ON the cricket field, as in life, theres never a dull moment when Mohammed Azharuddin is around. Sometimes hes down in the dumpsas on March 13, 1996, when part-time Sri Lankan spinner Sanath Jayasuriya lured Indias batsmen into mass suicide on a rapidly deteriorating Eden track. Sometimes hes defining the sheer joy of batting. Either way, Calcuttas cricket fans just cant get enough of the skipper who sank into oblivion in front of their eyes. And on the third day of the India-South Africa Test, March 13 seemed like an aberration and Azhars flashing blade waved away the World Cup nightmare. Perhaps for good.
On the second morning, Azhar was down with flu and stayed back when Tendulkar led the way to the middle. But Prasad and Srinath willed otherwise, reducing the Springboks from a formidable 339 for two to 428 all out. At 77 for three, Azhar strode out to take guard as local boy Saurav Gangulys early dismissal, bowled all ends up by a Brian McMillan inswinger, stunned the mammoth Eden Gardens gathering into deathly silence.
The gloom wasnt going to lift that afternoon. Facing the ninth delivery of his innings, the wristy Hyderabadi right-hander was hit above the left armguard by McMillan. He went off the field for a quick X-ray at the Cricket Association of Bengal medical unit. Thankfully, it wasnt a serious blow. Only a blood clot on the tissues. Yet his returning to battle with the South African bowlers was uncertain. Dr M.S. Ghosh, who treated Azhar, insisted on another test on the morrow before declaring him fit.
The morrow saw Azhar turning on the magic like never before. Ably assisted by Anil Kumble, last man out on 88, he unleashed a flurry of fours and a six en route to a breathtaking century. For sheer elegance and insouciance, his sparkling show put the first-day tons of Andrew Hudson and Gary Kirsten well in the shade.
Remember, this was the wicket where Donald, with his reverse swing, and McMillan, bowling his seamers with acute control, had reduced Indias lineup to a right royal mess, prising out six wickets (helped by two atrocious run-outs) for a meagre 119 before Kumble and Srinath played out the last few overs of the second day.
As only he could, Azhar showed there was no devil in the pitch. All that was application and loads of spunk, attributes that were sorely lacking the previous afternoon. Former Bengal batsman Raju Mukherjee, in his report in a local daily on the third morning, pointed out that the wicket was perfect for batting and an Indian fightback couldnt be ruled out. Indeed, with Azhar around, nothing, it seems, is impossible. Not at Eden Gardens.