Mohammad Azharuddin - one of the greatest innings on a tricky wicket © Getty Images
Mohammad Azharuddin – one of the greatest innings on a tricky wicket © Getty Images

December 11, 1996. Mohammad Azharuddin’s penchant for back-to-back hundreds continued, as he followed up his sledgehammer act at Eden Gardens with perhaps one of his greatest innings at Green Park. He scored 163 unbeaten runs on a treacherous wicket, guiding India to a winning position. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the final Test of the riveting 1996-97 series.

Second masterpiece on the trot

At Eden Gardens we had seen him wield the sledgehammer instead of the habitual paintbrush. The result had been murderous, exhilarating, adrenaline surging … with the blazing performance forged indelibly into memories by the simmering anger which kept Mohammad Azharuddin unmoved by the applause that greeted his spectacular 74-ball century.

Azhar had made Eden his paradise from his Test debut. He had regained it in 1992 with another stupendous innings while the country bayed for his head. He had been metamorphosed into the villain after the debacle of the World Cup semi-final. And using his willow as a battle-axe, he had reconquered his impregnable castle of delight. And he had refused to acknowledge the cheers from the crowd that had heckled and booed him earlier that year. READ: Mohammad Azharuddin scores ton on debut

However, at Kanpur it was a very different Azhar on view. This was a fascinating amalgamation of the artist of yore and his recent manifestation as a destroyer. 

He entered the fray with the closely-contested series locked 1-1, the third and final Test hanging in balance,India slightly ahead on first innings exchanges but the Proteans striking regularly enough to neutralise the advantage. The wicket was tricky, the bowling high class and the fielding electric. And he proceeded to play an innings of dreams, with wristy flourishes supplemented by remnants of Eden’s extraordinary hitting, the resulta glittering gem that overshadowed even the most sparkling of his many splendid knocks.

In retrospect, thrilling as it was, the Eden knock had really been all about ill-advised short pitched bowling duly dispatched to the far corners of the ground. The Kanpur innings, in contrast, was masterfully crafted. He batted on a difficult wicket, with every other batsman finding runs hard to come by, and played one of the most fluent of masterpieces, almost as if on a featherbed constructed especially for him. The artistry was always there, there were elements of destruction, and along with all that there was a temperament that towered above all other aspects of his play.

The Test and the series had been up for grabs when he walked out to bat. By the time he returned, unconquered after five-and-a-quarter hours of wristy magic, the South Africans were out of the game. The Test was won, the series secure. It is difficult to rank works of genius, but this should perhaps be hailed as the best innings Mohammad Azharuddin ever essayed. READ: Mohammad Azharuddin’s 182 in Calcutta: Authoritative, dazzling and impactful

Early exchanges

The toss had been vital, but the thoughtful Protean bowling had put a spanner in the wheels of Indian progress.

The Indians, opening with the recalled WV Raman and the makeshift Nayan Mongia, had been given a solid start, but the visitors had struck often and quickly in the final session of the first day.

Paul Adams had made his left arm wrist spin buzz through the air, break off the pitch, and ask eloquent questions. In a brief quarter of an hour, he had ended Rahul Dravid’s painstaking innings of 7 off 55 balls, and got rid of Azhar cheaply and accounted for the left-handed all-rounder Sunil Joshi. Each of the wickets had been followed by a hands-free cartwheel, which hardly did anything for the blood-pressure of the Protean physio.

Skipper Sachin Tendulkar had continued to battle, but the first day had ended with India on a none-too-impressive 204 for 6.

The following morning, Tendulkar had completed his half century and celebrated it by lofting Pat Symcox for six. But Adams had struck again, the wickets had tumbled to the ‘frog-in-the-blender’ action, and the curious cartwheels had been on display after every blow. The Indian innings had folded for 237, Adams claiming 6 of them for 55. The grip on the rubber had seemed to be slipping. READ: Azhar: Full marks for effort, but poorly told story

But then the Indian spinners had bowled on the track. The tale had turned out to be one of a prolonged struggle. As in the Indian innings, every batsman had found it difficult to counter the vagaries of the track. Anil Kumble had struck multiple times, as had the recalled off-spinner Ashish Kapoor.

And then, with the score on 126 for 4, Javagal Srinath had charged in. The man who had recently engineered the remarkable triumph at Motera had now moved the ball in the direction of the shine. The burst with reverse-swing had been a bit too much for the Proteans. Four wickets had fallen for 18 runs. It had been the dogged resistance of Symcox that had seen South Africa to 177. By the end of the day Indian batsmen had been out there again, and one of them, Raman, back in the hutch.

