February 24, 2020
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The Last Stand

In an exclusive interview to Outlook, Mohammed Azharuddin breaks his eight-month-long self-imposed silence

The Last Stand
The Last Stand

WOULD he break his eight-month-long silence? An inescapable feeling of foreboding assailed me the moment I arrived in Hyderabad last week for the third time in 42 days. This, after being perilously close to meeting Mohammed Azharuddin during the last visit. The former Indian captain and man in the centre of the match-fixing storm had politely backed out at the last moment. He had said he needed more time to marshal his thoughts before agreeing to a meeting.

Ever since the cbi report became public and the bcci announced the ban, Azhar has been holed up in Hyderabad. He has been confabulating with his lawyers, giving the final touches to his petition challenging the ban and also appearing for the odd income-tax summons. He has seldom moved out, apart from an occasional visit to a friend or attending an iftar party hosted by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister . Chandrababu Naidu. Talking to the media, obviously, was a strict no-no.

But this time around, the groundwork for a meeting has been laid. Numerous calls to his confidants and lawyers have finally resulted in a date and time for the proposed interview. But somehow a lurking doubt that things would fall through persists. Would Azhar have a rethink? What if he called off the interview at the last minute?

These fears arise again. The scheduled time lapses. After an agonising wait, the call comes through on Tuesday afternoon, four hours late. "Azzu bhai is ready. Come over," is the pithy message from a friend.

Getting into Azhar's house, Plot 164 on Road 14 in the city's upscale Banjara Hills, is certainly a big relief. The minutes tick by after I'm ushered into a spartan drawing room on the ground floor of his four-bedroom two-storey rented house. A huge picture of Azhar holding aloft a trophy adorns a wall. A few minutes later, the man finally appears, attired in a pink Polo shirt and purple velvet trousers. "I'm sorry, Murali Saheb, to keep you waiting. I'm really sorry," he says. His mother, he says, is unwell.

To understand Azhar, as his biographer Harsha Bhogle puts it, "is also to breathe the air of his city, to drink the water of Gandipet. It is a charming city with a most delightfully unhurried air to it." It rings true. Hyderabad's politeness, simplicity and hospitality come naturally to him. His composed exterior does not even once, during the two-hour-long interview, betray a troubled man.

The settings are remarkably simple for a man associated with all the trappings of wealth. Azhar has cornflakes while feeding me delicious chicken biryani. He is not apologetic about his 'wealthy' image though. "What's wrong in having Armani suits or Rolex watches?" he asks, almost in sudden protest. "Is it wrong? I have earned all that through hard work." The idea, Azhar adds, was to possess class and to carry one's wealth well.

The ban has changed his life in a way alright. "Have a cold drink? Get him a Coke, not a Pepsi," he orders his domestic help. "They cancelled my contract." Right now, he says quietly, religion is his only calming influence, giving him the spirit to get on with life. "My moral beliefs and values help me remain positive. The rest will follow," he says. And then he pours his heart out...

Many feel you were singled out in the match-fixing controversy. Are there more players involved?

Match-fixing simply cannot be a one-man show. This is a game which involves 11 players. If a team fails, it is spectacularly unfair to single out just one person. What I am trying to say is that unless the entire team is part of the conspiracy, match-fixing cannot take place. There cannot be any foul play on the part of a single person. In fact, even five players cannot work to fix a match, it won't work. I repeat that the entire team has to be in the know. For example in Wellington, New Zealand, I remember during a Test match we were in bad shape... I was on 60 but we were eight wickets down. But Venkatesh Prasad, Kumble and I think... Harbhajan Singh, helped me get my 100. If they were not with me and given me support, I would have got stuck. What I am trying to say is that if they too had got out purposely, I would not have made my century. I would not have remained not out.

Sachin Tendulkar has told the cbi that you had not given 100 per cent while being part of his team. He did not elaborate but the implications of his statement are clear...

That's rubbish...completely untrue. Go and check the records. Under his captaincy, I scored more runs than he had while captain. (In 15 matches, Azhar scored 1,024 runs at an average of 42.66.) I find it difficult to understand why he made such a statement. It's really perplexing. I've had a good rapport with him while playing. I don't know what motive he had commenting on me that way.

Do you see a conspiracy in this entire match-fixing probe to concentrate all the blame on you?

Look, I do not want to say much on this. It is for the media to find out and dig deeper. Surely, you guys are in a better position to answer this question and one day the truth will emerge. However, all I will say for the moment is that I have been discriminated against. Others have been let off lightly.

