Mohammad Azharuddin’s entry into the national team in 1984 was like a breath of fresh air at a time when the country was struggling to recover from Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the Bhopal Gas tragedy. And the batsman, as if sent by the heavens, single-handedly changed the mood with three brilliant tons in India’s three-match Test series with England.
If the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were revered for being technically superior to most other batsmen and Virat Kohli being hailed for his calculative mind while chasing targets, Azharuddin was loved for just existing at the crease with the bat.
It has been 40 years since his debut and India is still to produce a batsman as visually elegant as Azharuddin. Compared to Italian surrealist painter Salvador Dali, Azharuddin could play almost unorthodox shots that looked blatantly illogical, yet effortless.
Very few batters in cricket have possessed as many different strokes for a similar delivery as Azharuddin did. While his famous leg glance and flicks are unparalleled even today, his psyche complemented his art to elevate the Hyderabad lad to immortal status.
Azharuddin could whip the finest of bowlers with unbelievable disdain as if treating the cricket ball like a harmless child. His wrists were like magic, more flexible than anyone's, as he could flick the ball past midwicket from well beyond the off stump and with the same level of confidence, direct the same delivery through the covers. His body and stroke coordination resemble that of a belly dancer.
Azharuddin’s batting ability was best described by English cricket writer John Woodcock, who said, “It's no use asking an Englishman to bat like Azharuddin. It would be like expecting a greyhound to win the London Derby.”
Though Azharuddin’s ability to score runs almost at will and at an unreal pace, back in the 90s, should have made him a successful ODI batter, he was way more prolific in Tests. He had to retire after playing 99 Test matches, where he had 22 centuries and 6215 runs with an average of 45.03.
Azharuddin played more ODIs and scored more runs as well, but coming down the middle order he was left with little scope to bat longer as he was mostly busy finishing the innings or getting the match over the rope for India. In 334 ODIs, Azhar had 9378 runs with an average of 36.92, but his limited-over innings are littered with some of the most iconic knocks, especially against archrivals Pakistan.
Having played 64 matches against the archrivals, Mohammad Azharuddin tallied 1657 runs with two centuries and nine half-centuries to his name. Whether it be his 24 runs off the last over in Sharjah, which helped the Indian team tally over 300 runs for the first time, or his classy 93-run knock against the likes of Imran Khan and Wasim Akram during the 1985 Benson & Hedges World Championship, his century in the 1998 Independence Cup or the 1999 ODI World Cup fifty at Old Trafford, Azharuddin was a fan favourite for is consistency against Pakistan.
India’s 1992 World Cup stint will always be remembered for Azharduddin’s relentless exploits - 93 against Australia, 61 against West Indies, 50 against New Zealand and 79 against South Africa.
The red ball, however, was his biggest ally as Azharuddin was a dream to watch in Tests. Whether it be the 1997 Test in Cape Town, when the Indian skipper was seen taking on Alan Donald a.k.a the ‘White Lightening’ with unbelievable ease, or the 1987 Eden Gardens Test against Pakistan where Imran Khan, Akram and Abdul Qadir all bowed down to Azharuddin’s brilliance, or the 1990 Auckland Test where he scored 199 against Richard Hadlee and Danny Morrison, Azharuddin was simply magnificent whenever he was at crease.
Before Sourav Ganguly bettered his record, Azharuddin was one of the most successful captains of the Indian cricket team. Yet another aspect of his game was fielding and he was the best of the Indian lot in that era.
It is a shame how Azharuddn’s career was halted to a stop after getting tangled in a match-fixing row, following which he was never seen on the field in Indian colours. However, despite all the stains on him, no one could deny his batting abilities with few putting him above Sachin Tendulkar as well.
Answering the best batsmen he ever faced, South Africa’s Fanie de Villiers had replied to Sportstar, “Mohammad Azharuddin.”
“He was a wristy, stylish batter, but there were others too; I respected him because he could frustrate a bowler. The most respect that you get for a player is the one that doesn’t give you a chance to make plans against him. With that wristy flick, he could take a single and go to the other end; he was the best at it. With him, you can’t say, I’m going to tie him down here for two or three balls and try variations,” De Villiers had added.
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