Cometh the hour, cometh the ground, cometh the man: Mohammad Azharuddin © Getty Images (file photo)
Cometh the hour, cometh the ground, cometh the man: Mohammad Azharuddin © Getty Images (file photo)

November 29, 1996. Mohammad Azharuddin walked into Eden Gardens with his career and reputation on the line, with India fighting an impossible battle with their backs to the wall. And he essayed one of the most incredible knocks of all time. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the 74-ball century that saw the erstwhile touch artist in a brutal manifestation. READ: Mohammad Azharuddin’s 182 in Calcutta: Authoritative, dazzling and impactful

Re-emergence

Yes, the familiar form was emerging from the pavilion. Or should we say re-emerging?

The hunched shoulders, with a distinct tilt of the head. The bounce in the step which hinted at springs attached to the soles. The white helmet, the black medallion swinging from his neck.The top two buttons of the shirt undone, the collar worn up.The almost anachronistically light willow held with nonchalance in a casual grip.

There was applause too that greeted the man as he walked out.

It should have been all too familiar, given his feats in that grand venue, but there was a difference. It was not the favourite of the Calcutta crowd who was being welcomed now, those were not thecheers for someone who had unfailingly set the billiard top outfield on fire with his batting brushstrokes of artistry.

This was a different man, one who had been turned into a villain the last time he had appeared at the ground.

Yes, Mohammad Azharuddin had stepped into the Eden Gardens for the first time on the last day of 1984 and had quickly converted it into his paradise.

His Test scores on the ground read 110, 141, 60, 182. The first three innings had been played while he had deftly sketched the graph of his career as a young man. The fourth was different. By the time Test cricket had returned to Eden after a long hiatus, Azhar had been on the verge of being sacked as captain. The 182 sublime runs had seen a rebirth of the man and the start of the story of India’s decade long dominance at home.

But then there had been the 1996 World Cup semi-final. Azhar had won the toss and elected to field. On an Eden wicket which was prone to breaking in the fierce heat.

To be fair, Sanath Jayasuriya’s murderous starts had made a mockery of almost any total set for the Lankans. At Delhi, India had set a staggering — for those days — 271, and that had been chased down with plenty to spare. Letting the Lankans post a score might have looked a safer option. And it seemed that the team had thought out a plan to check the rampant Jayasuriya early in the game.

Indeed, it had almost come off, with Sri Lanka losing both their openers in the first over. But then Aravinda de Silva had taken the game away with a polished gem of an innings. India had stayed afloat with the genius of Sachin Tendulkar and had sunk as soon as the great man had departed. The match had been abandoned in a disgraceful display of public dissatisfaction, with India on a hopeless 120 for 8. Sri Lanka had been declared the winners. The crowd had vented their fury by hurling bottles, and barracking and hooting at Azhar. The erstwhile darling of Eden had become a hated man.

Now as he returned to the venue, and stakes could not have been higher. After the World Cup disaster India had travelled to England. They had lost the series, and the discovery of new batting stalwarts had failed to hide Azhar’s pathetic efforts amounting to 42 runs in 5 innings.

Subsequently he had lost the captaincy. While the next four innings had not been abject failures as in England, he had not managed a fifty. From his last five Tests he had 139 runs at 17.37. With the advent of a gamut of young, talented batsmen, the inevitable question was being asked. Did Azhar still have a place in the Indian middle-order?

Finally, on the previous evening, his old shortcoming against the bouncer had reared its head. A snorter from Brian McMillan had struck him on his elbow when he had scored just 6. For the first time in his Test career, Azhar had retired hurt.

Yet, as he emerged now, people cheered.

It was an applause of desperation, hoping against hope. After India’s remarkable triumph at Motera, the Proteans had the hosts on the ropes in the second Test. Gary Kirsten and Andrew Hudson had hammered centuries and put on 236 for the first wicket. That had set the trend of dominance in the Test.

Replying to 428, India had crumbled against the fiercely quick Alan Donald, the wily and immaculate length of McMillan and some stupendous fielding that made every run look fraught with risk.

India had ended the previous day at 152 for 6, much of it due to the industry and sudden inspiration of Anil Kumble’s blade.

And now, early in the morning Donald had sent Srinath’s stumps cartwheeling. India were on 161 for 7. The two batsmen who remained in the pavilion were Venkatesh Prasad and Narendra Hirwani, perhaps the worst batting combination of Nos. 10 and 11 ever to play for India.

So, when the figure of Azhar was seen walking out, the applause was of relief. They had turned up in huge numbers, and there still was a tiny glimmer of hope of putting up a fight.

The changed man

The man walked to the wicket and took guard, his deportment of the same casual nonchalance that characterised him.

The South African bowlers had a plan for Azhar. Later Lance Klusener, the man who made his debut in that Test, admitted as much.

It was simple enough. During the early years, the periscopic way of playing bouncers had been the one glaring chink in Azhar’s otherwise shining armour. Down the line, he had continued to struggle against the short ball. Finally, in this Test, the not-too-quick McMillan’s bouncer had struck him on the elbow, forcing him to retire.

