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Mohammad Azharuddin’s 121 at Lord’s — an innings of dash, dazzle, daring and disbelief

Mohammad Azharuddin’s 121 at Lord’s — an innings of dash, dazzle, daring and disbelief

Mohammad Azharuddin’s strokes flowed like the erupting spray of uncorked champagne with sparkle and fizz. It was pure magic © Getty Images

July 28, 1990. In a Test made immortal by Graham Gooch’s 333 and 123 and Kapil Dev’s four consecutive sixes, the magical element was supplied by the sublime brilliance of Mohammad Azharuddin. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the 121 he scored at Lord’s, the strokes of which live on in the happiest recesses of cricketing memory.
A tale of two Tests

The Lord’s Test of 1990 — made remarkable by the 333 and 123 scored by Graham Gooch, but rendered immortal by the several other feats during the course of the game; feats less staggering in their numerical immensity, but living on as perhaps happier memories; feats performed by the bats that turned conjuring wand in the hands of Mohammad Azharuddin, and an instrument of calculated carnage when wielded by Kapil Dev.

There was plenty in the game that elevated it to the realms of romanticism associated with the heady heard-of days of the Edwardian Era of cricket’s Golden Age.

The adventure and bravado, finesse and flair are often found in distinct individuals and moments in diverse scattered contests across space and time. But, seldom are the most glorious facets of cricket brought to the fore by every cricketer in view during the course of an amazing four and a half days.

There had been another, an eternally remembered Test at the same venue in 1930. It saw as many as 1,601 runs ripple across four days of surreal sun-drenched stroke-play. From the sensual delights of KS Duleepsinhji’s grace to the most flawless Don Bradman innings ever witnessed and later Percy Chapman’s cavalier counter-attack, all combined to create approximations of cricketing heaven on earth. Since then the collection of runs had stood as the highest ever in a Test match played at Lord’s.

The 1990 masterpiece went further, beating the old match aggregate by two runs; piling, caressing and blasting 1603 in all.

As many as 456 of the runs were plundered by the willow of Gooch alone. Yet, there was another dimension provided by the Indian captain. It did not cover as many milestones, but flowed like the erupting spray of uncorked champagne with its sparkle and fizz. The magical Azharuddin innings lasted less than three hours to Gooch’s 10 and a half, and amounted to about a third of the runs. But, it provided the cup of cheer after the meaty accomplishments of Gooch’s incredible appetite for runs. While Gooch commanded respect, Azhar snared and captured the hearts of the crowd, with a web of enchantment woven by his wristy wizardry. And when it ended there was that impactful over Eddie Hemmings sent down to Kapil Dev, with the said impact reverberating across the stadium four times in as many deliveries.

Yes, misty-eyed old timers may argue that the runs of the 1930 Test had come in just four days, with the artistry of an old bygone era which can seldom be recaptured by the modern batsman. Yet, closer scrutiny of the scorecards reveals that much of the shine is lent by the gold dust left behind by time. In the halcyon days of 1930, the runs had flowed at 3.16 per over while six decades later in 1990 they galloped along at 4.08.

From the accounts of the day we learn of the magnificent touch play of Duleep. But, his spiritual successor in Azhar plays his celestial music of batsmanship for us over and over again in the available clips of the game. And we can state with conviction that few manoeuvres of the bat could have provided the silken touch of creative flair as enacted by this master from Hyderabad.

On the other hand Bradman was ruthlessly efficient. So was Gooch in this one Test of his career when he surpassed even the great Australian’s feats of scooping up runs by the bushel. Bradman has been categorised as more utilitarian than aesthetic, and no description would have been more tailor-made for Gooch.

Finally, for all the emphatic epithets bestowed on Percy Chapman for his savage counterattack under pressure, the spectacularly brutal assault by Kapil to save the follow-on stands as a monumental feat in its own right.

Yet, somehow, this Test is never spoken of in the same eloquent terms as the Lord’s encounter of 1930. It is not described as a match crafted by the deities of the game, not hailed as the platonic ideal of a Test match. It is perhaps because by 1990 Neville Cardus and his likes had long since departed from this world and were perhaps busy chronicling the eternal moments — enacted or imagined — in the Garden of Eden.

Magic in the middle

Yes, Gooch did amass 333 and England declared their innings at 653 for four.