Do you think the Mumbai "lobby" has not been investigated deliberately?

Yes. This aspect wasn't investigated by the authorities at all. Nobody talks of the Rs 70 lakh cash found in different currencies in Sunil Gavaskar's Gymkhana locker. What about Ravi Shastri's Ali Baug farmhouse and other costly properties? There was never big money in cricket before 1994. How did Vinod Kambli lose his money from a locker during a Ranji match? All this has not been looked into.

Are you disappointed that some of your colleagues have not stood by you in these times?

Yes, I am disappointed. But that is their prerogative. I would have been happy if they had spoken out and said something. But the bottomline is that I have no regrets. I can fend for myself.

What was your first reaction to the cbi report?

I took the cbi report as any other blackmailing tactic. I did not want to speak out as it would affect my game...since I was playing for India at that relevant point in time.

Do you think the life ban was too harsh a penalty to have been imposed on you?

I do not want to comment on the report and what it had to say of my role. This is a matter of principle. Since the same is likely to be sub judice before a court of law, I would not want to elaborate further. It is simply not my style to criticise anybody or an institution.

But how do you react to criticism? Sunil Gavaskar, for example, has attacked you on occasion, especially your captaincy...

If someone attacks me personally, I've always defended myself. But there is a difference. I have always done so in a dignified manner. I have not stooped low. I am a firm believer that every criticism has its cure and also its obscurity. I do not know what Sunny's problem is with me.

Do you think the Ahmedabad Test against the Kiwis in 1999 where India did not enforce the follow-on should be probed?

Yes, it is very important that it be probed. It is a different matter that I did not play there, but something smells fishy.

Have people, either players or those in the bcci, tried to harm you intentionally? Has there been pressure on you?

When I was made captain, some people in the bcci were unhappy about my selection. There was a malicious campaign against me. The present bcci president, A.C. Muthiah, opposed my candidature. (Azhar's lawyer, T. Jagdish, suddenly pipes in: "Muthiah himself is an accused in the spic disinvestment case and Madhavan is his counsel. What business does Muthiah have appointing him as a vigilance commissioner? Madhavan is his own appointee and not one appointed by the bcci. He {Madhavan} did not play straight. He went berserk, harassing players and never applied his mind.") Remember, I have won many battles which I have faced in my cricketing career.

Why do you think you have been targeted?

I think people are jealous of me. I have always been fit and Inshallah...am even fit today. I have had a successful career and have played for long. Maybe people wanted me out.

There has been a lot of talk of your properties and unaccounted monies...

My taxes are clear. I have been playing cricket for 17 years. Why don't people understand that I would have earned some money through match fees and endorsements? I have a flat in Mumbai and live in a rented house here. Is that wrong? Have you guys finally given up the chase to find my many farmhouses? Where are those bank lockers stuffed with money (sarcastically)? In my career I have never, not even once, received a default tax notice.

Who in the Indian team has touched base with you in this period?

Only V.V.S. Laxman. I feel bad for Robin Singh if he is being dropped. I like him a lot.

Do you want to get even with the people who are running you down?

You have to understand that it is not my nature. I am not a person who nurses grudges and blames individuals. I have played for the nation and have maintained my equanimity throughout as the leader of the game. My vast experience of cricketing years has stood me in good stead. What is important is that I am respected both on and off the field by cricketers and fans.

Do you feel that some of the bcci officials should have been pro-active and coAme out stoutly in defence of the players charged?

I would reckon so.

Is there politicking in the bcci in terms of team selection?

Even if there was, I always carried the team along. It did not make a difference to me.

Do you think people like Kapil Dev or Sunil Gavaskar should have spoken up for you?

I wish they had spoken up for me. I would have been happy. But in the final analysis, I will fight it out myself.

Is it fair enough to say that some of the misunderstanding about you would not have emerged were you more communicative?

I have always been communicative. I can't help it if I have been misunderstood. Sometimes, people don't like straight answers. If you have lost a game, you have lost it...we did not play well. People wanted more to my comments but I am not like that. I like being to the point. It is not my nature to talk too much or indulge in loose talk. I like being brief and beyond a certain point I have nothing to say. People have tried to read between the lines and given their own interpretations and twists. Even if I give a similar answer, the next day, it is because the reasons were the same and some don't like hearing that. If batting was bad...and the reason for losing, I can't turn around and say bad bowling or fielding cost us the match.

