Mohammad Azharuddin
Bandeep Singh / © India Today Group/Getty Images

Hate to Love

The Azhar connection

To a young Muslim fan in India, every step of the way was complicated

Prayaag Akbar |

When I was a young boy, I inherited a splendid collection of Enid Blytons from my sister, among which was a book called The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. One story that made a deep impression on me had a boy who liked to make faces. When the wind changed - the story probably derives from English folklore; it is the right kind of bleak - the face he was pulling froze. The boy was a neighbour, an interloper in Blyton's hermetic universe at the bottom of the garden, and I recall it was made quite clear at the start that no one liked him very much.

It must have been soon after reading this story that Mohammad Azharuddin tiptoed into my imagination, because the first thing I remember wondering about him is if, like desolate, dark Thomas, his face had also frozen into a scowl when the wind changed. It was the most distinctive thing about his appearance, incisors bared underneath an upturned lip, crinkling around the eyes. Or perhaps it was something else, the sense of jerking unease that seemed to spring from him at every moment he did not have a bat in his hand. Through his long cricketing career Azhar had the air of the wary outsider.

But how different he was when a leather ball was hurtling towards him. Spare seconds of calm would descend. If he was feeling good the delivery would be despatched, flourished through the covers or turned over like an egg through the on side, a gangly man finding poetic unison for a startling second. Then he would turn and straighten for the run and the mild hunch would once again become a deformity, no longer the parabola of his stance, his limbs in semi-flail, all Gower-grace and languid beauty relinquished until it needed to be summoned again, tapping at the popping crease, doing what he seemed born to do.

In which Azhar makes fellow stylist David Gower leap, flinching, to avoid a square cut, at Edgbaston in 1986

In which Azhar makes fellow stylist David Gower leap, flinching, to avoid a square cut, at Edgbaston in 1986 © PA Photos/Getty Images

Tendulkar was an early favourite, and after Lord's '96 I have never looked past Rahul Dravid. I now think that I backed into an admiration for Azharuddin as I grew into my teens, as the understanding sharpened that the world would always see me as Muslim no matter how much I denied I was different. With Azhar it was never hero worship in the manner of Sachin and Rahul. It was a more adult emotion. His sporadic successes brought a pure, welling pleasure, an instinctual upsurge no other cricketer offered, along with the nagging sense that, more than any of the team's natural heroes, it was this awkward, peculiar misfit who was truly my kin.

People now say they always suspected Azhar, but mutterings followed him throughout his career, well before most of us could contemplate that cricketers were fixing matches. I remember, because they cut me to the quick. See he wears that white helmet, not the India one like Sachin. The suspicions centred on the supposed infidelity of the Indian Muslim. I would point out that Azhar captained India in our first three World Cup victories over Pakistan, that he'd scored wonderful runs against them on many occasions, like the madcap 24 runs he took off Ata-ur-Rehman's final over to push India past 300 for the first time in a one-dayer, but it felt like spitting into the wind. He's a Muslim, yaar, he'll always secretly play for Pakistan.

If there was a big match on, students from the senior classes at school would sneak over to the AV room in the somnolent hours after lunch to catch 20 or 30 minutes of the action. This was a long, cavernous room, tube-lit and drafty, up front a TV that resembled a solid brick wall. I could not understand why Azhar inspired such high-volume derision. It was the tail end of his career, admittedly, but it seemed even success could only be met with grudging approval - the flagrant century against South Africa at Eden Gardens, for instance, where he swapped the silken wand for a broadsword. Perhaps it was just Delhi, perhaps only my school, though I hardly think that likely. If I had an inkling of the reason, I did not allow myself to accept it: it can't be that they hate me, hate my people, it is something else. But another voice would intrude: they don't know better, parroting the soft prejudices heard in living rooms, the waning throbs of Partition, in Ayodhya the temple upon the mosque and the mosque upon the temple, the complicated histories of Hindus and Muslims in this land, every wheel forever spinning, Azhar and me whirling with.