But, if the expectation was for India to be daunted by the huge total, what followed was both counter-intuitive and refreshing. Ravi Shastri stood tall against Angus Fraser, Devon Malcolm and Chris Lewis with immense assurance. Neither did he don his familiar visage of the strikingly stroke-less. The runs flowed smoothly, with neat placements to the on side. He lost Navjot Sidhu to Fraser on the way. Sanjay Manjrekar, after taking pains to play himself in, unnecessarily nicked one from the part time pace of Gooch. But, Dilip Vengsarkar, looking for his fourth hundred at Lord’s, showed glimpses of his heroics on the ground during the last three visits. And with Shastri reaching an impressive century, Indians looked poised for a huge score at 191 for two.

And now Shastri mistimed an on-drive off Eddie Hemmings. Azharuddin trotted in to bat, and the blade flashed from the first strike. Chris Lewis probed on the middle stump line, and the Indian captain stood straight and brought his bat down, little more than a defensive push. On impact it sped away, past the lunge of the flummoxed bowler, past the surprised mid-off, and rebounded with a thud from the advertising boards.

Much of that followed was scripted along the same lines of dash, dazzle, daring and disbelief. There were indeed occasions when the audacity of strokes rode on the happy wings of chance. An attempted flick and raced away through the slips and gully for four dubious runs.

But, the Indian captain survived, much to the delight of every cricket lover in the stands, transcending the lures of allegiance and nationality. The Saturday crowd, filled to capacity, sat enthralled as the wand of a bat conjured drives, flicks and cuts, sending the ball through angles that defied imagination and laws of physics.

When it was pitched up, he drove – nay, he waved his bat with those twists and turns of his incredible wrists, and off they went, screaming through the covers or mid-wicket, the bemused fielders standing awe-struck, in a beguiling mix of wonder and helplessness.

Perhaps the only acts of striking the ball hard were witnessed they were pitched short, and the fiery square cut was unfurled, streaking across the ground past the transfixed man at point. That and the full blooded straight drive off Hemmings that zoomed past the outstretched hand of the bowler and shot away before the very, very straight mid-on had  a chance to realise and react before turning in pursuit.

Vengsarkar fell for 52, yet another middle-order man offering a catch behind the wicket. Lewis bowled the young Sachin Tendulkar.

Yet, Azhar continued, dazzling and delectable, wristing the ball into gaps, finding the boundary without effort, sweat and all the mundane details that accompany the mortal man. The day ended with India on 376 for six, Azhar on 117, having brought up his hundred off 88 balls, as many as 80 of the century coming through boundaries.

He fell in the third over on the Monday morning. A ball from Hemmings pitched on the infamous slope and broke back to hit his leg-stump as he rocked on the backfoot to essay another fluent drive through extra cover against the spin.

His 121 had cantered along in 111 balls, with 22 boundaries. There were 12 sixes in the match, none of them hit by Azhar. But, when one closes one’s eyes and reflects on the game, the 22 boundaries flow one after the other from the most delighted recesses of memory.

The match ended with 1603 runs and 28 wickets, runs rollicking at 57.25 per wicket, with six hundreds and three fifties, with the duration of the five days etched with 197 fours and 12 sixes.

Yes, England won by 247 runs and Gooch rewrote a phenomenal number of records with his unprecedented feat of triple and single centuries in the two innings.

But, in the mind’s eye, in spite of his seven sixes, Gooch seldom registers in action. All we tend to recall is his hulking frame under the white helmet, with determined, worldly-wise eyes and imposing Zapata moustache, and the scoreboard straining under the weight of his runs. For murder and mayhem one recalls the four sixes of Kapil Dev, successive, scintillating and straight, each one bigger than the last.

But for memories that uplift the soul and help us taste cricketing ambrosia, it is Azhar whose strokes live on, intoxicating and heady, mesmerising and magical.

Brief scores:

England 653 for 4 decl. (Graham Gooch 333, David Gower 42, Allan Lamb 139, Robin Smith 100*) and 272 for 4 decl. (Graham Gooch 123, Michael Atherton 74) beat India 454 (Ravi Shastri 100, Dilip Vengsarkar 52, Mohammad Azharuddin 121, Kapil Dev 77*; Angus Fraser 5 for 104) and 224 by 247 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)

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