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December 29, 1997


'I play for respect'

Amrit Mathur

What does a player play for? Obviously there is personal pride, the fierce will from within to do well, the intense desire to outdo others and establish one's superiority. Money, and the prospect of attaining riches, is also a powerful motivator. Fame, media attention and celebrity status are other factors that spur sportsmen.

Besides these tangible gains some are moved by more noble sentiments, such as national glory, to achieve success for the countrymen. A player could be motivated by all these, in different measures, a bit of this and a bit of that.

There is also related question of whether the player plays for himself or the team? Specially when he is required to sacrifice personal interest for the larger good-as in the case of the number six in one dayers who is forced to throw his bat around, chasing impossible runs in the end.

Whether a player is disregarding team interest is not always easy to establish. Judgement in such matters is difficult, and perceptions, more than facts, come into play. But opinions/perceptions differ. And though conclusions are hard to come by, even a mere hint of the abandonment of common good is serious indeed. Political netas are frequently punished for anti-party activities but for a top player to be publicly admonished for an anti-team attitude is quite unprecedented.

Which is why when the selectors had a chat with Azharuddin over his attitude -- and then made a media announcement to this effect -- they were effectively telling him something.

They were obviously reacted to report that Azhar did not care, that he deliberately engineered dismissals, conspired to cause defeats and secretly coveted Sachin's job. All this is serious stuff -- if true, the man needs to be summarily sacked not just rebuked. A dressing down is like challaning a bus driver 100 rupees for drowning 50 persons in Wazirabad.

But the point is, would Azhar do all these things? Consider the facts: Fifteen years of top cricket, of representing the country with distinction. From all accounts a wonderful ambassador, always correct and dignified. But suddenly now, he is highly suspect, tainted, untrustworthy.

Perhaps this is overreaction. Television images magnify mistakes of players and make them appear dreadfully foolish. Replays and acid comments from experts only worsen the situation. Everyone is constantly under the microscope and judgements are usually harsh. And if the team suffers a humiliating defeat, that too in the charged atmosphere of Sharjah, then you are guilty, even on flimsy evidence. It is just too bad.

What's overlooked is that run outs are a matter of a minor misjudgement, sometimes what separates great running (deserving high praise from experts) from a tragic dismissal is two inches -- the poor batsmen could be caught on the line. Can a calculated risk be construed as a deliberate attempt do dump the team? Sport hinges on this fine judgement. It is always a delicate balance -- contests are decided on very small margins. Every top competitor is constantly making these tough decisions -- at high speed, under huge pressure. He will foul up sometimes, but that shouldn't make him an idiot. Or an insensitive member without concern for the team.

As expected, Azhar strongly denounced rumours about lack of involvement with the team. As it is, with Navjot Sidhu, the other senior in the squad, he repeatedly talks of values, dignity and honour. The reason being that Azhar had a strict upbringing. His grandfather insisted on regular education and learning the right qualities. No wonder both Azhar and Sidhu remember their elders, talk about education, and freely acknowledge the importance of the dua of countless fans.

I recall a philosophical Azhar on his recall to the India team after being sidelined for the independence up. There he was in the dressing room at Bangalore awaiting his turn to have a go in the nets, humbly accepting the good wishes of people streaming in to greet him. "I am happy to be back," he said, "but missing out on a special tournament to celebrate India's half century is a great pain."

At that point Azhar seemed detached, almost unemotional, as though looking at himself from a distance.

"It is good to have so many people coming to you," he said. "As a current Test player you get everything in terms of fame, name and whatever. What is more important is what you have once you've retired. How people react to you after your playing days are over is what matters. Respect at that time is the most important thing in life. I play for respect."

Amrit Mathur

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