it many times. In 1986 he was a member of the first Indian team to win a Test series here. When they returned under his captaincy in 1990, he contributed two of the 15 centuries scored in the three Tests and could feel pleased with the way he led the side in spite of losing the series 1-0. But the high point of Azharuddin's career came in the home series of 1992-93 when his team beat England 3-0.

Azharuddin's fortunes in county cricket have been mixed. He scored more than 2,000 first-class runs for Derbyshire in 1991, relishing the dry wickets of August and September, but when he went back there in 1994 he only really produced in the one-day game and he was unhappy at the way the new management treated him.

Food, in particular, was a problem. As a Muslim - the only one in an Indian team made up predominantly of Hindus - Azharuddin has strict dietary requirements, and Derbyshire's failure to meet them, he claims, was indicative of a wider attitude towards him. "It was terrible," he said. "I'd like to play county cricket again, but not there."

For the moment Azharuddin's efforts are concentrated on winning in England once more, and for that to happen he will need to recover his touch, as batsman as well as captain. "The thing with Azhar,"Patil said, "is that the game can appear to be going nowhere and he can change it quite suddenly with his decision- making ability. It's like his batting. You think he is struggling and the next thing you know he's playing shots all round the wicket." Anyone who cares for Azharuddin's brand of greatness will hope to see such a transformation this summer.

Indian tour squad and itinerary

May

Wed 8-10 v Worcestershire, Worcester

Sat 11-13 v Gloucestershire, Bristol

Thu 16-18 v Sussex, Hove

Thu 23 1st one-day international, The Oval

Sat 25 2nd one-day international, Headingley

Sun 26 3rd one-day international, Old Trafford

Tue 28-30 v Essex or Glamorgan, Chelmsford or Cardiff (depending on B&H quarter-finals)

June

Sat 1-3 v Leicestershire, Leicester

Thu 6-10 1st Test, Edgbaston

Thu 20-24 2nd Test, Lord's

Wed 26-28 v British Universities, Fenner's

Sat 29-1 July v Hampshire, Southampton

July

Thu 4-8 3rd Test, Trent Bridge

Squad

Mohammad Azharuddin (captain), Sachin Tendulkar (vice-captain), Navjot Sidhu, Ajay Jadeja, Vikram Rathore, Sanjay Manjrekar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Nayan Mongia, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Paras Mhambrey, Anil Kumble, Narendra Hirwani, Venkatapathy Raju, Sunil Joshi.

Manager: C Nagaraj. Coach: Sandeep Patil.

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