"Azhar ka ghar pata hai?" I asked the autorickshaw driver in Hyderabad.
"Hao saab, Banjara 14 pe rahete hai unney. Baitho saab," the
bearded gentleman said.
It was half past six when the autorickshaw halted outside a two-storied mansion. Plot 164 on Banjara Hills 14. A guard walked up; before I could ask, he said no one was home. I quickly scribbled a note along with my business card and asked him to pass it on inside.
As I waited anxiously, memories of previous encounters with the man flashed across my mind.
This has been an emotional journey for me. Azhar has been a childhood hero, as he has been for so many others. My acquaintance with the game coincided with his international debut and there was no looking back on either.
My hero, it appeared to me, had now embarked on the path of self-destruction. I travelled to Hyderabad to search for answers. I had spoken to his friends, relatives, adversaries and others acquainted with him. I had collected a lot of information, but still had no answers.
I had to meet him! Not only as a journalist, but also as an appalled fan, restless with doubt. How could I let 15 years of idolatry evaporate in days? I needed answers.
Just then I heard the gate sway open and walked into the fortress that held captive Mohammad Azharuddin.
"Saab, hum bhi milna chahte hai Azharbhai se (I also want to meet Azharbhai)." the autorickshaw driver said.
As I made my way to the entrance, the guard asked me to leave my bag behind.
"I have money in it," I said as I walked in with the bag, prepared to convince my hosts that it had no sophisticated recording device plugged in.
I sat in the office on the ground floor, adjacent to the stairs, staring at Azhar's portrait with the Hero Cup on the wall.
Sangeeta Bijlani walked into the room, a wry smile obscuring her concern, looking pale. "I am anaemic. I have always been anaemic. They think I have become like this due to the crisis," she said, in response to my inquiry.
"You are the first person we are seeing in eight days. We have had reporters and photographers outside the house for days."
Azhar walked in. Nothing had changed, I told myself, since the last time I met
him. Dressed in a white embroidered kurta–pyjama, he shook hands and asked: "Valekum Assalam, kaise aana hua Hyderabad?"
This was not what I had expected. An unperturbed Azhar after the CBI report on matchfixing was the last thing I could have imagined. Images of a shattered hero soon metamorphosed into one who appeared at ease with himself, unaware of the ire of a nation.
There was a minute's silence, which seemed to last an epoch, as we settled into our
seats. I furiously evaluated my inquiries. It was a tough time for the couple
and it showed on them. It was a tough time for me.
The arrival of tea and biscuits brought some acoustic relief as Azhar enlightened me on the history of Hyderabad's fruit biscuits.
Our doubts are traitors, and they often make us lose the chance to win by refusing to make the attempt. I hesitated again. Should I ask: "Did you do it?" Or must it be: "Why did you do it?"
"Did you say all that to the CBI?" I finally pushed the words through my
"They asked and they answered," he said with his trademark shake of the head.
"Is it true that your lockers during Operation Gentleman were found empty?"
"You have answered the question yourself."
"Why don't you issue a statement then? Why don't you send a message to your fans,
"I have said I will talk at an appropriate time. Not right now. I have nothing to
say," Azhar replied.
"The media's role has been very disappointing. The media has become
an entertainer. Every day you pick up the newspaper and you have a new
juicy story in it. No one bothers to check any facts."
During the conversation the couple claimed that the well publicised picture of Sangeeta with a video camera alongside a dark man did not feature Hamid Cassim 'Banjo,' the alleged South African middleman between 'bookie' Sanjeev Chawla and disgraced Proteas skipper Hansie Cronje. The couple said the gent in question is Faazil, a cricket fan from the Caribbean. The video camera is Sangeeta's and she was shooting the Indian cricket team at practice as requested by Anshuman Gaekwad, the team coach during the Sahara Cup in Toronto.
"How do you spend your time these days?" I asked.
"Kya to bhi likta baitha hoon. Jo dil mein aata hain, likta hoon. (I keep writing
something or the other. Whatever comes to mind)." Sangeeta, on the other hand, paints for a good part of the day.
Azhar follows the India team's fortunes closely. He saw the Coca-Cola Cup final at Sharjah when India was bundled out for 54. "The moment Saurav and Sachin were dismissed, I knew the match was over. Yuvraj Singh could have turned the tide, but he can't play Murali," he said.
A week before the CBI report was released, Azhar stated he would play for Hyderabad in the Ranji Trophy game against Kerala, serving notice that he had something left in the gas tank, despite a sore back.
"So what did my friends tell you about me? What do they say now?" he asked.
"All of them blame Sangeeta, saying she is the cause of all that is going wrong in your life. That she has been responsible for the fallout with your friends," I replied.
Azhar smiled, glancing at Sangeeta. "Wonder what would have happened if I hadn't
broken all ties with them? I would have been in deeper trouble."
"Have you ever indulged in match-fixing?" I asked.
"Sab galat baata hai yeh. Kuch nahi kiya main aisa. (This is all wrong. I have done nothing of this kind). I don't have any links with the underworld," he declared.
"How do I know who I click a picture with everytime?" he asked. "Allah badnami deta hai aur woh hi bachata hai. Tum dekhna (He defames and He alone saves. You see)."
We believe what we want to believe. So I wanted to believe Azhar that
We discussed other cricketing matters during the two hour long conversation:
"When I got that hundred in Calcutta against South Africa, they said I was
trying to get out and thus got the hundred...
"I was the person who told the
team management to drop me for one of the games in the West Indies because I
wasn't feeling up to it. I thought another player at that moment would have been a
"I have always been ready to help the team in any manner. I told the coach (Madan Lal) that I would take care of the fielding drill. The first day I worked with the boys; after that Madan took over again. If you want me to be involved let me be in charge, hand over a responsibility, then if I don't do it, blame me."
Azhar was said to be aloof when he led the national side. "Azhar was a generation ahead of us. We would be uneasy having him around," said a team-mate. "I always stayed away because I thought the boys would feel uneasy having me around. They are young and want to have fun. Why should I spoil their fun?" he says in defence.
He had no answer when I asked if he had ever met M K Gupta, the alleged bookie whom he reportedly introduced to Cronje.
"The IT people were inquiring about some farmhouse I had on the outskirts of the city. I want to know too where I have a farmhouse. Jo dil me aa raha hai bol rahe hain (They say whatever they want to)." he said.
"The counter-attack is on, S S Dhindsa's ouster from the sports portfolio is an indicator of things to come," said a close friend.
As I left, Azhar's sons were busy lighting fireworks, oblivious to their father's dilemma. I won't say I was convinced by Azhar's declarations of innocence, but I felt the whole truth is not out, yet. Azhar's story is incomplete, even if the CBI report is not the complete manuscript on cricket's current imbroglio.
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