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November 20, 2000

   Senior Cricket Correspondent Faisal Shariff travelled to Hyderabad    to find out more about an illustrious life and career gone sour.

    Mohammed Azizuddin Azharuddin was handpicked more than ten years ago as the man to lead a dispirited Indian team besieged by gargantuan egoes and lack of cohesion. He was the non-controversial simpleton who then Board for Control of Cricket in India president Raj Singh Dungarpur appointed because he thought here was one man who believed in cricket and not in contracts; someone who would bring dignity to the game, not discredit it.

    Today, after the Central Bureau of Investigation released its report on matchfixing, Azhar is a national villain. A hero gone all wrong. The man who heralded Indian cricket to its pinnacle with resounding victories also plunged India to its most horrendous defeats. Today, he faces the worst crisis of his life as he fends and ducks his way out of various allegations and indictments.

    So, what went wrong with the artiste who flirted with the crease everytime he walked out into the middle, created strokes which were once described by Vivian Richards as 'frisk,frisk,frisk' with those supple wrists?

    "Take the bat away from him and he is clueless, completely gullible," says a former team-mate.

    Where is the Hyderabadi genius? Where is that Azhar?

    "The real Azhar is lost forever. This is someone else." Words damp with tears, a voice cracking with disbelief, a friend in distress.

    Azharuddin On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I browse through dusty magazines and photographs which painted a humble genesis of the former skipper's career at his friend Upendranath's home in Vithalwadi, where Azhar spent his childhood.

    Uppi, as his friends know him, a table tennis player of repute in Hyderabad, has probably every magazine and newspaper, which has an article, or even a reference to Azhar, in his collection.

    "I dreamt someday that I would have an exhibition of my collection, but that seems like an unfulfilled dream with the CBI report," he says.

    "Azzubaba is the best friend I have. How could he have done this?" asks Uppi.

    "I know him since 1981when we used to cycle to the grounds. My association with Azhar goes back to the days when he was a clerk at the State Bank of India and drew a paltry 800 rupees as salary. I forced him to appear for his B Com final year exam, so that he would get a raise in his salary.

    "I remember the day he came to me and said he had got a raise of Rs.250 and that his salary was 1,000 rupees. I still remember that moment,that proud smile Azzubaba flashed at me."

    Uppi recalls that Azhar's life then revolved around cricket, namaaz and his home. He was the area's most shy resident, not lured by the distractions that came with the stardom he achieved after becoming the first and only batsman to score three consecutive Test centuries on debut in the game's history.

    Azharuddin After Azhar became India's captain in 1990, his Hyderabad team-mates say, his interests drifted. The man, who only bought health and sports magazines, suddenly showed an interest in film glossies.

    His only brush with showbiz until then had been when he modeled for an advertisement along with a lady named Sangeeta Bijlani.

    "We teased him about that when he returned after the shoot. He said he didn't even bother much since the flashbulbs were blazing away, blinding him in the process, " said an old friend.

    Did Azhar's brush with glamour alter his value system, forever?

    "Ever since (Sangeeta) Bijlani came into his life, he has lost all his friends. She is the cause for his current fate," claims Samyuddin Saajid, his first cousin, who still lives in Vithalwadi.

    "That woman's greed transformed a gem of a man into a villain. Azharbhai is earning so much, why would he need to do all this. Itna kamaa rahe hai unney modeling se, kya jaroorat hai unko yeh sab kaama mein padne ki (He was earning a pile from modeling, what need was there for him to do all these things)?" asks his cousin.

    Remembers Venkatapathy Raju, his former India team-mate, "I noticed that Azhar's lifestyle changed a lot after 1995. He started frequenting Bombay and was struck by the glamour. The man who would normally retire at nine was at parties well past midnight."

    Arshad Ayub, another former team-mate and current Hyderabad coach, felt Azhar has always been na´ve. "Azzu could be influenced very easily. Early on in his career he was in awe of Ravi Shastri. The way Shastri carried himself, behaved, had a major impact on Azhar in his early days. I, however, don't believe he is involved in this."

    Divorcing Naureen was the biggest mistake of his life," says Chamundeshwarath, the former Andhra captain who was once one of Azhar's closest friends.

    Azharuddin "I fell out with Azhar after he got involved with Sangeeta. I was so close to Naureen. I asked Azhar how he could dream of disowning Naureen. But Azhar wouldn't budge. He asked me not to interfere in his personal life," says Chamundeshwarnath.

