AROUND lunch time on the final day of the Lord's Test last fortnight, after Graeme Hick snicked a snorter from Venkatesh Prasad, success-starved India were in sight of meat. Six England batsmen were gone with next to nothing on the board. Jack Russell was pottering around. Javagal Srinath was hurling fire. Even the pessimists were beginning to agree: an attacking field, a little more pressure, quick bowling changes, and the tourists could romp home. And, at the Mecca of Cricket, Mohammed Azharuddin would probably get a fresh lease of life as captain.
But the Indians' self-esteem, after having lost the one-day series, the first Test at Edgbaston and a match against Derbyshire, was so low, and the satisfaction of obtaining a skimpy 85-run lead and pushing the hosts on the defensive for the first time so high that they were glad to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory. And a grand opportunity to square the series and secure only the 12th win abroad in India's 64-year cricket history was lost. And Azhar's angry claim before the World Cup—"I'm going to be there for another four years"—went down the drain, along with Dickie Bird's tears.
Actually, any chances India had of pulling off a shocker had been blown a full 24 hours earlier. Rahul Dravid, stuck on the threshold of following Saurav Ganguly into the record books, was allowed to prod on (45 minutes at 79) when India had sneaked past the hosts' 344. After Dravid fell five short, last man Prasad was sent in, to the amazement of all who were expecting a declaration to force a decision. As the battle went on, it became clear: the tactical acumen of India's most successful captain—more successful than Sunil Gavaskar and 'Tiger' Pataudi—was nothing to write home about.
To be fair, 'tactical acumen' has never been Azhar's forte—or boast. "Mian, captain banoge?" asked Raj Singh Dungarpur, and captaincy was thrust on Azharuddin as simply as that. The lack of grooming always showed. Brian Lara says the West Indies would have lost the second Test in Bombay in 1994-95 but for a delayed declaration by India. Azhar himself believes he leads a team of professionals who don't need to be reminded at every step with wild gesticulations what they ought to do. But this was England, and the team was fighting with its back to the wall. And Azhar's job—rankled by personal and professional problems—was on the line.
But far from pressing home the advantage, Azhar let Prasad and Srinath and Anil Kumble bowl on and on as the change bowlers, Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly, looked askance. "He is much too conservative in his leadership and doesn't experiment. Whether or not he had the confidence in Ganguly, he should've tried him out," says West Bengal MP Ashok Mitra. Ganguly it was who fin-ally gave India the breakthrough, but it was too late. Adds veteran cricket journalist K.N. Prabhu: "Azhar's handling of his team and his choice of players shows he hasn't studied the game." And as Alan Lee of The Times, London, wrote: "Field settings were equivocal as if the Indians suspected a plot to embarrass them late in the day. It was three hours before Azhar looked beyond his three main bowlers, indicating a lack of imagination or a lack of faith."
Even Azhar's admirers admit he's no great tactician. In 1990, after winning the toss, he put England in to bat at Lord's, and Graham Gooch's men knocked up 600-odd runs. Showing rare courage, he did the same last fortnight, but luck was on his side. Before the start, England manager David Lloyd asked Azhar which ball he was planning to use: Dukes or Reader's. Azhar told Lloyd to use whichever ball he wanted. Lloyd picked Dukes. Azhar chose Reader's, and Prasad and Srinath had the Englishmen hopping around. "He's too timid and unimaginative, however aggressive and elegant he is as a batsman," says cricket writer Arvind Lavakare. Azhar says he's fed up of being told that he isn't up to the rough and tumble of international cricket: "If I wasn't would I have survived 12 years?"
Thanks to the heroic efforts of debutants Ganguly and Dravid, India managed to stave off defeat in the Lord's Test after the humiliating loss to Derbyshire (which last won the county championship in 1936). But the answer to that oft-asked question—"Is it the end of the road for the nation's longest surviving captain?"—is by the day beginning to look more and more certain. Says former Hampshire captain Mark Nicholas: "Azhar is an entertainer who has no place in politics and no time for cynics. He has made his mistakes and they're part of his charm. One cannot help but think it would be better for him if soon he was not the boss."Adds commentator Narottam Puri: "Azhar's days are nearly over. He isn't focussed any more. He doesn't seem to have any friends left in the team."
