I ran into Mohammed Azharuddin after some years at a press conference at a mid-town 5-star hotel on Wednesday where the exploits and future prospects of 18-year-old car racing prodigy Nayan Chatterjee were announced.
The hair’s thinned considerably but otherwise Azhar hasn’t changed much. If anything, at 53, he looks fitter than when he was 33, with a slim waistline that would be the envy of Bollywood’s item girls and boys half his age.
His dress code for the day was tight jeans and a body-hugging shirt with the collar characteristically turned up. This wasn’t always the case. In his early years, he was markedly sedate. The ‘style statements’ were to emerge after he became part of Mumbai’s glam circuit!
Azhar was there for two reasons: he knew somebody from Nayan’s family and was also promoting a film titled after him that releases today. This was a sort of kill-two-birds-in-one-stone assignment.
There are three films on cricketers being released this year itself. Those on Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar are close to completion too.
All three have been brilliant cricketers leading extraordinary lives, but as subject matter, Azhar’s is perhaps the most complex because it is multi-shaded, with dizzying ups and downs.
Two events describe the extreme ends of the roller-coaster life he has led.
In 1984, the India under-25 team was playing against David Gower’s England at Ahmedabad. Azhar, then 22, had made a big impact in domestic tournaments and was among the promising young players led by captain Ravi Shastri.
Very early in the match he learnt his beloved grandfather has passed away in Hyderabad. Distraught, Azhar wants to return home immediately. He is counseled to stay back by Shastri.
“If your grandfather’s biggest desire was to see you represent India, play this match and make his wish come true,’’ he said to Azhar — or words to the effect. The lanky youngster swallowed his sorrow and went on to score a marvellous century.
This brought him in the list of probables for the Test series. As it happened India lost the second Test at Delhi and in a controversial move the selectors dropped Kapil Dev and Sandeep Patil on disciplinary grounds.
Azhar was suddenly catapulted into the team for the third Test at Kolkata in place of Patil. He made a century on debut. In the next Test he scored another century, and in the fifth yet another one. This was unprecedented. His captain Sunil Gavaskar effused that Azhar was “God’s gift to Indian cricket’’.
Fast forward to 2004. I am in Sri Lanka for the Asia Cup. Azhar too is there as a TV expert for a news channel. He is informed he can’t enter the ground because of the life ban imposed on him by the BCCI in the match-fixing scandal.
On the morning of the first match, I see Azhar at breakfast in the hotel sitting alone, a forlorn figure, far removed from the player who had been the toast of the cricket world for over a decade and a half: till he was named by Hansie Cronje as the man who had introduced him to bookie Mukesh Gupta in circa 2000.
For all his wondrous exploits on the field (and an eventful life off it too, with a marriage in Bollywood and becoming a member of Parliament in 2009!) the match-fixing scandal unfortunately has come to define Azharuddin’s career.
What really transpired in that period still remains a black hole for cricket followers across the world. Who all were involved, how deep was this malaise?
Azhar, who fought the case against him unrelentingly, has repeatedly pointed to the court ruling that got no evidence to convict him. The film’s makers say that it this is not strictly a biopic but ‘inspired by events in his life’, whatever this means.
Meanwhile, one can only speculate on what might have been had match-fixing scam never taken place.
At the very least, this would have been a different biopic altogether.