MORE than anything else, Azhar's seeming inability to deal with 30-plus cricketers has invited much scrutiny. In Azhar's seven years at the helm, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Manoj Prabhakar and Navjot Sidhu have all left disgruntled, and the needle of suspicion has pointed to the skipper each time. Though Azhar denies he has problems playing with those older than him or opposed to his views, the acrimonious exit of four stalwarts buttresses Sunil Gavaskar's comment that "there's a feeling that unless you're a yes-man, you'll be cast aside, even if you've the performance to back you".
Harsha Bhogle, who wrote Azhar's autho rised biography, says his captaincy changed in 1994 from 'tolerant' to 'dema nding'. After the victories against England, New Zealand and Zimbabwe on made-order pitches, he frets and fumes too often, especially at poor fielding and poor fitness.
But his run-ins with colleagues began way back in 1990. In a Ranji quarter-final, Hyderabad players Abdul Azeem and M.V. Sridhar put on 129 runs for the first wicket before Azeem, an opener in the K. Sri-kkanth mould, got out to an indiscreet shot for 79. Azhar reportedly flew into a rage at his All Saints School and State Bank of India teammate. When Azeem responded in kind, Azhar issued an ultimatum to
Hyderabad selectors: either he plays for Hyderabad, or Azeem. That hastened the end of Azeem, a Ranji Trophy triple centurion with international aspirations.
A similar encounter is believed to have fetched the axe for the Delhi all-rounder. Besides, the grapevine goes that Kapil was made to feel obliged to Azhar for being given the opportunity to bag his 432nd wicket, and Shastri, the most serious contender for Azhar's crown, was kept out for so long that he decided to call it a day.
But, says cricket historian Ramachandra Guha: "Till this tour, Azhar behaved impeccably. He was not like Gavaskar, Kapil or Shastri—angry, petulant, selfish. His on-field composure, his behaviour with opponents was outstanding. He never questioned an umpire's decision, never made bitchy remarks about teammates. But obviously he has behaved badly with Sidhu."
Azhar says he didn't humiliate Sidhu before the Old Trafford one-dayer. (He allegedly laughed at the opener who padded up for batting although he had been left out of the side.) But nobody disputes who's to blame in the Sidhu episode. "It's sad that a person of Sidhu's calibre should be made to feel unwanted," says former BCCI president Madhavrao Scindia. Bhogle believes Azhar's failure to placate Sidhu and Prabhakar, who was fired for two expensive overs in the Delhi World Cup tie against Sri Lanka, underlines Azhar's limited powers of communication.
But nobody sums it up as well as Imran Khan does in his The Daily Telegraph column: "Criticism against Azhar is mounting not because of his factual understanding of the game, but because of his poor man management. The general opinion is that he does not know how to command respect and, in trying to demand it, he is happy to drop key members of his team."