So, the plan was to bounce at the man. To go for his head.

Donald was more than eager to do so.

White Lightning ran in. He had hardly ever bowled quicker.

There were synchronised gasps around the ground every time Donald’s offering thudded into the gloves of Dave Richardson. A disheartened spectator was heard mumbling, “By the time we travel to South Africa you must have problems with your shoulder or heel or hamstring. Else we won’t be able to face you.”

Now Donald bounced, aiming for the white helmet that sparkled under the sun. And then something remarkabletook place. The brush was metamorphosed into a sledgehammer. Azhar did not really rock back, he did not even swivel. He squared up and his bat flashed in a horizontal arc without much ado about trying to keep it down. The ball was carted from outside the off-stump and sped away between mid-on and mid-wicket for four.

It was the unveiling of a new face of a confirmed virtuoso.

The willow, till that day reserved for painting strokes of beauty, was now brandished to fight fire with fire.

They bounced again, and he hooked them. Perhaps not the greatest of grammatically correct hook shots. But the fence was peppered with increasing frequency.

In between Donald tried to pitch up. Azhar was expecting a bouncer, staying back in the crease. And yet, down came his bat with the weight still firmly on his back-foot, swung the full arc. The ball sped away through mid-off for four. Azhar was in full command.He could afford to take enormous liberties with the manuals of cricket.

At the other end Kumble was playing the innings of his life. Yes, in 2007 he even got a hundred at The Oval, but in terms of quality this was a gem of a knock. Unperturbed, unhurried, and punctuating the vigil with some splendid strokes through the off-side. He was batting like a genuine batsman.

And then came Klusener. The score was 200 for 7. The first target of avoiding the follow on 29 runs away. For the South Africans one wicket needed to be knocked over. Azhar looked like settling into his groove, but he also seemed perpetually ready to attack the bouncer. So, what better way was there than to get him caught off the hook?

Hence, Klusener ran in and bounced. This time it was on the body, delivered from wide of the crease. And this time Azhar swivelled. The pull was struck with a resounding thwack. It sped away in front of square to the boundary.

The debutant ran in again and this time bounced straighter, the ball just outside the line of the off-stump. Azhar turned halfway, his shoulders opened towards the bowler, and he pulled the ball off his face over mid-on. Four more.

And now Klusener pitched up, angling the ball in, almost at yorker length. Azhar was rooted on the back foot, his front foot remained wide. The bat was brought down, his famous wrists were propelled into play, and the ball was struck miraculously from the line of middle-stump, the impact in front of his back foot. On air Harsha Bhogle, excited beyond words, thought that he was bowled. By the laws of science and cricket, any mortal man should have been. But the ball, pitched full and on the middle stump, played off the back-foot with a straight bat, nevertheless raced away through mid-wicket for four across the electric Eden outfield.

The three boundaries on the trot had lit a spark in the spirits thus far dampened by the spineless batting. Every stroke was being greeted by ear-splitting roars. More was to follow. On the pitch, Klusener stood wondering what to do.

He ran in again and pitched it on length. In his zeal he overstepped. There was hardly a chance for Azhar to hear the call over the deafening din of the Eden crowd. Nevertheless, he had picked his spot. He remained on his backfoot, played the ball with a straightish bat, forcing it away past mid-wicket. Once again it raced to the fence.

By now the crowd was delirious and Klusener out of ideas. And Azhar was reading his mind. For the next ball, the front foot came down the wicket and the bat went through the familiar swing. It was more like a genuine on-drive, but played with way more brutality than one associated with the artist.The ball sped through mid-wicket again.

Five fours in a row. 20 of the 29 runs needed for saving the follow on had been plundered. The crowd was ecstatic. And at the other end, Kumble responded with boundaries off the first two balls of Donald’s over, making it 7 fours in 7 balls for India.

The bouncers kept coming, and Azhar kept carting them. The hooks and pulls were essayed with power and panache, the artist’s brush exchanged for a brilliantly effective sledgehammer. Not even in his worst day could Azhar look stripped of style, but now the end result was destruction rather than finesse. Perhaps the blow to the elbow had temporarily restricted his wristwork, perhaps he had changed his strategy for the innings. Whatever the reason, the faster they bowled the harder he hit.

The follow-on was saved with ease. Azhar’s fifty came in just 35 balls, and he went on in the same vein. At the other end Kumble was steady as a rock.

McMillan was also dispatched to the distant corners with the same disdain. Paul Adams was put on to send down his left-arm wrist-spin from the quirky action. Azhar stepped out and launched him into the outfield. The score was racing along, against the principles of common-sense and dictates of the situation. Symcox was hastened away from the attack after some serious manhandling. However, special treatment was reserved for the poor debutant. Klusener continued to bounce and Azhar continued to hook and pull him, carting him away between square leg and mid-wicket.