Before the fall: Azharuddin third from left with his fellow captains at the opening ceremony for the 1992 World Cup

Before the fall: Azharuddin third from left with his fellow captains at the opening ceremony for the 1992 World Cup © Getty Images

Of course, this made Azhar's betrayal all the more difficult to take. Between Bollywood and Dawood the notion of the Muslim gangster had been hardwired in Indian minds, and Azharuddin's protracted dalliance with bookmakers came like yet another starburst of Muslim criminality. I stopped watching cricket for a couple of years then. It was as if his allegiance had been tied to my own, and suddenly I was adrift.

In the years after the scandal broke I noticed something else. Google "match fixing scandal Indian cricket" and, fittingly, the first thing that comes up is an ESPNcricinfo piece entitled "The fall of Azharuddin". The other Indians involved seemed to drop away, until the entirety of the blame fixed upon Azharuddin. The roles of Manoj Prabhakar, Ajay Jadeja, Ajay Sharma and Nayan Mongia seemed wiped from public memory. Kapil Dev cried on the BBC and pledged his innocence and we said okay. Public allegations against previous Indian captains were barely investigated. Jadeja's absolution I found particularly galling. Though the charges against him were rather less severe, it seemed as if India's media was only too happy to contrast the impish princeling with the malevolent mullah. I remember telling myself, perhaps this is the way it will always be here; live with what probity you can muster, because we will be held to a different standard.

I have no idea if Azharuddin faced prejudice within the Indian team, though I have one second-hand story. We were sitting on the junior-school field on a hot winter afternoon, picking at the scant grass, when my friend told us about an uncle who'd attended a party at the Delhi home of a beloved former captain. "Miyan can't make runs against Pakistan," the legend told his guests about the current captain. At that age I could not comprehend the roundness of the insult, I could only internalise it. There is no indication that this gent made Azhar's life difficult in any way during their time together in the team, or even if he himself believed the claim when his hand was not wrapped around a whisky. But I bet no one countered him at that party, just as I kept mum when my friend related the story.

On the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, with his wife, the actor Sangeeta Bijlani, and former team-mate Kapil Dev

On the campaign trail in Uttar Pradesh in 2009, with his wife, the actor Sangeeta Bijlani, and former team-mate Kapil Dev © AFP / Getty Images

Azharuddin was a mystifying batsman, at sea against pace one day and then taking apart the same attack on a much quicker pitch. When the mood came upon him he could be wonderfully destructive, elegant flicks followed by hoicked six. He will never really shed the scarlet letter he was worn since 2000, which is no less than he deserves, but there has been a rehabilitation of sorts. He was a member of parliament; whether this sanctifies or tarnishes him further is up for debate. He has the occasional media gig. A tacky Bollywood biopic was released recently, with his approval. But I prefer to think of him from well before all this, as a young World Cup captain in Australia, among the most feared batsmen in the world, when he played a number of bravura knocks at No. 3 in the short time India spent in the tournament, usually as our incumbent Advocate of Attack, Ravi Shastri, was plodding his way to 10 off 50 balls.

To me this was the saddest part of the fixing. We will never know precisely how much Azhar had to offer, and all that was of wonder is now smeared with greed.

Prayaag Akbar is the author of Leila, out on the subcontinent and to be published in the UK and the rest of the Commonwealth in July 2018





  • POSTED BY Palash Verma on | December 26, 2017, 4:39 GMT

    Have to agree with most of the comments here. This is a very disappointing article. I agree that there are people who may have offended the writer, but there are idiots everywhere and there is a degree of bias everywhere. To extrapolate this and paint everyone else with the same brush is in very poor taste. Many people might have hated Azhar but many loved him too. Ditto with Sreesanth. They have both fallen from grace due to what they did and the fact that they betrayed the game and the fans. What consequences they face, has nothing to do with religion. Have Indians ever loved a President more than Dr. Kalam or admired a musician more than A R Rahman? Don't make everything about religion. Especially, in cases where it has nothing to do with it.

  • POSTED BY Tony Vinayak on | December 26, 2017, 1:26 GMT

    Trite, banal article. I am surprised it made the editorial cut. Hard to believe the distinct slant that the author has towards attributing much of Azhar's ill fate to religious discrimination. Crying out loud, he was promoted to be CAPTAIN of the Indian cricket team -- I cannot think of a greater reward than that for a cricketer in India.

