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Back To The Future

The Indian XI readjusts to the new dispensation under Azhar

Back To The Future
For the Azande of Sudan, when it's time for justice it's also time to poison a chicken. A chicken's response to an erratic dose of an equally erratic alkaloid toxic is the Azande way of determining guilt. If the chicken dies, the person is judged guilty. It's thought by the Azande that chicken are unswayed by ethnic politics. They don't leak stories, sign book contracts or rat. For players in the Indian team the Azande method would perhaps be considered less random for team selection than the current five wise men's decisions in picking the 14.

But if player insecurity is the principal psychological dynamics of the Indian XI, there is also the luck of skipper Mohammed Azharuddin. Down and out in the 1989 Test series in Pakistan and on the verge of being dropped, he was selected in the XI because of a toe injury to Raman Lamba. He went on to cement his place with a century. Says Lamba, on a day-long trip to Dhaka where he occasionally plays club cricket: "Azhar's got the kismat of Sindbad the Sailor."

Losing back-to-back series against Australia and South Africa in 1992 and about to get the axe, December 6 happened and it was possibly thought that replacing the skipper would add to the volatility of the Indian political situation. Azhar won the ensuing home series against England 3-0.

Lately, under media siege for his rather unhelpful attitude on the Windies tour as well as poor form, he was dropped for the Pepsi Independence Cup but came back in the Lanka series. The latest, of course, culminated in the third match run-out in Sharjah where he got unprecedented media flak.

But the willow wizard from Hyderabad not only made it back to the team against Sri Lanka but as captain to Dhaka. Says a player: "Azhar once went to an astrologer. All his stars are in one griha (house). Only Rajiv Gandhi had that kind of horoscope." Indeed, he was about to go for prayers when BCCI secretary J.Y. Lele called him and announced the selectors' decision to restore his captaincy. When people ask him these days, " Kya khel khel gaye pyare, jara hume bhi bata do?" he answers: "Are, pata ho to bataun .

" Luck is also opportunity coming your way. If you are a star, the Bharatiya Janata Party courts you to join its 1998 election juggernaut with a promise of a seat in the Rajya Sabha. And Azhar doesn't even have to campaign for the party. Just join it.

If his current luck isn't chicken on the bone, the explosive form of former skipper Sachin Tendulkar in Dhaka has come as an unexpected bonus. It somehow prompted a comparison with Azhar's form during Tendulkar's captaincy. Says journalist Sabyasachi Sarkar: "I wouldn't say that the way Azhar batted during Sachin's captaincy was a deliberate sabotage but he did give an impression of a lackadaisical approach."

 Butto be fair to Azhar, the team manage -ment never promoted him to number three, a position that he says he was open to ever since the South Africa tour. Says a player: "I think there was some kind of communication gap between Azhar and the team management then. If Madan Lal and Sachin had taken him into confidence, he would have performed."

But now, in a team marked by inconsistency and flux, his main match-winner is Tendulkar. While both are at pains to explain the cordiality they share, it's more the absence of a big ego in Tendulkar and his visible passion for the game that are making things easier for Azhar.

As a player sums up Azharuddin's style: "You don't talk to Azhar, he talks to you. You listen. You don't know where you stand with him because he changes his opinions so often." That might be Azhar's psychological masterstroke to maintain a certain creative tension among the players.

But in a team in which the two foremost rules are to swallow all the flak that comes your way and keep your counsel, Tendulkar was someone players looked up to for the simple reason that he wasn't the type to one fine day slip in the shove. But with Azhar the team isn't quite sure. The list of scalps so far—Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, Manoj Prabhakar, Sanjay Manjrekar and Kiran More.

He seems to have concluded that since the system doesn't allow anything of any considerable scale to be achieved, grand ambitions should be handled on a series-to-series basis. You can't also play the generational affinity card with him, for you can only talk to him if he lets you. Also, he's always right. Say players: "As an ordinary player if he was unhappy about something, he sulked. But he left the situation ambiguous, so if you faced him up he always had a loophole to escape by." Not that anybody faced him up. In a team where, except for Tendulkar, everybody's frantically preoccupied with his own survival, nobody buys the idea of some kind of team fumigation. Fear of the axe holds sway. It warps judgement.

If this gummy reputation keeps clinging to Azhar, differences in personality with Tendulkar are also played up, in some cases for no fault of his. Says a player: "He's not the type who will come up to you and say what's wrong in your batting. You are holding the handle wrong or your stance is bad. But if you ask him, he will come up with a solution instantly. That's unlike Sachin who would go up to a batsman to tell him what was wrong with his technique."

Amongst the things Sachin started was talking to bowlers individually. Says a TV commentator: "It bothered him to have the team lose so much. He decided then to work on the bowlers, for he realised that he was in for the long haul. With Azhar, there's going to be no such long-term vision. All he's interested in is winning here and now. Sachin wasn't interested in squeezing short-term benefits from a player."

But with Sachin one had a prime example of a virtuoso worrier—a captain who chewed his nails when the pressure barometer hit red. After being unable to win the recent one-day series against Sri Lanka, Tendulkar was expecting the axe. Says Khalid Ansari of Midday : "Sachin had a long chat with Sunny Gavaskar at Puttaparthi where Sunny advised him not to put in his papers; for then the selectors would always hold that against him in the future. In the sense that, look we made him captain but he threw the captaincy back at us because he couldn't handle the pressure."

 Sachin also realised at Sharjah, according to a TV commentator, that what the media 'wrote' did matter. While he wasn't in the job long enough to come out of the experience with a measure of cynicism against the media, with Azhar it continues to be a big problem. With him, they are still out there to 'get him' and the driving desire of reporters is to trick him into making a fool of himself. He is also paranoid about 'vested interests' pulling him down.

While he easily falls for conspiracy theories, he does childish things as well. Relaxing with his teammates before a photo-op with prime minister I.K. Gujral, he points out to a journalist an unpalatable paragraph, where he's accused of not winning matches for India. It obviously hurts. What is also gaining momentum is the raw belief in the great media plot against him.

But it would advisable for Azhar to rethink his relationship with the media since the factors in his favour to continue till the 1999 World Cup are not insignificant. Lots of experience and no lobby that he particularly wishes to promote. In a private moment with photographer Pradeep Mandhani, Azhar confessed that he thought he was a changed man and wanted to look on his XI with one eye. That's more like the attitude that will see him through.

Anshuman Gaekwad has also made a favourable impression on the team. Says a player: "He lets you do your own thing first. He steps in only if that doesn't work. If he has a long stint, he might be able to set Indian cricket on the right path." He does not mince his words either.

 In a season in which India has been lurching from one defeat to another, victory could come as a curious, dislocating experience. We might forget that we faced a depleted Pak bowling attack, a team still reeling from extreme surgery.

For the Indian players, however, a constant refrain has been that since Azhar's on the last bend of his career, he should draw an agenda, something he eschewed in his first stint. That he should inculcate an attitude where the team management doesn't judge players by statistics alone. That they should be able to say no to players they don't want, not suffer them on the field.

Says a player: "We Indians are very set in our thinking. We expect our players to behave on the field in a very acceptable manner. Like when to hit and when not to. Since the public doesn't expect strategical abnormalities from us, they also shouldn't expect terrific victories. If Azhar can break this mindset, he will have done a great service." The question is, will he try?

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