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When Azhar stole the show at Eden Gardens

A quarter of a century ago, if an anonymous boy from a middle-class family could have looked outside his grilled window and woven visions of hitting a century match after match, leading his country, marrying an actress and making it to the country’s highest body of elected representatives, his mother might have yelled from the bawarchikhana: ‘Bewakoof! Phir se sapne dekhta hai!’

Azharuddin’s first century — 25 years ago almost never happened. When captain Gavaskar and manager Chandu Borde walked out to inspect the pitch at the start of the Eden Gardens Test, both had differing recruitment views.

In the absence of Sandeep Patil, Gavaskar proposed that he would drop himself in the order and get the Gaekwad-Srikkanth combination to open. Borde proposed that Azhar play instead. Azhar? SMG felt that it would be a tough ask in front of 90,000 people. Borde persisted. Look at his fielding and stroke-making time. He summed Azhar in two words: ‘Plus cricketer.’ Point clicked. SMG conceded. Azhar was in.

Azhar almost never lasted. In his debut innings, he went at Pat Pocock, missed and was almost sure that Paul Downton would have completed the catch. The England wicket-keeper fumbled. When the day ended, Azhar was 13 not out. Two pictures stand out: Azhar in a white Fred Perry t-shirt (presented by his captain) and in a helmet a few sizes larger than its contents. Azhar went on to his maiden century; his 110 off 322 balls. When he walked in at the Cricket Association of Bengal function for the two teams - I can recollect his awkward tie that ended way above his navel - attendees stood up and applauded. Inside a blooming function. Azhar didn’t know where to look. He explained: "I was flooded with phone calls and was forced to attend a lot of functions. I got such a lot of attention that I began to feel scared of going anywhere."

A hundred in your first Test. A hundred in your second Test. A hundred in your third Test. The English media uncorked the vintage. Not just about the quantum, but the quality. Robin Marlar predicted greatness based on just one Azhar stroke. Pocock to Azhar. A little outside the leg stump. Azhar hit the ball behind the wicket-keeper. Most would have done so with a horizontal or angled bat. Azhar did so with a straight one, bringing his bat down and into his body at the last instant. "I have often been asked to describe perfection in sport. This is it."

Thousands materialised on the tarmac in an India that in those days interpreted security only as ‘financial paper’. Newspapers carried pictures of the mother — eyes closed and ecstatic — hugging the star’s head. Sportsworld put ‘Hazaruddin’ on the cover. Amul punned as usual ‘Hazarodin ka taste record’.

Sunday editor MJ Akbar summoned naacheez from the adjoining cubicle. "Go to Hyderabad and do a bloody cover story," he proclaimed. No second sentence. No guidelines. No speaking to my editor (I used to work for Sportsworld belonging to the same Group). No latent interest conflict.

Everyone and his brother were trying to get through the door when I got there. ‘Aap shaam ko aaiyyega, abhi to paagalpan hai,’ pleaded the father. And then added the usual detail ‘We are a very religious family. The mother’s side comes from Samarqand. We are not really poor as some in the media have said. We gave our boy a good education.’

In only five weeks since he had first walked out to bat for his country, the media had already speculated on the growing jealousy between the captain and protégé as the former was nowhere to be seen on the balcony when the young man had got his third hundred (SMG maintained the team had taller cricketers). Ramolene Saris had paid Azhar Rs 25,000 to pose with two models, he had been reduced to offering his left hand to a growing population of well wishers after his right had all been crushed, and had been compelled to give up his cycle for a taxi provided by a well wisher, to be parked outside his house so that he could be ferried anonymously across the city — for free!

Someone ought to make a film on this aadmi. I wouldn’t miss the post-intermission segment even if someone gave me a free DVD viewing of Citizen Kane.

Mid Day

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