Not many can claim to have played bowlers with such disdain as Azharuddin
As more than 50,000 fans crammed the Bombay Gymkhana ground on December 15, 1933, a cricketer of special talent made his mark in the first ever Test on Indian soil. On the third day of the match, Lala Amarnath, playing in his debut Test, crafted a sensational century. And a legend was born that day.
Many years later, Abbas Ali Baig (1959) and Hanumant Singh (1964) joined the league of Indian cricketers who scored a century on debut in Tests. And 20 years after Hanumant won the hearts of the public in Delhi, Mohammad Azharuddin created a symphony of a rare kind at the Eden Gardens in Calcutta.
Among those who watched Azharuddin's artistry at the crease was Sourav Ganguly, who, 12 years later, walked out to take guard at Lord's and scored a century on debut. His partner, Rahul Dravid, also making his debut, missed the three-figure mark by five runs. He opted to ‘walk' after being caught behind off a thin edge, but set a new benchmark for some exemplary conduct on the field. The Test set in motion two careers that took Indian cricket to great heights.
Lala, Azhar, Ganguly and Dravid went on to lead India and carved glorious careers with their distinctive batting style.
If Baig and Hanumant failed to build on the great starts they had, the reasons were many. But most would agree that the two were a delight to watch. So was Vinoo Mankad, a legend in his own right. When Mankad made 14 and 63 at Lord's and took two for 107 on the 1946 tour, he had sealed his place in the team for some time to come. Returning to the same venue six years later, Mankad confirmed that he belonged to the highest league as he made the Test his own with a classy all-round performance (72 and 184 and five for 196).
There were batsmen who made half-centuries on debut against England — Sudhir Naik, Pranab Roy, Yadavendrasingh (Yuvraj of Patiala), C. Ramaswami, Dilawar Hussain, R.S. Modi, Amar Singh and C.D. Gopinath — but they did not quite capitalise on their bright beginning.
There were some modest debuts by bowlers who later made a big contribution to Indian cricket. Mohammad Nissar took five on debut in 1932 and B.S. Chandrasekhar four. Nissar played five more Tests but Chandra ended up with 242 wickets from 58 Tests. The most notable was Anil Kumble, whose three for 105 at Old Trafford swelled to 619 wickets when he last bowled in a Test, against Australia in Delhi in 2008. The genial Kumble remains the greatest match-winning bowler India has ever seen.
Lala was known for unsettling the opposition with his innovative methods. He was unfazed by the opposition's reputation and always backed himself and his team.
Azharuddin did justice to his amazing potential. He lent strength to the middle-order and attracted a massive fan following with his entertaining batting style.
The ease with which he could whip the ball from off to leg was astounding. Not many can claim to have played the best of bowlers with such disdain and comfort.
On the eve of the Lord's Test in 1996, Ganguly spent a sleepless night. At the end of second day's play, he was unbeaten on 26. India lost Sachin Tendulkar, Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja early on the third day, but Ganguly found in Dravid a splendid guide. Playing some magnificent strokes, Ganguly scored a century. The man who was called a “quota selection” had made a strong statement. Unsurprisingly, he grew into one of the finest batsmen and highly successful India captains.
Dravid was prepared for his debut in 1996. His compact technique and determined approach meant agony for the English bowlers. The intensity was visible on his face as Dravid moved towards a century on debut at Lord's, but a faint nick off Chris Lewis ended his innings. It, however, propelled him towards greatness. Dravid (32 centuries; 153 matches) and Tendulkar (51 centuries; 177 matches) are the two members from that 1996 team still serving Indian cricket.
As India kicks off its Tests series against England at Lord's on July 21, it will depend on these two to retain its No. 1 position.