This is Part 3 of a series in which two different cricketers are paired who could easily be mistaken for siblings in the way they went about their game. Read on for more on the soul-siblings of the gentleman's game! In this episode, Arunabha Sengupta writes about the two men related by fortune and finesse are Mohammad Azharuddin and Saleem Malik.
They entered the international arena painting dreams with willows that their wristy wizardry transformed into temperamental brushes of impressionist masters. Yet, sadly, both left the game under cloaks of calumny which veiled the splendour that glistened from their ethereal stroke-play.
Born within a couple of months of each other in 1963, their cricketing lives were switched off by questionable snaps of self-righteous fingers that kept pointing accusingly in the late 90s.
Both struck centuries in the first Tests they played, and promised to become the greatest batsmen of their respective lands. Yet they never quite climbed high enough to usurp the beacons of the leading lights, as the aura of both flickered as frequently as they sparkled. Both lorded it over in their backyards, set fire to the Garden of Eden, brought fresh sublime sights and sounds to the stale canned cricketing air of the Old Country, but tiny chinks and crevices in their shining armours became enormous chasms when the action shifted to more dangerous terrain, where the balls darted through chin high, reaching the neighbourhood of the bat at lightning rates.
Mohammad Azharuddin’s emergence was as meteoric as magical, and yet he remained a splendid decoration in the late order whose durability and rigorous use seemed to come second to the august names of Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar, and later in his career behind a phenomenon called Sachin Tendulkar. Similarly, Saleem Malik was whooshed in, carried by a truckload of promise, but never managed to upstage the might of Zaheer Abbas and Javed Miandad, and afterwards found the area under the spotlight hogged by the giant frame of Inzamam ul Haq.
Yet, many mesmerising memories flit by when we remember the mystic moments conjured by the two men, the intricate finesse and flair forever attached to the oriental craft of batsmanship since the days of Ranjitsinhji.
Azharuddin pierced the field like the golden hilted clippers of the regal couturier making their way through chiffon – before perhaps his own fondness for Armani stripped his baser self to reveal the avaricious Achilles heel. And Malik’s delicate stroke-making was once described by David Gower as batting with velvet gloves, till off came those luxurious hand-garments and the world believed they saw grubby, money stained palms.
At the wicket both could pick gaps and vacancies where less gifted men saw a veritable army of sentinels. Azharuddin could caress the same ball through a crowded cover field or between two gobsmacked men almost hugging each other at mid-wicket, while Malik could nonchalantly strike sixes over point. While the former cruised through a lifelong honeymoon at the Eden, the latter chose the venue for a whirlwind affair – hitting 72 off 36 balls out of a total of 80 that hurtled forth while he ruled the crease in 1987, leaving Kapil Dev to wonder about ephemeral existence.
Both chose England and the Englishmen as the country and opponents to inflict some of the unkindest, if glorious, cuts of them all; and both fell from grace and adulation, if rumours and allegations are to be believed, while enticing ‘honourable’ men from two cricketing superpowers of the southern hemisphere.
While both led their nations with quite a lot of success, and much of it from the front, those days have been smoothly and surely erased from the infinitesimal memories of their respective countrymen. The last days for both were like looking at the movements of phenomenal performing artists through a glass door covered by dirty linen, mud and smoke screen, which not only hid the aesthetics of their art, but also clouded circumstantial perspective and made the reflections of the accusers too blurry for comparative self-assessment.
Even as the heady wine of their batsmanship could not be enjoyed in the vintage vein, they ended with remarkably similar numbers – 99 Tests to 103, just over 6000 runs and under, averages within one and a half of each other in the mid 40s.
Maestros linked by flair, figures, faults and fickle fame.
(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://twitter.com/senantix)