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Mohammad Azharuddin, that stylish Indian batsman of not too long ago happened to visit a restuarant in the same building which houses my workplace. Having been a great fan since the late 80s till around the mid 90s, I walked upto him and got myself an autograph. It wasn't until a few minutes later that I realized he still meant a lot to people. There may not have been a crowd of the nature Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj etc. would attract but given that it was an office building, there were quite a few "fans" queuing up to get a glimpse or an autograph. So he isn't quite the hated person he possibly was a year or two ago. Is it because public memory is short? Is it because we have a tendency to act completely emotionally in haste only to repent at leisure?
Compare this with Hansie Cronje's existence after he was banned from cricket. He nearly went into hiding, met only a handful of friends, became very insular, tried to lead a normal life by working at a company and didn't really interact with the press or come into the limelight at all before meeting a ghastly and unfortunate end. In comparison, a couple of months after he was indicted by the BCCI commission, Azhar started talking to the press, he tried his hand at various projects - fitness centres, films, event management etc. For two people who were accused and adjudged to have committed fairly similar offenses (note, I didn't say crimes), their attitudes towards life seemed to have been completely different.
I go back to my original query of whether public memory is short? Has Azhar been forgiven? I think not. There is still a chunk of the population which believes he must be punished more. But at the same time, the profile of the Indian cricket follower is changing in the last few years. It has grown younger and there has been a slow growth in the female audience as well. As a result, viewers who've really only started following cricket in the last 5 years or so would rarely have seen Azhar swish his bat around or field nonchalantly at any position on the ground or accept awards with a no more emotion than shrug of his shoulders and mouth platitudes like 'The boys played well', 'I am batting well in the nets', 'We didn't bat well or bowl well or field well' etc.
So they perhaps remember Azhar only as the one who led India to humiliation in the 1999 World Cup, as the one who they believe fixed matches etc. It is unfortunate that they won't remember him for his sensational first three Tests, the way he batted and fielded in the World Championship of Cricket 1985, his near 100 before lunch in 1990 at Lord's after a daft decision to put England in, his amazing knock at Adelaide in 1992, the brilliant comeback to form in 1993 against England when he'd been made captain for only the first Test, the savage assault on Klusener and co. at Calcutta and again at Capetown in the company of Tendulkar, taming the Aussies in India and continuing his love affair with Calcutta and a couple of final hurrahs with a brilliant century in ridiculous batting conditions at Wellington where no one else bar him and Tendulkar passed 15 in India's 1st innings and the century against South Africa after being recalled for what turned out to be the last time ... and we haven't even talked about his breathtaking fielding.
Only the second person after Gregory Stephen Chappell to score centuries in his first and last Tests. Azhar, to me, was India's first modern cricketer. He fielded superbly, could score at close to a run-a-ball in one-dayers at will and whip boundaries through midwicket off balls others would leave outside offstump. I hope among Sir Paul Getty's last acts before he died a few days ago was to watch tapes of Azhar's brilliant century at Lord's in 1990, because after watching it live, he is supposed to have said 'I thought after watching that I could have died peacefully'.
All processes have to die some day - yours truly
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