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March 4, 2000


Indian Safari

The Rediff Cricket Interview/ Mohammad Azharuddin

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'If I was aloof I wouldn't have been able to win so many games'

They call Mohammad Azharuddin destiny's child, but that is taking away much from a man who has perfected the motto 'never-say-die'.

The Hyderabadi swashbuckler, who stamped his arrival on the international arena with a hat-trick of Test centuries on debut in 1984-85, is India's most successful captain, and has increasingly made more comebacks than Mohammad Ali. He was dropped from the Indian team for the Independence Cup in 1997, only to return to the helm a year later.

More recently, he was out of contention for the disaster Down Under, but managed to win his way back for the Test series against South Africa. Injury ruled him out of the first Test, but he is in Bangalore playing his 99th Test. Perhaps he will play some more Tests as he aspires to leave his mark as one of the most entertaining batsmen in recent times.

A wildlife enthusiast and linguist who loves to quote Persian poetry, the 37-year-old Aquarian spoke to Cricket Correspondent Faisal Shariff in an exclusive interview just before the second Test.

Azza, as never before.

What is the main reason that you want to get back into the national side? Is it just your passion for the game or do you want to prove a point to your detractors?

No, I am not trying to prove a point. I love the game and I surely feel that I have a lot of cricket left in me. I feel I can still compete with the best, and I have a lot of confidence in my ability. Also, I have a lot of cricket to offer.

The last time you played a Test for India was a year ago (against Sri Lanka, in Colombo on February 24, 1999). How does it feel playing after a year?

It feels very exciting because I have not played for a long time. Hopefully, things will fall in place. I am looking forward to a good performance.

The taveez has been your trademark ever since you made your debut. Of late you seem to be wearing two of those lucky charms. What is the reason for that?

No, there is nothing in it. It is just for my protection. My grandfather gave this to me so I keep taking it off and putting it on.

You had an unmatched Test debut when you scored those three consecutive hundreds against England. Could you take me through your first hundred, the moment when you were padded up, awaiting your turn to bat? What were the thoughts going through your mind?

I think, first of all, I was not supposed to play in that Test because Sunil Gavaskar was the captain and he wanted to go in at number five. But the selector at that time -- Chandu Borde -- insisted that I play that game. So I was very nervous. I knew I had done a lot of hard work. And then suddenly I was playing Test cricket. It was exciting, even though I had mixed feelings.

I was happy and unnerved. Getting into the ground with so many people watching me was a tremendous feeling. I was happy I got to bat on the first day itself and it was not a long wait.

Getting to those hundreds in your first three Tests must have been a thrilling experience. Do you think it happened too fast or were you in control at that moment?

To be honest, I had a very level head even though everything came so quickly. I could really take things one at a time and I never lost my head. The fact that I had attained stardom never affected me too much. I think I handled that part very well because it was a very trying moment for me. I had lost my grandfather just a month-and-a-half before I made my debut. I was suddenly scoring runs and getting into the fray. It was a very trying period for me. I was happy as well as sad.

Your grandfather had been the most influential person in your life. What kind of difference did he make to you as a person?

Everything, whatever I am today is because of him. He instilled all the basics of life in me. He used to guide me in every respect. I think I was very lucky, I reckon, to have had him in my life. Because if it hadn't been for him and my parents, I would have really struggled.

What kind of a relationship did you share with him?

Every day with him was a new learning experience for me. I used to sit with him all the time when I was not practicing or when I was not in college. I would sit with him and talk; find out why he thought the way that he did. I opposed him all the time. He used to convince me because he knew that I would never accept anything without being convinced about it.

He would convince me about every aspect of life. I used to put wrong questions to him all the time. He would never get impatient with me. He would say I know what you want from me.

Why did you choose cricket? Were you not interested in other sports?

My uncle used to play cricket. I got used to the game at home. As kids we used to all wonder seeing the bats lying around the house. As we grew older we realised what the game was all about and then our interest in the game grew.

Did you ever think you would play for India some day?

No one thinks at that time of playing for India. It's too early. It's only after you play in Ranji or Duleep Trophy games do you feel that you can go ahead. Everyone wants to play for the country. Every one has that in mind but you don't know for sure. It was only after I made my Duleep Trophy debut did I think I had a realistic chance to play for India. I scored a double hundred and I realised that I had the potential to play for my country, because I played the best bowlers in the country at that time.

Your hundred at Lord's in 1990 has been regarded as one of the finest ever...

I was really playing well during that period of time. Right from the Pakistan tour I was hitting the ball really well. Even in the one-day games I scored a lot of runs. When I went out to bat there were a lot of loose balls; there were three slips, four gullies and there were a lot of boundaries for the taking. I hit almost 12 boundaries while on 52. There are times when you just feel you can hit; I just carry on.

