Do two things before – and if at all – you feel like you may want to go and watch Azhar the Indian film about the former Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin. Actually, the last seven words of the previous sentence are not really correct.
The film is not really truly about Mohammad Azharuddin, or at least the Mohammad Azharuddin who resides in the world in which these words are being written, or in hope, being read. This it admits before it begins: it is not a biopic but, convolutedly, a “fictionalised dramatic representation of incident[s]”.
That is an interesting way of wording it. A man accidentally stepping on dog poo is one kind of incident; a match-fixing case against a national captain is, perhaps, a different kind.
Forget that. Before you go, YouTube some Azhar batting. If you have seen him bat in your lifetime, remind yourself what he was about. If you have not, enlighten yourself.
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There is plenty to choose from. The 24 runs he took off an Ata-ur-Rehman over in an ODI against Pakistan in Sharjah almost exactly 20 years ago is a popular choice. Tony Greigh on the soundtrack is a bonus.
Azhar was captain at the time but under mounting pressure from all sorts of angles on and off the field. One six, down the ground, was borne of a light-footed skip down the pitch – to a fast bowler remember – that he would also use against Kumar Dharmasena, a spinner, later and in Sharjah again.
The six off the next ball was not quite as graceful, though a useful reminder that a sense of timing need not necessitate high aesthetic value. But it brought out some of the anger and irritation that had been building up in him.
A couple of angry taps, or claps, on the bat, and a gesture with his hands that was either telling an opponent on or off the field to look at where the ball went and fetch it, or, less spicily, just berating somebody who got in front of the sightscreen. I like to think it was the former.
Twenty-nine he ended on, from just 10 balls and took India past 300 in an ODI for the first time. At the time, I remember thinking he had brought all the swagger that Pakistan must have paraded in his face through their years of bilateral dominance, and returned it right back in the course of six balls.
There is the Cape Town hundred in the New Year’s Test in 1997, though that deserves a fuller viewing. In fact, it is an option to watch that instead of the film – it is, at 174 minutes, only half an hour or so longer and with superior plot and narrative.
The five fours he hit in a single Lance Klusener over a month before that, at Eden Gardens, is a shorter but sharper dose. All were legside, some violent, some untidy but one, the third, so dashing and upright it deserved to be a Jane Austen hero. It was a clip through midwicket, stood tall, but a clip that also could easily double as an earliest teaser of the helicopter shot. This was the trait that was most bewitching, able to switch from a gauche, slightly hunched and even uncouth presence to a gazelle in a flash.
The collar was up, but incompletely – that is, round the back, but not the sides. I used to think I understood why, that he was basically caught between new urges to go full swagger and older tugs to retain humility. It could not have been as simple as that I am sure, though then again, it could have been even simpler – it was, after all, just a collar. The taweez, that amulet, as ever, was refusing to stay hidden under his shirt.
The other thing to do, and make sure you do this, is to read the full report of India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into match-fixing. Some of you may have read it before, but never mind. Read it again, to remind yourselves that Azharuddin did actually confess to corruption. Read also Pradeep Magazine's Not Quite Cricket as the essential document of the time.
That is where the fictionalising and dramatising in the film comes in, in which that Azhar has done no such thing (sorry, spoiler alert). That is fine. This is, mostly, a free world. If someone chooses to give the story of Azhar a neat and happy but entirely untrue ending, where is the problem?
Real life, in which Azharuddin is still the man who confessed to fixing matches, the man who was banned for life for it, the man who must bear that weight no matter what he tells the world or wants it to think, the man who lost his son in a tragic accident, that real life carries on unimpeded.
And the force with which it does, that is equal to the force that was once his batting.
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