INTERVIEW As his life ban is revoked by the Andhra Pradesh High Court, Mohammad Azharuddin talks about how life changed since he was banned in 2000
He was an artist at the crease even when not at his peak; and then a forgotten star, shunned by the cricket world to an extent that he became a recluse. It was a different Mohammad Azharuddin indeed, not the batsman who worked magic against all opponents, not the man known as a simple soul, an endearing influence in the dressing room.
The match-fixing scandal left a deep scar on his life. It took cricket away from him. “It was tough but I was always hopeful,” he says now after the Andhra Pradesh High Court provided the much-needed relief to this beleaguered cricketer by terming the ban on him by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) as illegal.
He can afford a genuine smile now. The dark phases of solitude may take time to be erased but Azhar has taken it in his stride. “You can’t defy destiny. It is all written. You will get, or not get, what you deserve only when the time comes. I am left with 99 Tests against my name. It is nothing but destiny,” says a wistful Azhar. “Who would like to finish his career one short of 100 Tests?”
It was destiny for sure. He closed the 99th Test (against South Africa at Bangalore in 2000) with a century and never got to play a Test again. “Did I deserve this?” was a question that haunted Azhar. The world collapsed around him when Hansie Cronje confessed to wrongdoings and Azhar found himself named along with a few others in the match fixing scandal. A life ban meant he would have nothing to do with cricket.
Azhar, 49, had maintained all through that he was innocent and falsely implicated. “My conscience was clear. I had not done anything wrong but no one was prepared to listen. I was hanged without evidence.”
He was also punished by the cricketing world as everyone severed ties with him. “People I had known for years stopped taking my calls. It hurt. But Kapil Dev and Raj Singh Dungarpur remained in touch and had kind words for me. I can never forget their support,” he remembers.
Kapil never missed an opportunity to encourage Azhar. The great all-rounder was a “fan” of Azhar’s batting and he was happy at the High Court ruling. “I supported him for what he did for India. He was such a fantastic cricketer and I always took pride in the fact that I played with him for 10 years. I don’t know about his allegations but I supported Azhar the cricketer and the person. He was a breathtaking batsman.” The Hyderabadi, with 22 Test and 7 ODI centuries, was indeed a delightful batsman to watch. Ill-informed critics often eulogize him only for his on-side play but Azhar was a treat with his off-side strokes too.
For some reason, he remained a misunderstood person off the field. “Being an introvert can be punishing at times. I have never held any grudge against anyone. I will never.” Not even against a former India fast bowler who went around bad mouthing Azhar despite having received generous help in the formative years of his international cricket. “I never asked for help or support but what saddened me was the way people changed. I discovered true friends during the last 12 years.”
The 12 years of banishment from cricket made him a “strong” person. “I accepted life in the right spirit. There were certain things beyond my control but I wanted to clear my name. I did not deserve this because I had played the game with distinction. No one can question my commitment.” The former India captain also does not want to dwell on the past. “I really don’t want to think about it. How will it help? It was a very tough period for me but I had support from people,” says Azharuddin who was invited by the BCCI, along with other former captains, in 2004 for the Champion’s Trophy.
Azhar holds no rancour against his critics. “I have no ill feelings really. I would rather remember the kind people than worry about those who changed with the weather. I was not always unhappy but I learnt to fight my battles on my own. Cricket had taught me to take things in my stride. I have learnt to face hardships but I can say today with pride I am clean. I had done nothing wrong to have been banned.” His career figures make impressive reading: 6,215 runs in Tests and 9378 runs in 334 One-Day Internationals. “My fans ask me even now if I would come back to play. Obviously I can’t.” Azhar, a Lok Sabha member from Moradabad, is not interested in extending his fight with the BCCI. “I am not that cheap. I don’t want to blame anyone. I don’t want to hurt anyone. My name stands cleared and I am happy with that.”
I supported him for what he did for India. He was such a fantastic cricketer and I always took pride in the fact that I played with him for 10 years