But there are a few who dislike Azhar's trial by media. "It is totally wrong and unfair that Azhar is being hung by a group of people who know nothing about cricket—the public at large," says cricket historian Ramachandra Guha. "It's revolting and disgusting when The Times of India says on its front page that a nationwide poll, which is actually a few thousand people on the streets in a couple of cities, reveals Azhar should be removed. Azhar will be judged by people who know the game and have played 96 Test matches like Gundappa Viswanath and those in position of responsibility."
Viswanath, the chairman of the selectors, will probably not be there as his term ends soon. A new set of selectors—with the west zone representative likely to be Dilip Vengsarkar—will meet on September 29 to decide who will lead the team to South Africa later this year. Incidentally, Vengsarkar has been openly critical of the team's selection and handling. But before the selectors meet, India will play the Singer Cup one-day series at home in August and the Friendship Series with Pakistan in Canada in September, giving them two more chances to round off the Lord's turnaround.
But the pundits have no doubt that the gong has struck for Azharuddin. They say he isn't a teamman, he isn't tough, doesn't have the vision and doesn't stand by his teammates. "Azhar has burnt his boats with the cricket board, which had supported him all this while in spite of mounting criticism because of his poor captaincy and off-the-field escapades," says a former Bombay Test star. "He'll go not long after the tourists return from Ol' Blighty later this month." Says Madhavrao Scindia, former president of the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI): "It's the captain's job to ensure the norms of discipline. It has to come from the top." The writing on the wall is clear:
Azhar himself seems hardly concerned whether he'll get to keep the job or lose it. After seven years at the helm, longer than Gavaskar and Pataudi, and with three wins more than both, talk of renunciation comes easily to him these days. "I think others are more worried about my captaincy," Azhar told The Hindu in an interview over the weekend. "I'm not worried. I try to do the job to the best of my ability. If I lose the captaincy, so be it." Admittedly, nothing on-field or off has gone right for the magi-cian from Hyderabad, starting with India's defeat in the semi-finals of the World Cup against Sri Lanka in Calcutta. As batsman, of late, he has looked distinctly distracted and preoccupied (he left his bats in his hotel room on the day of the World Cup quarter-finals against Pakistan in Bangalore). He has dropped vital catches. Plus, there has been all that media attention on his personal life. He has batted badly. And, above all, his image of a gentleman-cricketer in the mould of Gundappa Viswanath has fallen a few notches after the Manoj Prabhakar and Navjot Sidhu controversies.
His young team's miserable show hasn't helped. "It's natural to blame the captain whenever the team does badly," says former Test all-rounder Roger Binny. "I feel Azhar should have taken some time off as captain. He has played too much cricket." But Azhar knew only too well the out-of-sight, out-of-mind world of Indian cricket, and stayed on. K. Srikkanth, who skipped a domestic tournament after drawing a series against Pakistan in Pakistan, thinking he was assured of his job, was sacked. And the baton came into Azhar's hands. Ironically, Azhar went to Pakistan because of Srikkanth's insistence. Azhar returned the favour when the team was being chosen for the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
There was nothing much Azhar could do with the harakiri, some of it forced, some of it self-inflicted, in the first half of the England tour. In biting cold weather in which the spinners were finding it difficult to grip the ball, Azhar found the selectors had given him one spinner more and one seamer less. He had only one full-fledged opener, only one wicketkeeper. Azhar's decision to ask for Salil Ankola after Sidhu walked out was seen as a deserving slap on the selectors' face. But that move, like so many on the tour, was fraught with its own inadequacies. Ankola, who had played his only Test match in 1989, was overweight and in no position to play international cricket.