Are you going to return the Arjuna award?

I've already written to the sports ministry that I am likely to move court. I don't think it is appropriate to appear before the ministry.

Cricket has been the pillar of your life. Do you feel let down or bitter that the cricket administrators have not recognised this?

I have given my best years to cricket. I have worked really hard and never been restricted playing cricket. When I started off, I used to walk long distances or take buses for practice. The prayers of relatives and close friends paid off. Of the crores of people who have prayed for me to come on top, one prayer was certainly answered and I was through. I only want the best wishes of my admirers. For the last 17 years, I have given my best. At times, I feel let down. But I still remain positive. There is always tomorrow and I'll fight it out.

How would you like to be remembered? Will you fight to the end to see your name cleared from this controversy?

Definitely. I'm anyway approaching a court of law and I believe justice will be done. It's important here to say that I'm a law-abiding citizen.

You had once told Vinod Kambli during a Sri Lanka tour when he lost his temper that people will respect you only if you were a good human being. Even being the best cricketer would not matter if your behaviour was bad. Do you still believe in that?

Certainly. All this comes naturally to me. I believe in respecting and commanding respect. It is my basic upbringing and values inculcated by my parents, elders and my maternal grandfather that have played an important role. I cannot desert them (values) and they me.

You are a great believer in destiny... Do you feel you will ride this storm?

There is no truth in the accusations so far gathered against me. I am emphatic about my success in the court, which I am shortly approaching, as I am on the field.

Is it a problem for you today to step out into the public arena? Do you feel embarrassed?

I want to present myself in a court of law. Before stepping out into the public, I want to clear my name, as I have been wronged.

Some team-mates and friends remember you as a person who is upfront and open. Do you think this is a liability?

Maybe...maybe not. Even now, as I pass through these times, I don't believe in suspecting people. I believe in destiny.

Do you think you have underplayed your role as a cricketer? Or is it that you have never been aggressive?

I am systematic and firm believer in the scruples of the game and law.

You had once said money is very important. But in the same breath mentioned that there was no point in having money if you can't help others.

Look, I don't feel happy seeing a beggar on the streets. I have never looked down on people and if I am in a position to help, I certainly will. All are equal in Allah's eyes. It is only due to certain situations and circumstances that some become famous. The best service is to humanity.

Is that why you are sometimes referred to as muqaddar ka Sikandar (prince of destiny)?

Yes, I guess so.

Do you feel that justice will be done?

I am very confident it will be done. I'm innocent of all the charges levelled against me.

In a team everything depends on the support a team gives a captain. But there are situations where somebody intentionally creates trouble. Have you faced any such situations?

No, I have never faced such problems. Also that I have never thought on those lines. This largely because I have never looked at people suspiciously...kisi ko shak nahin karta hoon (I don't disbelieve anybody).

Are you scared of failure?

Never. I was in the dumps after the spectacular start to my career scoring three centuries on the trot. In Sri Lanka, I scored only 112 runs in six innings. That was a big lesson for me. I have kept my cool all the time. I have always remained positive and that is why I have conquered failure.

With this plethora of allegations, do you have regrets taking up cricket as a career?

Cricket has given me everything. If I'm anything today it is because of the game...where I have given blood, sweat and tears. This is a temporary phase which I am passing through. I don't regret anything.

Pataudi in a recent article mentioned that you have been used as a political pawn and also suggested that you have been wronged. What do you say?

He is probably right. I'm happy that a cricketing legend has taken the trouble to go behind the scenes and understand the predicament of a cricketer and a captain.

Hyderabad has produced very few international heroes. Do you still consider yourself a role model?

I feel honoured to be an Indian first and then a Hyderabadi. I am happy to have brought laurels to the state.

Do you still hope to start up a cricket academy for youngsters?

We all live in hope. I hope it turns out true.

This has been a trying and troubled phase in your career. Have you been receiving support?

I get a lot of support from my friends, wife and relatives. My fans all over the world have stood solidly behind me. Till date I have received thousands of letters from fans in England, West Indies and India hoping that I tide over this.

There's one thing cricket teaches you, and that is never to expect tomorrow to be like today. Do you think it's true?

It is unfair to think on these lines despite all that has happened to me.

Do you still think you will play your 100th Test match?

I wish to. It will be a great honour to join the 100 Test club. I will cherish that recall and will be fighting fit.

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