250 was crossed as Kumble held firm and Azhar continued to bombard the boundary boards. The score sped along and soon looked respectable. 300 for 7 did not look that meagre.

Now Adams came in from round the wicket, releasing the ball from the back of his hand, pitching it short, turning it away from the off-stump. Azhar rocked back and pulled between mid-on and mid-wicket for yet another boundary.

The stadium exploded in tumults of delighted euphoria. Azhar had brought up his hundred, in just 74 balls, faster than Gilbert Jessop, joint-fastest for India alongside Kapil Dev, fourth-fastest in the all-time list alongside Majid Khan and Kapil, the knock essayed when the side was looking helplessly up the barrel, on the verge of abject surrender. A most incredible innings.It still ranks as the joint 10th fastest century of all time, in spite of the advent of monster bats and shortened boundaries.

The crowd roared till they were hoarse, jumped with ecstatic joy at this phenomenon they had just witnessed. They clapped till their palms were red and smarting, wavedand screamed deliriously. The stands rose as one to salute the breath-taking century.

And Azhar did not acknowledge them. The trademark white helmet remained fastened on his head and the bat hung from his hand, pointing downwards. Neither was the headgear taken off, nor was the willow raised.The Eden crowd was paid back for atrocious misbehaviour in the best possible display of disdain.

The rebuff of greatness. The thumping strokes that reverberated around the great amphitheatre bore the signature of anger. Mohammad Azharuddin had changed. Not only in his style of play.

In the chequered history of the stadium, Eden has misbehaved with many a hero. That includes names of the stature of Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid. None of them managed to respond in such a manner.

Not that Azhar did not celebrate the landmark. In a moment he had pulled Adams out of the ground. A six to add to his 18 fours.

It was no novelty to see Azhar get most of his runs through the arc between mid-on and mid-wicket, but this was the first time the majority of them came from cross-batted strokes.

And then it ended all of a sudden. It was way too good to last anyway. Adams bowled fuller and Azhar drove hard. It went searing back to the bowler and he threw the ball up. The great innings had come to an end at 109.

Azhar walked back to thunderous cheer, without pausing to acknowledge the ovation. He had allowed his bat to do the talking, and it had been some speech.

He had walked out in the morning with the score tottering at 161 for 7. He now walked back with the score exactly doubled, he himself scoring 103 of those.

Once again he had gained a new lease of life at the Garden of Eden. Till the end of the 1998-99 season, he would go on to score 1,401 runs with 7 hundreds at 50.03.

What followed?

Prasad found the wrist-spin of Adams a bit too mysterious for his rudimentary batting skills. And hence with Hirwani joining him at the other end, Kumble grew fidgety. Against the speed of Donald, Klusener and McMillan, he had looked sterling even beside an effervescent Azhar in full flow — and had blasted 13 boundaries himself in the fantastic rearguard innings. He had neared what would have been a splendid century. It was the fear of exposing the proverbial rabbit in front of this predatory attack, that prompted him to attempt a suicidal second run. He was run out by a throw from Herschelle Gibbs for 88, and walked back wondering whether he would ever again get within sniffing distance of a Test century. Thankfully he would, a decade down the line.

 

The rest of the match was anticlimactic from the Indian point of view. Another pair of centuries, this time by Kirsten again and Daryll Cullinan, helped Hansie Cronje declare with a 466-run lead. With no option but to play for a draw, India opted for the policy of the dead bat. Not really the astute approach, becauseat the end of the 28th over the score read 28 for 4.

It was time for Azhar again. Perhaps, given the situation of the match, his tactics were inexplicable. At the same time, while the rest of the batting dug a hole for themselves with their defensive prodding, the whiplash hooks and pulls of Azhar got him 52 off 55 balls — the only decent score of the innings.

However, he chanced his arm once too often, falling to Klusener, edging to slip. The debutant was busy making amends for the disastrous first innings figures of 0 for 75 from 14. In fact, on the final morning, he picked up five of the six wickets to fall, to finish with 8 for 64. It would remain his only five-wicket haul in a rather curious bowling career.

India withered away for 137, the optimistic diehards cheering every audacious Azhar stroke even on the final morning as he batted with the tail.

The margin of defeat was enormous, a whopping 329 runs. Yet, for all the runs scored by Kirsten and the other South Africans, and for all the wickets of Klusener, the Test remains the one in which Azhar played that blinder. To this day, two decades later, it is recalled with misty eyes,the talks evolving around the way Mohammad Azharuddin’s willow flashed on that fabulous Friday morning in Calcutta.

Brief Scores:

 

South Africa 428 (Andrew Hudson 146, Gary Kirsten 102, Darryl Cullinan 43; Venkatesh Prasad 6 for 104) and 367 for 3 decl. (Gary Kirsten 133, Darryl Cullinan 153*) beat India 329 (Mohammad Azharuddin 109, Anil Kumble 88) and 137 (Mohammad Azharuddin 52; Lance Klusener 8 for 64) by 329 runs.

Man of the Match: Gary Kirsten.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)