Also, it was India's first full-fledged overseas tour in three years after the disastrous visit to South Africa in 1992-93. Result: in the 18 months before the Edgbaston Test, Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser scored more Test runs than Tendulkar. Ravi Shastri says six Test matches a year are essential. The board, meanwhile, has lined up 14 Tests in the next 12 months. "The surfeit of one-day matches played havoc. Tests are Tests and one-dayers are one-dayers, and the twain shall not meet," says former all-rounder Eknath Solkar. Adds Pataudi: "The poor show was expected because of our lack of Test match experience."
But Azhar took the failures in his stride. "We can't complain about the weather, conditions, practice, or anything else. If we're to play well, we must apply our minds to it. It's as simple as that," he said after the first Test. But motivating the team when he was himself woefully out of form was difficult. Azhar, the batsman, is all dare and dash—qualities Azhar the captain lacks. All wrist and eye: "frisk, frisk, frisk, frisk", as Viv Richards once described it. As ESPN commentator Simon Hughes said: "Bowling to an Azhar on song is like sending balls into a revolving door."
But of late he has shown signs of despair. At Sharjah, against Pakistan, Azhar was so short of confidence that Sachin dragged him to the door of the dressing room and sent him out to the crease with a pat on the back. And he's been short of confidence on this tour. In the second innings of the first Test, he sent in Mongia instead of coming in himself at number three in place of the injured Manjrekar. Says Ashok Mitra: "Azhar has either reached his peak or is going through a bad patch." Ironically, Azhar was Man of the Series in the Texaco one-day series, which preceded the Tests, scoring a brisk 73 off 64 balls at Old Trafford, 40 off 68 balls at Headingley, and an unbeaten 15 in the rain-marred Oval fixture. But the gloss of those innings wore off as the real thing began. At Edgbaston, he pottered around for 30 minutes for 13 runs in the first innings, and was out for duck in the second. But, more than the runs, it's the manner in which he's getting out to undeserving deliveries that is disconcerting. At Lord's, he fell flailing outside offstump for 16. In the last seven months, Azhar has hit just two 50s. These days, writes former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck, Azhar does not embrace the crease as much as flirt with it.
Azhar and Patil have waved off criticism of the captain's off-field escapades as none of anybody's business as long as they don't affect his cricket. But as England team manager David Lloyd says: "I like to know about my players' lifestyles, how they conduct themselves. I want the people of England to know that their team is trying its socks off." All India wants to know if their team is.
With a change of guard certain sooner rather than later, the question is: can Azhar hold his place as a batsman if the four wise men sack him as skipper? "I'd like to see Azhar stay on as a player. Dropping him will mean, we'll lose another key player. I'd like to see him stay and face the same pressure he made us feel. He was spared the pressure all this while because he was captain," says Prabhakar.
The pressure for places in the middle order is hotting up with the success of Ganguly and Dravid. With Vinod Kambli set for a return, and the likes of V.V.S. Laxman and Amol Majumdar banging the doors of stardom, it can only get more tense. Azhar says he still has at least two years left in him as a batsman in spite of the groin injury which he has staved off for seven years with cortisone shots: "I'm ready to play under anybody, even Dravid."
At the end of the disastrous South African tour in 1993, a disenchanted Azhar was all set to throw in the towel as skipper. He asked his friend and biographer Harsha Bhogle to draft a letter to the board: "I've had a decent opportunity to lead the country, and I've obviously not been able to deliver. The interests of Indian cricket have to be kept first and if a change can achieve that, it would be better. I believe I've a future as a batsman, and perhaps it's best to concentrate on that."
Azhar says Sachin, who's been his deputy for three years, is ready for the job. Sachin himself has spoken of his fierce ambition, but those who have watched them at work say there is neither ambition in the successor nor frustration in the incumbent. Many believe the screws are being tightened on Azhar so that the 23-year-old doesn't get too old before the crown lands in his lap.
Sachin has led Bombay to two Ranji trophy triumphs already and hasn't been burdened by the captaincy in the least. He snatched the ball from Azhar at the finals of the Hero Cup against South Africa three years ago when the captain seemed to be at his wit's end on what to do, with the springboks requiring six runs off the last over. Sachin bowled six magical balls and bowled himself into the hearts of millions. Critics and cricketers are certain that it's into his hands that the Indian captaincy should pass into.