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Why me?, asks Azhar

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Mohammad Azharuddin The life and times of Mohammad Azharuddin have been chronicled many times before, with a new chapter being added to his journey in life each time. The artiste among artisans has been embroiled in many controversies: captaincy, his place in the team, his personal life, brushes with the press, and now the most sensational of them all -- betting and match-fixing.

At the age of 34, the man who made a successful comeback into the Indian team in the Asia Cup here, is remarkably unfazed with all that is happening around him. His persona hides the tension, if any, and one of the most outstanding batsmen of world cricket denies the allegations of his connection with the world of bookies and betting with a shrug of his shoulders and laughs derisively at the 'rumours' that he is the owner of half a dozen Mercedes Benz cars and a number of houses in Mumbai and his hometown, Hyderabad.

"Who says I have so many cars? This is utter nonsense. All I have is a Mercedes sports car and a 1938 vintage car presented to me by my uncle. Why do people spread all these malicious rumours about me?" Azharuddin lets these words slip out of his mouth without any anger or bitterness, while enjoying a very frugal breakfast in the coffee shop of his hotel in Colombo.

"I am a man who loves the good things of life. Have you ever seen me dressed shabbily? I love to dress properly, buy expensive clothes. My earning is not bad, and if I earn $ 100 I love to spend it also. I like to live in style. Is there anything wrong in that? Allah has been kind to me. But my lifestyle should not be misconstrued as if I have wealth far in excess of my earnings," Azharuddin speaks in a mater of fact tone.

As he shells a boiled egg and eats only the white portion, Azharuddin smiles and as though anticipating the question, says: "I had to be careful with my diet. I am not getting any younger, and to keep myself fit, I have to take care about what I eat and what not." He is still in the midst of his sentence when a small boy walks up to the table and asks him for a ticket for Saturday's final against Sri Lanka. Azharuddin tells him to wait till the evening as "I do not have any tickets with me at the moment."

After watching the boy return to his table, Azharuddin looks at you blankly for a second and then waits for another question to be hurled at him.

If such rumours have got credence, one reason possibly could be his alienation from the press. It is to such an extent that he refused to talk to them; particularly, after the Bangalore incident in 1996 when he was alleged to have beaten up a photographer who had clicked his picture with his then actress-friend and present wife, Sangeeta Bijlani. "I felt hurt at the way the entire press reacted to that incident. I did not touch that photographer. I told him not to click us but he did not listen. Despite that, I have never touched him. But the entire press supported him and painted me as a villain. That was the reason why I decided to keep my distance from the press,"is Azharuddin's explanation.

He cites more reasons for his cutting himself off from the media: "I couldn't understand why, when a press conference was on, newsmen oculd not ask me what they had in mind. There were times when not even one question was asked. But once I would enter my hotel room, there would be phone calls after phone calls seeking my reaction to one question or the other. I thought this was not right. Here was I, willing to sit even, for hours in a press conference as long as I was asked anything, so that I could have a private moment or two."

Azharuddin says he felt very disappointed when he was dropped after the West Indies tour. "I do agree I was not doing all that well. But I got out a number of times to unplayable balls and by the end of the tour, I was getting my touch back. I don't blame the selectors for dropping me but I wanted to be part of the Independence Cup, as it was being held to celebrate 50 years of our Independence."

But wasn't his attitude during that tour very wrong? Didn't he appear very indifferent towards the team? And did he not breach the Board discipline by keeping his wife with him till the end of the tour?

"There was nothing wrong with my attitude. I have always been like that. I make no show of my emotions. And when you are standing in the slips, it is difficult to make a show of giving suggestions to your captain. And especially, when the captain was standing next to me most of the times. As far as breach of discipline is concerned, I would like to say that the press once again wrote without checking their facts. I had taken permission from the Board, which they confirmed later," says Azharuddin without any signs of agitation.

Azharuddin has another point to clarify about that tour. "People wrote that I was very keen to go to New York after the tour ended so that my wife and I could so shopping. Whereas the truth is that most of the team members were keen to go to New York, and not me. This can be checked with the manager of the team. I have been to such places umpteen number of times and as such it held no novelty for me. Why I want to clarify this point is that the press always tries to paint a very different picture of me from what I actually am."

On the tour here so far, Azharuddin has been seen taking more than passing interest in the fortunes of the team. He has been seen actively advising Tendulkar on field placements and on bowling changes. Is this change of attitude because he sees the possibility of captaincy coming his way once again?

Mohammad Azharuddin with Sachin Tendulkar "I won't lose my sleep over it. It is only because I have not been standing in the slips and am fielding in the outfield that you get the impression that I am involving myself more with the fortunes of the team. I have always been like that," he says

One asks him two more questions. How long does he think he can play, and any regrets when he looks back at his career?

"I give msyelf two to three years more. Yes, I have one regret. I should have scored more runs in Test cricket than I have till now, maybe 6,000 runs. But my career has been like that. It has fertile patches and barren patches. I have had long stretches of successes as well as failures. That is how life is. One has to get on with it."

It is time to take leave of Azharuddin.

This article being reproduced courtesy Pioneer newspaper

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