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Tale of a Sultan-Azzu Bhai as we knew over the years

This is another personal essay I found from my files from 1998-2001. Its about Azhar, one of my favourite cricketers.At that time, Azhar faced a lot of media bashing.I was among the few who felt that Azhar is either being framed or at least being made the scapegoat for what was a systemic malaise. I wanted to send this to a newspaper or a web site, but then was too lazy.

Read on...

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For those of us, teenagers of the 80's, cricket really started after the '82 Asiad. With TV happening everywhere, India winning the World Cup, and kids like me coming of age-that is, starting to comprehend The Hindu's sports page dialect and BBC's fluid commentary, we the Andhra and Hyderabadi kids, longed for someone of our own in the national team. Shivlal Yadav tweaking a few and being a brave tail-ender in Tests wouldn't satisfy us. And none of us had seen Jaisimha and Abid Ali play. Hungry eyes scanned the junior cricket score sheets for upcoming stars.

And then he came. Mohammed Azharuddin. Difficult name to pronounce. But didn't we hear of him as a 14-year old leg spinner-cum-batsman? But when he started mesmerizing one and all with his wand, no one mentioned that he could bowl too. And now, a full 17 years later, he has won and lost captaincy, made a comeback, accumulated the highest number of runs in ODIs and stands accused by one and all in match-fixing cases and IT cases.

Oh, Azzu Bhai never disappointed us those days. While the West Indies who were in the revenge mode after losing the World Cup final, were mauling the senior team, our man scored a 250 and odd in Duleep Trophy and a 228 in Vizzy Trophy. It would be a matter of time before he makes test debut, we all thought. And then he scored a fluent 125 under Shastri for the Board Prez's team against Gower's men. Soon after his astonishing debut (his and Gavaskar's debuts were much more explosive than Sachin's, I dare say), he made mincemeat of Imran and young Akram in his 90 plus score in the lung opener in B&H world series cup, which we went on to win. The knock was not just about winning the match, but changing the mental make up of the team. Not withstanding Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Azharuddin himself, Gower had kept his word-"we will bat our way to victory in the series". 2-1 and we all went to the Kangaroo land under Sunny, with team morale at its lowest ebb. Kapil had been dropped from the Third test and the Eden Gardens spectators booed Sunny.

Azhar's knocks in those tumultuous days established him firmly in our mind space. Along with the facts that a leading newspaper said, "Mountain comes to Mohammed," and The Sports Star called him the 'Messiah of Indian Cricket', we were told that he does Namaaz five times a day even during games. And that he used to ride a cycle everyday to the stadium and was very close to his grandfather. He even appeared in a sutings ad-gawky and self-conscious. Only faithfuls noticed it; the brand name 'Santogen' sounded a little pharmaceutical.

There was not much on him, except for the lean and purple patches in his batting, for some seasons. Then, he became captain, married Bijlani (does anyone remember which happened first?) and the news about the expensive watches and suits came trickling in. We were all happy he was enjoying life. After playing so many entertaining knocks in the most beautiful game, if he doesn't deserve the good things in life, no one else does-that was the unsaid refrain. The accusations of non-communication with the team mates were met with, "Unooo!, hai aisaich! Kya kee?" (He's like that only, donno what!), by us, the loyal hyderabadis (though he had almost stopped living in the city where he learned how to hold a bat) and I am sure, fans across the country.

The serious allegations began slowly but surely. Still, as we won around 5 tournaments in '98, Azzu Bhai was continued as captain for the third successive world cup. The media now had a field day debating whether he should be captain or not and the public were almost indoctrinated to dislike him. Losing and winning captaincy and again losing it, even making a comeback and now, a horde of allegations and his name linked with almost every fresh development-still, the man, I am sure, wouldn't cry on a TV show.

In our hearts, we know he could have taken the money and would have been in the thick of it. Everything points to that right! But we have to admit that not just Azhar, but several cricketing icons (and a few filmi ones too) might have been on the take. For that matter, the unmentionable foursome of Sachin, Saurav, Dravid and Kumble are also guilty of keeping silent, if they knew what was happening.

Now this one about being a minority and stuff. He was smart all along, suddenly said something dumb, and Thank God, good sense prevailed, for he said he was misquoted. In the Indian context, it means he was retracting his statement as he realized the blunder. Wonder if he knows that thousands of right-wingers in Hyderabad still swear by him and feel him as one among their own. Art may not cross all boundaries, but it sure can cross a few.

But what will you do if your childhood icon, a man who made you proud of where you are from, and proud in a sport that you love like nothing else in the world, proves to be a fixer, a liar? Has an idol fallen? For 17 years, we have known the man; he's a part of our boyhood and youth; a person you know too well to hate or idolise. You knew the tendencies could be there and given the nature of the system, a lone artist who is a middle class guy might find it easier to adapt to it and continue playing and scoring than opposing and going into the oblivion. There might be some that chose the idealistic way. Or did they really? So, the only thing you can do is to pray that this Azzu Bhai of yours and millions of others has not done any thing ethically wrong. If just in case, it is proved that he has done what they he did, just to tell him, "Azzu Bhai! We will still love you."

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