    "Azhar was in a complete trance. That is why his game was affected so badly (on the England tour). He seemed out of sorts. Facing a vituperative press and his family's disapproval, Azhar just went into his shell," says Upendranath.

    Five years after the divorce, Naureen gave into her mother's pressure and tied the knot again. She married a Canada-based real-estate businessman a few months ago.

    Those who know Azhar claim Chamundi introduced him to the glitz. Chamundi denies this. "I know people think I am a pimp. But let me tell you Azhar is not a kid. I can't force someone to do something. Baccha nahi hai woh (he is not a kid). If I took Azhar onto the wrong path, then why would I still be close to Naureen? I am the only person from Hyderabad who went for her wedding. She is like a sister to me."

    Azhar has a reputation in his home city of being a charitable and generous man. Asks Chamundi: "What sort of a guy would give away 10,000, 15, 000 rupees to anyone who approached him for help without knowing his antecedents? Every time he came to the ground in Hyderabad for practice with the team he would tell the most promising cricketer to pick any equipment from his kit.

    Upendranath says Azhar's generosity sent many Muslims for Hajj. "His father would tell him that the people asking for help were just milking him. Yet, Azhar would say Allah had bestowed so much on him and maybe this was the way he wanted the money spent."

    But this image is disputed by Brother Chacko of the All Saints High School, Azhar's first school.

    The school's students collected Rs 10,000 to present Azhar when he first made his mark on Test cricket. He accepted Rs 5,000 and returned the rest to the school. Today, interest on that amount is awarded as the Mohammad Azharuddin Scholarship to the school's most outstanding sportsman of the year.

    But Brother Chacko says Azhar has not helped the school in any other way. "The only times we saw him was when he came for admissions for his friends's children. The school coach is upset with him. He has been chasing Azhar for some financial assistance for the cricket club. Time and again, only promises have been forthcoming, no concrete help."

    Azharuddin Brother Joseph, Azhar's cricket mentor, was in shock when he read newspaper accounts about the CBI report. "Azhar on his own is unable of doing such a thing, unless there are extraneous forces working on him. I want to ask him myself. I guess when money comes in, it changes everything. Azhar has been this honest boy who could do no wrong. How could his honesty wear out like it was a pair of old gloves?"

    Was it indecision or extraneous influence?

    "Azhar is one of the most indecisive men I have ever met. There was a time when he didn't know his bank balance. He is a son every mother would want; obedient and disciplined. He would issue blank cheques to his parents, providing them with everything they asked for," says one of his friends.

    After 1995, Azhar became more arrogant towards the press, greedier than anyone had ever known him to be. He would quote unrealistic amounts for media interviews, seek monetary gains in everything he did. There was something amiss.

    "The Azhar we know was a soft-spoken, simple man. He never had a harsh word to tell anyone. He was shy and not outgoing at all. Azhar was very uneasy as captain. He wanted to come across as an authoritative and commanding skipper, but it is not in his nature to be like that," recalls Venkatapathy Raju.

    Azhar's life changed forever after disgraced South African skipper Hansie Cronje revealed before the King Commision that the Indian cricketer had introduced him to alleged bookie M K Gupta.

    "He kept asking during the King Commission hearings whether Cronje's statements would be believed in India. He would defend Cronje, saying he was being framed. On another occasion he would keep arguing about why the VDIS (Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme) issue was being played up. He said it would be unethical for the government to name those who disclosed unaccounted money," says one of Azhar's business associates.

    Today, Azhar is a prisoner in his home, in his native city. "He has been writing notes to himself, scribbling random thoughts over the past few days. He has rediscovered his faith again. Not long ago, Azhar became careless about saying his prayers and missed his Friday prayers. All that has changed now," recounts a close friend.

    Upendranath went to meet Azhar a few days ago.

    "I went to meet him after the report was out because I could not sleep that night. He told me to relax. "Kuch nahi kiya main. Sab teek ho jayenga, (I have not done anything. Everything will be okay.)"

    "We sat down on the floor for dinner and he said, "Uppi, apni woh zindagi acchi thi cyclewali. Bahut yaad aati hai. (Our old life was good, the times we went cycling. I really miss that.)"

    Everything might have turned out differently. But then.

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