Before he was accused of fixing matches and banned by the BCCI and before he entered and disappeared the muddy world of politics, Mohammad Azharuddin was perhaps the most popular Indian cricketer among the masses. He was an amazing batsman- my favorite- and the brilliance of his batting rose from the way he played. Wristy, a supreme artist, Azhar’s batting was a pleasure to watch. His batting defied the rulebook and yet was so simple and easy on the eye. He could flick off stump half volleys to square leg, wristily flick a delivery to mid off and hit a turning leg break through covers. Watching Azhar bat was pure delight and no cricketer gave me more joy than this artist from Hyderabad.
Azhar was the captain of the Indian Cricket team at the 1992 Benson and Hedges World Cup. Like 2015, India had a tough test series prior to the World Cup in Australia and the team also took part in the Benson and Hedges triangular series. Both series were disasters, India losing the five test match series 0-4 and losing in the final of the triangular series. Apart from a glorious stroke filled hundred at the Adelaide Oval, Azhar had a torrid tour with the bat and whispers about his position and place in the team were already being heard. When India lost the first game of the World Cup to England, a game in which Azhar was dismissed for a duck, the knives were truly out for him.
India’s second game against Sri Lanka was washed out meaning that their third game against Australia assumed great significance in the context of the tournament. The game was at the Gabba in Brisbane. Australia batted first and scored 237, with Dean Jones, one of the greatest one day players the game has seen, scoring a 90. Just as the Indian innings started, a thunder storm broke out at the Gabba and play was suspended for a few minutes. A strange rain rule was in place during the Word Cup in 1992. According to this rule, in the event of a reduced game, the best batting overs of the team batting first were to be considered. The match was reduced to 47 overs a side but India’s target was reduced by just one run as the best 47 run scoring overs of the Australian innings were considered for the purpose of calculating the target.
The slightly wet surface and the overcast conditions meant that it was difficult for batsman to put bat to ball, let alone score runs. Australia had a very strong pace attack in Craig Mcdermott, Michael Whitney and Merv Hughes and they were making the ball talk. Srikanth departed early and in walked Azhar amidst gathering clouds, actually and fugitively. He was tentative early on but then the wristy blade began to talk. Anything on the stumps was worked artistically on the leg side and soon Azhar started driving the ball confidently on the offside. The stage was set for the artist and he was performing and delighting his audience.
Indeed it seemed as if Azhar was playing on a different surface for at the other end batsman kept struggling. Ravi Shashtri pottered around for 67 balls for his 25. A young 18 year old by the name of Sachin Tendulkar came and went for 11. Kapil Dev, promoted up the order to increase the scoring rate, scored a run a ball 21 before being deceived by Steve Waugh. The target looked out of reach for the Indians as they were reduced to 128/4 and the asking rate went over 8.
But Azhar was playing a dream innings. The Aussie paceman were treated with scant respect as he effortless drove them all over the ground. When All Border, the Australian captain, tried to stop him from scoring through the on-side, Azhar drove through covers and in one case hit Hughes effortlessly over extra cover for a one bounce four. When they tried bowling short he pulled them or just tucked them using his wrists behind square. This was batting of the highest quality and for a player who was thought to be suspect against the short ball, his batting of the backfoot was of the highest class. Power was never associated with Azhar’s batting but so good was his timing that day that he found the big boundaries on the Gabba with ease.
128/4 soon became 194/4 with Azhar having scored 93 of those and it seemed that we would lead India to an unlikely victory. However on 93 he went for a suicidal single and Allan Border, who had only one stump to aim at, hit the stumps and found Azhar short. It was a stunning piece of fielding to end a sensational innings. Sanjay Manjerkar and the Indian tail, inspired by Azhar’s counter attack carried the fight till the end. Manjrekar scored a valiant 47 of just 42 balls before being run out. In a dramatic last over in which 13 were required by India for a victory, Kiran More struck 2 fours in two balls before being bowled while attempting a third one. With four needed off the last ball, Javagal Srinath swung his bat wildly only for Steve Waugh to drop the catch at deep midwicket. However, Waugh recovered quickly to throw at the striker’s end to find Raju short and eventually giving the Aussies a win by 1 run.
Azhar would emerge as India’s leading run scorer for the tournament, lighting up the grounds of Australia and New Zealand with his dazzling stroke play. But it was his innings at the Gabba that will remain in one’s memory forever.