This Azharuddeen is more about T20 panache

  • 26-year-old Mohammed Azharuddeen's 37-ball century is only behind Rishabh Pant’s 32-ball effort for Delhi in the tournament.
Mohammed Azharuddeen with Dav Watmore (C) and Mohammad Azharuddin (R). (Getty Images.)
Mohammed Azharuddeen with Dav Watmore (C) and Mohammad Azharuddin (R). (Getty Images.)
Published on Jan 15, 2021 11:19 AM IST
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ByRajesh Pansare, Mumbai

Kerala batsman Mohammed Azharuddeen, named after the former India skipper, shot into the national limelight on Wednesday night scoring the second-fastest century in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament.

The 26-year-old’s 37-ball century is only behind Rishabh Pant’s 32-ball effort for Delhi in the tournament. Azharuddeen finished on 137 not out from 54 balls with nine fours and 11 sixes, handing domestic giants Mumbai an eight-wicket defeat on their home turf at the Wankhede Stadium.

It was the joint third-fastest T20 century by an Indian, matching Yusuf Pathan’s knock for Rajasthan Royals against Mumbai Indians in 2010. Rohit Sharma hit a 35-ball hundred against Sri Lanka in 2017. Chris Gayle’s 30-ball effort, in scoring 175 not out off 66 balls for Royal Challengers Bangalore against Pune Warriors in IPL 2013 is the fastest T20 century.

Azharuddeen, informs Kerala coach and former India pacer Tinu Yohannan, is the youngest eight siblings. His parents wanted to name him Ajmal but his eldest brother, an ardent fan of Azharuddin insisted that his youngest sibling must be named after the India star. He also wanted Azharuddeen to reach similar heights in cricket.

On Wednesday, Azharuddeen impressed with his clean striking, more timing than power. He got under the ball with full momentum of the body behind each shot.

So, where was he for so many years? What took so long for the player from Thalangara in north Kerala’s Kasaragod town to flourish?

Azharuddeen, who has come through the ranks in Kerala cricket, was spotted by Bijumon - he is now batting coach at the Kerala Cricket Academy (KCA) High Performance Centre in Alappuzha - at the district academy in Mutholi, Kottayam.

Around a decade ago, Bijumon was KCA head coach and his job included visiting the district academies. On one such trip to the Mutholi academy, Azharuddeen caught his eye.

“I played in a tennis ball match with the boys, which was more for fun. He was the one who impressed me. Talking to kids you get the vibe, you can feel the fire. I found that in Azhar, who was willing to learn, explore more about cricket. At that age, his mindset was also good,” says Bijumon.

A few years later, he was at the College Cricket Academy in Ernakulum where Bijumon was head coach and they have worked together since then.

Azharuddeen’s stature in an expanding Kerala cricket set-up continued to grow as he scored lot of runs for Kerala in the U-19 and U-23 levels. He broke into the Kerala Ranji team in 2015-16 following his performance in the under-23 CK Nayudu Trophy - a swashbuckling 153 against Maharashtra and a half-century against Vidarbha.

“Around that match against Maharashtra he had just lost his mother. He was very close to her, but he still managed to score a century. But he started missing his mother and his game dipped,” says Bijumon.

With Sanju Samson performing a similar role as ‘keeper-batsman in the Kerala team, Azharuddeen couldn’t seal a permanent spot in the team. Before Wednesday’s knock against Mumbai, he had just one century across formats, numbers that weren’t eye-popping, and the highest score of 47 in T20s.

“He was in the scene for the last four-five years but I feel he never got the right opportunity where he could express himself. This year we put him on top of the order so that he can play his natural game. That made a difference, gave him lot of freedom and that’s what you saw yesterday,” says Yohannan.

“He is a genuine timer of the ball, not a slogger; he can play with great ease, is good against pace and spin and can clear the straight and square boundaries very easily without using much power. For such kind of player, opening is the ideal spot,” he adds.

Bijumon, who has seen him play since his younger days, says he never tried to change his technique, and just focussed on “enhancing it”.

As he took the Mumbai attack apart, Azharuddeen kept smiling. That is another thing which comes naturally to the batsman, Yohannan and Bijumon say.

Yohannan is confident Wednesday’s innings “is going to be a life-changing knock for him with IPL auction coming (likely in February). Already many franchises have started discussing his name”.

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