  • POSTED BY naresh on | December 25, 2017, 15:21 GMT

    I was absolutely fascinated with Azhar's batting (everyone called him Azharuddin in the early days) - 3 hundreds in 3 tests. After the first 100 I thought - nobody else got a seond hundred for India other than Vishy. But there he was - 3 in 3. Surely this was magician!?!? I am not sure Sachin;s subdued entrance (at 5 years younger) generated that much immediate excitement.

    I continued to like him even after his on and off performance against the quicks. But I was utterly and irretrievably disgusted after the fixing saga. Sorry mate - nothing to do with religion. At least not from my side.

  • POSTED BY Palash on | December 24, 2017, 6:14 GMT

    This article brought back one lost memory: Azhar and his performance against Pakistan was always under scrutiny much long before 2000 and there was always this trash talk of him colluding with Pak players. Religion is the only thing that they had common and was the basis of such bad mouthing.

  • POSTED BY Sanjay Khan on | December 23, 2017, 21:19 GMT

    A person's perspective is THEIR perspective, sensed by THEIR senses, from the depths of THEIR mind. It seems absurd for others to challenge it. I found the article quite intriguing. And it did not hurt that the writing was some of the best I have read in a while. Bravo! And three cheers to cricket too, which, as far as I am concerned, is unrivaled among all sports in the quality of of the prose it produces.

  • POSTED BY tachan2555114 on | December 23, 2017, 14:28 GMT

    I was a die hard fan of Azhar until he was exposed under match fixing scandal. I know many of my friends were his fans. He screwed up himself for the money and bad connection he had. Remember he was made Indian captain at the early age. If religious was a thing, he wouldn't have been in the team in the first place.

  • POSTED BY Vishnu Garla on | December 23, 2017, 14:27 GMT

    Absolutely wrong. Azhar got much of the blame because he was the captain and senior player. A lot of us admired him growing up (yes even hindus) fondly referring to him as ajju bhai. The higher you rise the harder you fall none of the others were superstars like him. Furthermore, a lot of us felt very sorry for amir (a muslim and a pakistani) when he was caught, we all felt he was naïve and young and it was asif's and more importantly butt's fault. So please stop the false propaganda that he was targeted because of his religious affiliation

  • POSTED BY Andy on | December 23, 2017, 13:18 GMT

    On your other part that Mongia, Jadeja have been forgotten - no they haven't been. Even though the charges against them were much lesser compared to Azhar, people didn't forgive them. Ajay Jadeja was touted to be the next Captain of India, he had an very successful term as captain when Azhar missed the series against Aussies - triseries with Zim. He failed only once & it was in the finals, it was the only match India lost in that series. Azhar bore the main blunt as he was the captain when these allegations were laid & Ajay was vice captain. If the religion bias existed - Azhar might have never become captain - neither the players such as Zaheer Khan, Mohd. Shami, Mohd Kaif, Irfan Pathan, Yusuf Pathan, Iqbal Siddiqui, Mohd. Siraj might have not made it to the team. So please stop bringing religion into these discussions - just because some left wing & right wing politicians try to take voters for a spin.

  • POSTED BY arun124113532 on | December 23, 2017, 13:13 GMT

    I do not agree with the double standards allegation. Azhar was given as fair a trial as everyone else, he was banned by the BCCI and acquitted by the court. The accusation of the public being much more forgiving of Ajay Jadeja or Nayan Mongia looks to be a case of biased imagination. As you yourself have admitted in your piece, the allegations against Jadeja were far less severe. Also, remember that Azhar was captain during the period of the allegations Also, please make note of the recent case of Sreeshanth who has not been allowed to play despite being cleared by the court. This in spite of the fact that he was alleged to be involved only in spot fixing in IPL matches, not match fixing in international games. Since you have made a statement about princelings and mullahs - please remember which faith Sreeshant belongs before making such unfounded instinctive statements about double standards. NB- Azhar was an elected MP, which means the public has forgiven far more than you think.