You have played under six captains -- Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Dilip Vengsarkar, Krishnamachari Srikkanth, Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar -- during your career, thus far. What aspect of each one's captaincy did you imbibe when you took over the mantle from them? Was your style of captaincy ever influenced by any of them?

All of them had different styles of captaincy. I have enjoyed each one's captaincy. To pick one thing from each one's captaincy would not be fair for me to comment. My style of captaincy was always different from each of them. I have never been influenced by any of them.

What, according to you, is the essence of captaincy?

First of all, you have to have a lot of patience. You should also be ready to receive flak. When you are in that position, everybody gets after you the moment you make a mistake. You have to be ready for that. You have to fight it out. You can't just leave things to fate and lose. You have to fight it out. You have to first prove to yourself and then to the people. The biggest thing is to first prove something to yourself and then to the people. You have to have a good rapport with the players and respect them. Only then will they respect you.

How difficult was it for you after becoming captain, and having four ex-captains playing under you?

I honestly felt it was good for me because I have played under those people; their experience helped me immensely. I always used to go up to them and talk to them. There was never a time when I did not take them into confidence. I felt so good that I had so many people backing me up.

Were there no ego clashes with so many senior players in the side?

Only if you have an ego will others have an ego.

In the 1990 Lord's Test, in which Graham Gooch scored 333 runs, what influenced your decision to field first after winning the toss?

There was a lot of cloud cover and the wicket was a little fresh. We did get a couple of wickets, but Gooch was dropped early on. I have no complaints and I stand by my decision. I won't say if they scored 600 runs I made a mistake.

Do you rue the fact that you led India in three World Cups, but failed to win any of them?

I am disappointed; it was not meant to be. I tried my best, but since it was not meant to be it didn't happen.

Besides luck, which other factors would you attribute to your success?

Honesty, and a respect for others. My hard work, perseverance and the willingness to succeed, the willingness to improve at all times. These things make a lot of difference to one's life.

You were known to be aloof as captain. There were accusations you didn't mix around with the younger players. How true are these reports?

It is totally baseless and unnecessary talk. I have read about this and heard about this. It has gone too far ahead. If I was aloof from the boys I wouldn't have been able to win so many games.

You will not be able to get a side together all the time. I think to lead the side for 7.5 to 8 years is no mean feat. I thank the Board and the selectors for having faith in me for so many years. I have failed at times, but I think that is only human. You try and achieve excellence and you have to work hard at it.

Now that you are not the captain anymore how would you assess yourself as a captain?

I have learnt a lot. Look, captaincy was new to me. Earlier, I was a bit defensive but after that South African tour I became more attacking and I started talking more. At that time people didn't like it. When I wasn't talking, people started saying that he doesn't talk much and doesn't give correct answers to the press; that I was abrupt.

When I started talking, they didn't like it either. But it's good for me. I really changed though people didn't like it.

You were under enormous pressure for the Test series against England at home in 1993, after losing the South Africa series.

I have always been under pressure. It is always good to be under pressure, so you perform all the time. You know you have to be on your toes; it keeps you there all the time.

Your favourite venue, Eden Gardens, gave you your most bitter moments during the semi-final game against Sri Lanka in the 1996 World Cup. What do you think went wrong?

We didn't play well. I think we did very well by grabbing three early wickets. But having said that, I give full credit to Aravinda de Silva for playing that innings. He got 60-odd runs, but found the fence too often.

You think we should have played to our strengths rather than playing into the hands of the opposition?

I think we had been doing well chasing most of the times and it was a collective decision. It was a decision collectively taken by the team and we stand by it. I think we didn't bat well.

As captain you had a lot of victories at home on tailor-made wickets? Do you think the home advantage factor is justified?

Of course, we should take home advantage. And why not? When we go overseas we get nothing out of the wicket; there is absolutely no turn. We have a side where we have a lot of spinners and I think we should take that advantage.

If that is the case then how will we start winning overseas?

I think for that we need to start from the grass root levels; from the Ranji Trophy levels. You can't say 'make bouncy wickets now'. You have to take home advantage. There are a lot of things being said about making the wickets more bouncy and sporting. They can't do that overnight. It will take a while; not 10, 15 days or two months. It will take more than a year or two for that to happen.

So when you talk of home advantage, what kind of wickets are you talking about?

We should make wickets keeping in mind what our strengths are. We have good spinners so we should make wickets that take turn.

Photographs: Jewella C Miranda

'Everyone gets dropped from the side sometime or the other. That does not mean relationships get soured'