By Nilankur Das

The era started with 'miyaan kaptaan banoge' and ended with cricket in a dark place. But, in between, Azhar whipped up a delicious dream

The decade that saw the rise of some of the world’s top cricketers, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly, shouldn’t have been the darkest in Indian cricket. It paled on two counts: The first was India’s miserable overseas form as against being almost invincible at home. The second was devastating and it forever changed the way cricket would be played and followed. The turn of the century saw cricket engulfed in a match-fixing scandal.

The start of the decade was a phase of transition for Indian cricket. The team was gradually moving on from the leadership of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev and desperately looking for a long-term skipper. The Board had tried out Dilip Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri and Kris Srikkanth in three years. That was when Azhar, a strapping 26-year-old from Hyderabad, who had proved himself with the bat and set an example with his exceptional fielding at cover and slips came into the picture.

“Miyaan, kaptaan banoge?”

That journey started with one of cricket’s “unforgettables” at the Cricket Club of India in 1989 when the then chairman of selectors Raj Singh Dungarpur asked Azhar: “Miyaan, kaptaan banoge?” (Will you become the captain?). Azhar had led in just two Ranji and two Duleep Trophy matches till then.

After Azhar became skipper in 1990, India won just one Test out of 17 in the first three years -- against Sri Lanka in Mohali. After series losses in New Zealand, England, Australia, and South Africa and a draw against Zimbabwe in their first-ever Test, Azhar’s job was on the line. His blistering 182 off 197 balls at the Eden Gardens against England in 1993, however, steadied his jittery captaincy career and set it on a decade-long path. And India’s most successful bowler Anil Kumble had a solid role in it.

Kumble’s 17 wickets in the series loss in South Africa sparked the rise of a great new hope. After Maninder Singh, Narinder Hirwani and Laxman Shivramakrishnan, India finally had a potential match-winner on the spin front in Kumble.

Master of the flipper

With Kumble as spearhead, team manager Ajit Wadekar and Azhar formed a spin bowling trio with Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan. Made-to-order pitches (read dusty subcontinent wickets) further increased their potency and few visiting teams had an answer to India’s tweakers. Raju’s left-arm orthodox bowling played a perfect foil to Kumble’s array of top-spinners, googlies and flippers and the results began to show immediately, at home. Over the next two years, India won 10 out of 17 Tests in the subcontinent, Kumble bagging 89 wickets showcasing his incredible consistency and accuracy. He became only the second man after Jim Laker to bag all 10 wickets in an innings at Ferozeshah Kotla but the image of Kumble that will keep inspiring generations will be the joy of getting the wicket of Brian Lara at Antigua in 2002, bowling with a heavily bandaged broken jaw.

Kumble went on to finish his career with 619 scalps in 132 Tests, the best by a distance by an Indian bowler and his rise made the three-spinner combination a norm for India. Azhar, riding the Kumble wave and the rise of Sachin Tendulkar, went on to lead from 1990 to 1999. Under him, in 47 Tests, India won 14 and lost 14, a record in those days, but so was born the tag of “home-track bullies”. India won just one Test away from home, which also won them the series, against then unfancied Sri Lanka in 1993.

Azhar, as captain, had a lot more disappointments in one-dayers. India fumbled in three World Cups in 1992, 1996 and 1999. The 1996 edition loss at home in the semi-final to Sri Lanka was the most heartbreaking.

Azhar, gifted with supple wrists, whips the ball into the leg side in trademark fashion.

A semi-final lost

Batting first, Sri Lanka made their way to 251/8 at the end of their 50 overs in the semi-final at Kolkata. While Tendulkar (65) was still in the middle, India looked like they had a chance but his dismissal triggered disaster. From 98/1, India collapsed to 120/8. The anger that followed had Eden showing the world its ugliest side to the world. Bottles rained in from the stands and didn’t stop until the match was awarded to Sri Lanka, who went on to win their maiden World Cup. For years to come, the sight of Vinod Kambli,in tears, at the end of the match was the defining image of the farcical game.

But for all his flaws as skipper, it was Azhar’s unorthodox, yet spectacular craft with the bat that caught the fancy of all those watching. From a 110 off 322 balls on debut — he went on to score three centuries in his first three Tests— to his 115 off 110 balls against South Africa in Cape Town in a 222-run stand with Tendulkar in 1997; his blitz between lunch and tea in Adelaide in 1991-92 that saw India almost pull off a successful chase of 372 after being 102/4; his 121 off 111 balls at Old Trafford in reply to Gooch’s triple ton were all counter-attacking knocks that evoked a certain reflected heroism in people. Incidentally, Azhar remains one of a few cricketers, who had scored a ton in his first and his last innings of a 99-match Test career.

Kolkata loved him for his five centuries and two fifties in the seven Tests he played at Eden Gardens and, of course, for his fielding.

A scandal that shook cricket

That love though took a hit. It actually turned to hate as lightning struck world cricket on June 15, 2000. A repentant South Africa skipper Hansie Cronje confessed to the Justice EL King’s Commission in Cape Town that Azhar had introduced him to a bookie who offered him money to throw a Test during their tour of India in 1996. The world of cricket came crashing down.

Cricket, the game that had struck a chord in a billion hearts since India’s 1983 World Cup victory, was not a gentleman’s game any longer. Bookies were writing the script with the captains themselves. The Criminal Bureau of Investigation and BCCI’s inquiry commission under former CBI director K Madhavan quickly named the culprits and the board handed out punishments.

Two years later, in 2002, Cronje died in a plane crash. Azhar, banned for life, fought a long-drawn court battle and a division bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court finally lifted his life ban 10 years later in 2012.

The acceptance

But even before the courts had lifted BCCI’s life ban, the former India skipper was one of Cricket Association of Bengal’s guests during an India-Pakistan Test at the Eden Gardens in December 2007. He soaked in the adulation of the packed stands during a lap of honour along with other former India and Pakistan skippers, including Asif Iqbal.

The court verdict had made Azhar officially part of the celebrated cricket fraternity again. In 2017 he was at his favourite Eden Gardens to ring the bell at an India-West Indies T20 game and three years later, he was among former India skippers invited to Kolkata for India’s first day-night Test against Bangladesh. He now has a stand at Uppal’s Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium named after him.

People, it seemed, had forgotten the chain of revelations and inquiries that had just a few years back pushed a generation of unsuspecting fans away from the game. For maybe no fault of theirs, every dropped catch, or a no ball, or a run out aroused suspicion… an upset not just an underdog story, a thrilling win not just that—there was mistrust, doubt, and its benefit did not go to the cricketers. Was it fixed?

What couldn’t be “fixed” though was Azhar’s class with the bat, and the first demonstration of the helicopter shot -- made famous years later by MS Dhoni. South Africa’s Lance Klusener was at the receiving end during that infamous 1996 series as he saw his yorker finish at the mid-wicket boundary. Commentator Harsha Bhogle thought Azhar was bowled, and his happy hunting ground, Eden Gardens, saw a flash of a masterpiece with the willow.

1989 - 2000