“Azhar the genius always had feet of clay, be it while batting on pacy wickets or while negotiating the temptations of the peripheral vices of cricket”.
Every movement was laced with magic.
The feet did not rest on the crease as he awaited the ball. They seemed planted on a coil of spring, balancing the lithe figure that bubbled with unbridled energy, almost about to launch into mid-air. The bat would be cocked up, ready to flash with that wondrous wizardry. The tongue often mischievously poked out through the corner of the mouth.
When the bat came down in those arcs of genius, the wrists guiding the willow in directions beyond the stretches of mortal imagination, the body flowed into the stroke with that energy of mechanics and spirit of art … and the ball streaked to corners of green that left every onlooker, from the riveted spectators to the confused bowler to the futilely pursuing fieldsman, in a state of puzzlement. All but the man himself, who flashed between the wickets, the springs under his toes taking him through the 22 yards and back at an incredible rate which never forsook the raw beauty of athletic motion.
The flick through mid-wicket could be played from way outside the off stump, and when the mood and fielding positions demanded it, the same ball could be carted through the covers with an equivalent brand of panache. The willow forsook the boundaries of grammar, but doing so it crafted incredible poetry.
Mohammad Azharuddin was a joy to behold, from the moment he walked in to bat for India as a 21-year-old.
Then came the moments when the bat was left behind, the pads taken off. The loose-limbed, light-footed youth made his way to the field, the zest for the game evident in every step that he took.
Stationed in the covers, he made his ground with a quickness seldom witnessed in Indian sides, the action both ethereal and effective. The pickup and throw hardly ever broke his pace, executed at full tilt. If beyond his reach, the frame would stretch, fling itself through the air, and come up with stops or catches that enthralled all.
Often balls were returned with underarm throws flicked over his own back, to save the precious seconds of turning his torso. Many of them hit the wicket. Even in those drab days of the 1980s, when cricket was slow and wickets in the subcontinent flat, and batsmen piled runs with bowlers resigned to go through the motions, fans awaited that one moment of Azhar-brilliance in the field. That would light up the atmosphere, touched by magic.
When stationed close to the wicket, the anticipation was electric, the body elastic. Travelling balls, at serious speed, were stopped and grasped with an ease that belied the laws of physics and of mankind. And yet, while scripting the deeds of the greatest all-round fielder ever produced by the country, the actions spoke less of athleticism and more about artistry.
Later, the hair receded, the waistline grew slightly more pronounced, but the effervescence of the man’s willow and the exhilarating joy of his fielding remained unabated.
True, sometimes he traded the artist’s brush for the annihilator’s sledgehammer. As he hovered around his mid-30s, the hooks and pulls he executed off fastest of bowlers added a dimension of brutality to the underlying framework of magic. He continued to bat as well as ever … and yes, with all those shortcomings on bouncy wickets.
Sometimes the negotiation of short balls resembled periscopic uses of the bat. He travelled poorly to lands where the ball shot up to the chest and higher. But even there, albeit lacking consistency, once in a while he played knocks that reverberated in the memories of all that had been fortunate enough to watch.
On the field, he spent more and more time in the slips. And there he pulled off blinder after blinder, propelling himself to hold on to balls that the others would have let pass as beyond reach. Michael Slater, who had slashed fiercely at a wide David Johnson delivery at Delhi, will still testify to his continuing agility. The height from which Azhar plucked out the catch that day can legitimately be categorised as thin air.
Time seemed to have given extra quarters to this ageless master, but had it asked for his soul as barter?
Alas, that was perhaps true. Whispers were aplenty about the degrees of his commitment, the questionable company he kept, the ritzy Armani suits he donned. The magic in the man was tainted with some bits which were black.
Those magnificent hands which could wrist balls away through non-existent gaps on the field, and pull of catches beyond the mortal imagination, were perhaps also sullied by greedy grabs for gold.
But, that is not what we started out to remember. Azhar the genius always had feet of clay, be it while batting on pacy wickets or while negotiating the temptations of the peripheral vices of cricket.
Yet, when he was on song, with the bat or on the field, he produced a brand of joy that has remained unmatched. We, those who have seen him stroke a ball through mid-wicket, or bring off a stunner at point, will continue to consider ourselves blessed.