Mohammad Azharuddin
Bandeep Singh / © India Today Group/Getty Images

Hate to Love

The Azhar connection

To a young Muslim fan in India, every step of the way was complicated

Prayaag Akbar  |  

When I was a young boy, I inherited a splendid collection of Enid Blytons from my sister, among which was a book called The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. One story that made a deep impression on me had a boy who liked to make faces. When the wind changed - the story probably derives from English folklore; it is the right kind of bleak - the face he was pulling froze. The boy was a neighbour, an interloper in Blyton's hermetic universe at the bottom of the garden, and I recall it was made quite clear at the start that no one liked him very much.

It must have been soon after reading this story that Mohammad Azharuddin tiptoed into my imagination, because the first thing I remember wondering about him is if, like desolate, dark Thomas, his face had also frozen into a scowl when the wind changed. It was the most distinctive thing about his appearance, incisors bared underneath an upturned lip, crinkling around the eyes. Or perhaps it was something else, the sense of jerking unease that seemed to spring from him at every moment he did not have a bat in his hand. Through his long cricketing career Azhar had the air of the wary outsider.

But how different he was when a leather ball was hurtling towards him. Spare seconds of calm would descend. If he was feeling good the delivery would be despatched, flourished through the covers or turned over like an egg through the on side, a gangly man finding poetic unison for a startling second. Then he would turn and straighten for the run and the mild hunch would once again become a deformity, no longer the parabola of his stance, his limbs in semi-flail, all Gower-grace and languid beauty relinquished until it needed to be summoned again, tapping at the popping crease, doing what he seemed born to do.

In which Azhar makes fellow stylist David Gower leap, flinching, to avoid a square cut, at Edgbaston in 1986

In which Azhar makes fellow stylist David Gower leap, flinching, to avoid a square cut, at Edgbaston in 1986 © PA Photos/Getty Images

Tendulkar was an early favourite, and after Lord's '96 I have never looked past Rahul Dravid. I now think that I backed into an admiration for Azharuddin as I grew into my teens, as the understanding sharpened that the world would always see me as Muslim no matter how much I denied I was different. With Azhar it was never hero worship in the manner of Sachin and Rahul. It was a more adult emotion. His sporadic successes brought a pure, welling pleasure, an instinctual upsurge no other cricketer offered, along with the nagging sense that, more than any of the team's natural heroes, it was this awkward, peculiar misfit who was truly my kin.

People now say they always suspected Azhar, but mutterings followed him throughout his career, well before most of us could contemplate that cricketers were fixing matches. I remember, because they cut me to the quick. See he wears that white helmet, not the India one like Sachin. The suspicions centred on the supposed infidelity of the Indian Muslim. I would point out that Azhar captained India in our first three World Cup victories over Pakistan, that he'd scored wonderful runs against them on many occasions, like the madcap 24 runs he took off Ata-ur-Rehman's final over to push India past 300 for the first time in a one-dayer, but it felt like spitting into the wind. He's a Muslim, yaar, he'll always secretly play for Pakistan.

If there was a big match on, students from the senior classes at school would sneak over to the AV room in the somnolent hours after lunch to catch 20 or 30 minutes of the action. This was a long, cavernous room, tube-lit and drafty, up front a TV that resembled a solid brick wall. I could not understand why Azhar inspired such high-volume derision. It was the tail end of his career, admittedly, but it seemed even success could only be met with grudging approval - the flagrant century against South Africa at Eden Gardens, for instance, where he swapped the silken wand for a broadsword. Perhaps it was just Delhi, perhaps only my school, though I hardly think that likely. If I had an inkling of the reason, I did not allow myself to accept it: it can't be that they hate me, hate my people, it is something else. But another voice would intrude: they don't know better, parroting the soft prejudices heard in living rooms, the waning throbs of Partition, in Ayodhya the temple upon the mosque and the mosque upon the temple, the complicated histories of Hindus and Muslims in this land, every wheel forever spinning, Azhar and me whirling with.

Before the fall: Azharuddin third from left with his fellow captains at the opening ceremony for the 1992 World Cup

Before the fall: Azharuddin third from left with his fellow captains at the opening ceremony for the 1992 World Cup © Getty Images

Of course, this made Azhar's betrayal all the more difficult to take. Between Bollywood and Dawood the notion of the Muslim gangster had been hardwired in Indian minds, and Azharuddin's protracted dalliance with bookmakers came like yet another starburst of Muslim criminality. I stopped watching cricket for a couple of years then. It was as if his allegiance had been tied to my own, and suddenly I was adrift.

In the years after the scandal broke I noticed something else. Google "match fixing scandal Indian cricket" and, fittingly, the first thing that comes up is an ESPNcricinfo piece entitled "The fall of Azharuddin". The other Indians involved seemed to drop away, until the entirety of the blame fixed upon Azharuddin. The roles of Manoj Prabhakar, Ajay Jadeja, Ajay Sharma and Nayan Mongia seemed wiped from public memory. Kapil Dev cried on the BBC and pledged his innocence and we said okay. Public allegations against previous Indian captains were barely investigated. Jadeja's absolution I found particularly galling. Though the charges against him were rather less severe, it seemed as if India's media was only too happy to contrast the impish princeling with the malevolent mullah. I remember telling myself, perhaps this is the way it will always be here; live with what probity you can muster, because we will be held to a different standard.

I have no idea if Azharuddin faced prejudice within the Indian team, though I have one second-hand story. We were sitting on the junior-school field on a hot winter afternoon, picking at the scant grass, when my friend told us about an uncle who'd attended a party at the Delhi home of a beloved former captain. "Miyan can't make runs against Pakistan," the legend told his guests about the current captain. At that age I could not comprehend the roundness of the insult, I could only internalise it. There is no indication that this gent made Azhar's life difficult in any way during their time together in the team, or even if he himself believed the claim when his hand was not wrapped around a whisky. But I bet no one countered him at that party, just as I kept mum when my friend related the story.

On the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, with his wife, the actor Sangeeta Bijlani, and former team-mate Kapil Dev

On the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, with his wife, the actor Sangeeta Bijlani, and former team-mate Kapil Dev © AFP / Getty Images

Azharuddin was a mystifying batsman, at sea against pace one day and then taking apart the same attack on a much quicker pitch. When the mood came upon him he could be wonderfully destructive, elegant flicks followed by hoicked six. He will never really shed the scarlet letter he was worn since 2000, which is no less than he deserves, but there has been a rehabilitation of sorts. He was a member of parliament; whether this sanctifies or tarnishes him further is up for debate. He has the occasional media gig. A tacky Bollywood biopic was released recently, with his approval. But I prefer to think of him from well before all this, as a young World Cup captain in Australia, among the most feared batsmen in the world, when he played a number of bravura knocks at No. 3 in the short time India spent in the tournament, usually as our incumbent Advocate of Attack, Ravi Shastri, was plodding his way to 10 off 50 balls.

To me this was the saddest part of the fixing. We will never know precisely how much Azhar had to offer, and all that was of wonder is now smeared with greed.

Prayaag Akbar is the author of Leila, out on the subcontinent and to be published in the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth in July 2018