  • POSTED BY Andy on | December 23, 2017, 13:09 GMT

    Its an well written article Akbar take that. Other than that, I will not agree with any of your points regarding Muslim differentiation. I myself am a Hindu Brahmin & was a fan of him. I started watching cricket from 96 world cup. At that time my favorite cricketers were Sachin, Azhar - that's it. Later became a fan of Ajay Jadeja. I grew up in Chennai around this time & I can bet none of the kids living in my street had any sort of bias with respect to religion (for any sport). Actually one of my neighbors were diehard fans of Azhar. They were Tamil Brahmins. Their kids would not accept anyone belittling Azhar even if he scored a duck in a game, the only time they criticized Azhar was during the Sangeeta fiasco as it was during the Semi-Finals of 96 WC.

  • POSTED BY Cricinfouser on | December 23, 2017, 12:39 GMT

    I remember those beautiful flicks from out side the off to square leg; and the inside out cover drive hit almost as though the bat was a magic wand; the upturned collar; and on the field, within the ring, the one move run-bend-pick-flick at the stumps and the shy, tongue poking expression after the ball catches the stumps from the most unpredictable angle and the running batsman short by an inch or two. I don't remember the religion at all.

  • POSTED BY kausch8123555 on | December 23, 2017, 11:28 GMT

    Terrible piece. How did this meet editorial standards?

    I empathise with his childhood memories, even though I don't relate. Perhaps India is such that only Muslims hear such canards as miyan doesn't hit against Pakistan. Some of my friends were as right wing as they come (worshipped bricks before sending to Ram Janmabhoomi) and they all, we all, used to love Azhar. Because of, as someone says below, "the only international grade fielder in indian team, lithe, destructive batting, fastest century, 3 consecutive test centuries on debut."

    I was recommended the writer's book by friends, but now have second thoughts. Hope this quick hash is not representative of his book or his mind.

  • POSTED BY pawan on | December 23, 2017, 10:51 GMT

    Written in such poor taste. You seem to suggest that Azhar was singled out for being a Muslim. He would not have been appointed as captain of the team if there was any communal prejudice. And don't compare him with Mongia etc. It is because the public loved him the most, they felt cheated the most by him. He was the superstar of the nation before Sachin became one. Despite being a Muslim. Was elected to parliament. Despite being a Muslim. Stop seeing everything with your prejudice tinted glasses.

  • POSTED BY rajanl0990956 on | December 23, 2017, 9:39 GMT

    I can empathize with your sentiment. As a Tamilian growing up in North India I had to suffer for all the crass jokes Mehmood cracked on Bollywood flicks. You could shout yourself hoarse that you had nothing in common but every-time the song 'Ek chatur naar' played on 'Chayageet' you were sure to have your nose rubbed in the dust at school. Sadly when you looked around there wasn't an equally popular hero to come to your rescue. Someone you could point out to and say look, here's one of my kin, now let me hear it from you guys. I went through it all, I'm sure others have done so. I realized one thing. Everyone does it to someone else. North Indians to South Indians, Hindus to Muslims in India, Muslims to Hindus in Bangladesh and Pakistan, Americans to Indians in the US. Prejudices will never go away. We've just got to be prepared to handle it. I've learnt to 'not-hear' them. To allow & offer no reaction. That's the biggest deflator and best cure. Cheers.

  • POSTED BY Nikhil on | December 23, 2017, 9:38 GMT

    Very Disappointing article !! You are acting as a victim in your childhood. Vast Majority of Indians supported him as an Indian Captain. Otherwise why would he be Indian teams captain in the first place. Like yours I did remember watching Cricket in 90s during my school days. Your comparison of him with Ajay Jadeja, Nayan mongia, manoj Prabhakar is laughable as you might forget he (Azhar) has played for long long long time as Indian Captain. Whatever happened was least expected of him.

    You only glorified his career as per your convinience keeping aside whole match fixing saga.

    May be as young Indian Muslim you should have looked up to Abdul Kalam and you would have not ended with broken heart for wrong reasons.

  • POSTED BY Chandrachud Basavaraj on | December 23, 2017, 8:22 GMT

    Nice article Prayaag, interesting to hear the perspective of an Indian Muslim. But "perhaps it was just Delhi" as you say early on. Growing up in Bangalore, in the days before Dada and Rahul, while Sachin was a ubiquitous favourite, Azzu was what we teenage boys wanted to be: collars upturned, backhanded throws from the covers, and unsuccessful attempts at wristy flicks through midwicket (to the admonishment of our school coach). I also found out over those years that several of my uncles & aunts were all Azzu fans. Sure, it did strike me that he wore that white helmet instead of the India blue, but always took it as one of his many idiosyncrasies. While we were all let down by the match-fixing, I personally never saw him in a particular Muslim light. In fact when in an interview circa '00, he claimed he was being targeted for being Muslim, we found it to be a cop-out, as his religion had never been an issue thus far. Hadn't Dungarpur famously offered him, "Miyan, captain banoge?"

  • POSTED BY purushothaman on | December 23, 2017, 8:18 GMT

    Not sure how can such articles be published at all. The whole article seems like a whinge to me and lacks story and finish. I can bring out so many points with examples to rubbish this article, for example complicated being a muslim in india. I have noticed that it could it be more complicated living for a muslim in Australia or usa than India. And different standards for azhar compared to the rest, are you kidding me. This man was a captain of india when he fixed matches and obviously he should be punished severely.

  • POSTED BY Ashish on | December 23, 2017, 7:55 GMT

    I don't deny that there is a bias in the society and it would be impossible as a Muslim to not begrudge his fellow Indians for there careless insinuations and distrust. I have heard that kind of trash talk about Azhar from many including some in my own family. But to say that Azhar was not loved by Indians and that he was penalized more due to his religion is plain wrong. He was made captain twice, before and after an unsuccessful but well deserved capataincy stint of Sachin. People still talk about his batting like they are doing poetry. I was even more impressed by his fielding. He was penalized more than Mongia and Jadeja because HE WAS THE CAPTAIN. And the writer himself agreed that charges against him were more serious. The career of all 3 of them ended after it and Azhar actually lead a better life being an MP while the other two became commentators.

  • POSTED BY r9itya5390926 on | December 23, 2017, 5:43 GMT

    NO HARD FEELINGS Starting first with your point about "The other Indians involved seemed to drop away, until the entirety of the blame fixed upon Azharuddin" i mean this is ridiculous, How can you say that.. think of a situation that MS Dhoni and Suresh Raina are labeled as match fixers to whom criticisers will be more tilted, I can gurantee you it will be MS Dhoni because he was given the most peculiar position of Indian Cricket and by being the captain and then run into those shameful things which tantalize the game which we worship it is OBVIOUS that we will hate him more, That's why Azhar became a hate of heart nothing to do with his religion or anything. "Jadeja's absolution I found particularly galling" 1. One was had a film to clear his image and become HERO and the other remains in a cricket commentatry. 2. One was elected a member of parliament which is elected by the pepole of india ....... (Shreeshant is a Hindu otherwise..) wanted to write more but limit is REACHED

  • POSTED BY Sreekanth on | December 23, 2017, 4:47 GMT

    This whole muslim thing is a retrospective add-on to try and explain his betrayal. Nothing more. How could he have become the captain at such a young age if there was prejudice?

    Azhar was a hero for a lot of indian cricket fans (irrespective of religion) - the only international grade fielder in indian team, lithe, destructive batting, fastest century, 3 consecutive test centuries on debut. You will still find azhar fans today, we have just learnt to shut up.

    Please don't normalize his criminal behavior. He did not need to do it, but did it anyway due to greed.

  • POSTED BY Himadri on | December 23, 2017, 3:22 GMT

    Nice article and well written. I always admired Azhar's batting, even though I am a hindu. No one in India could bat like him in middle order in limited overs cricket back then. Yes, I thought, he was better than Sachin in his time in ODI middle order. Sachin was different when he opened. At that time he had the fastest ODI century for India and some of his innings were outrageous and in those times it was like the magic that Rohit Sharma produces sometimes these days. I feel both him and Ajay Jadeja could have contributed more to Indian cricket if they were not allegedly involved in the match fixing scandal.