Encore

The following morning sawthe Indians grafting for the runs. It was not easy. Strokemaking was difficult against Fanie de Villiers, Lance Klusener, Brian McMillan and the two spinners. Captain Hansie Cronje bowled his cutters with his usual keen cricketing acumen. The Indians were choked for runs, but determined.

Night-watchman Kumble, fresh from his spectacular 88 at Eden, eked out a useful 42. Sourav Ganguly shared a 50-run stand with him, scoring 41 before snicking one from Symcox. Azhar walked out to join skipper Tendulkar with the score reading 121 for 4. A couple of quick wickets and the balance could still shift dangerously towards the South Africans. READ: Mohammad Azharuddin’s incredible Eden classic on a burning deck against South Africa

And then it all changed.

None of the batsmen in the Test had as yet made runs at anything approaching a fair clip. Tendulkar’s 61 in the first innings had consumed three-and-a-half hours and 173 balls, Gary Kirsten’s 43 had come off 108 deliveries. In the first innings Dravid, as mentioned, had struggled for an hour for a 55-ball 7.

The Indian run rate for the first innings had been 2.36, South Africans had done slightly better at 2.44. Even a batsman as free-stroking as Ganguly had taken two hours and 93 balls over his 41. In the second innings Tendulkar was not really breaking free in his usual way, looking rather subdued and sedate. It was just too difficult a wicket for stroke-play.

Unless of course one had the gifts and wrists of Azhar.

It was perhaps the immaculate reflexes that made the difference. Azhar could play the balls after they had pitched, adjusting his strokes at the last moment, bringing his wrists into play, even catering for the odd unexpected behaviour off the wicket. He drove with every bit of assurance as if on a placid track, flicked with absolute ease and timed the balls to a nicety — remarkable on a wicket of variable pace.

When the persevering Lance Klusener got Tendulkar to edge a delivery to the keeper, the pair had put on 50 in an hour. At 192 for 5, India led by 252.

A collapse hereafter could still result in a fairly comfortable target for the visitors to chase. However, it was during the last session of the third day that Azhar unfurled the full range of his majestic strokes.

With Dravid looking calm and composed in the second innings, Azhar found gaps at will. Holes appeared even amidst the extraordinary South Africans in the field, the ball sped through the covers, past mid-off and delectably through mid-wicket. On a couple of occasions Adams sprang through his run-up, twisted his body into a corkscrew and delivered from the back of his hand, full, outside off-stump, turning away. Azhar leaned forward, caressed one gently through the covers and away it sped. A while later, the delivery was the same, and the bat face now turned towards the on side, those wrists rotating at the moment of impact. The ball raced away to the right of mid-on.

De Villiers and Klusener were dispatched through mid-off, the drives more delicate than the brutal barrage witnessed at Calcutta. When they erred in line, the boundary boards behind square leg were dotted with exquisite flicks. At the other end Dravid bided his time.

The partnership flowered. By the end of the day, Azhar was still finding the ropes with consummate ease. The South Africans had run out of ideas. The score read 270 for 5. Azhar looked ominous on 88. Dravid was the perfect foil at 33. The lead was 330. The Proteans still needed five wickets.

The following morning the second successive hundred was reached without any fuss. It had taken him just 162 balls and contained 17 boundaries, a strike rate of 61 while most languished in the 40s. However, the landmark was just a signal for a shift of gear.

It should be noted here that Azhar’s centuries in Test cricket followed a curious pattern. His first three Tests had famously contained a hundred each. He got three more in four Tests against Sri Lanka and Pakistan in 1986-87. Three more in three Tests against New Zealand and England in 1990. Those were 9 of his first 10 hundreds, in packets of three. After two isolated centuries in the next 20 Tests, the pattern returned with two in back-to-back Tests against Sri Lanka in 1994. And now he had scored back-to-back hundreds against South Africa, to which would be added his miraculous 115 at Cape Town to make it three more in four consecutive Tests. He would go on to score his 18th and 19th tons in back-to-back Tests in Sri Lanka.

Having completed his hundred, Azhar cut loose of any remnant of inhibition. Cronje was driven off the back foot for four, Klusener dismissed behind the square leg. His feet skipped down the track and Symcox was launched brutally over long on for six. Soon after that, those springy steps were making it down the wicket again and the off-spinner was driven inside out past cover for four.

By the time Dravid perished to Adams for 56, the lead was 417. Joshi came in to hammer a few blows in a hasty cameo. Azhar was still toying with the bowling when India reached 400 with only 7 wickets down. Tendulkar signalled his batsmen to come in. The lead was 460, almost the same target the Proteans had set at Eden.

Azhar walked back to standing ovation, having played, as already mentioned, perhaps his best ever knock. He was unbeaten on 163, the last 63 coming in 67 balls, with 8 fours and a six. The innings had taken 229 balls and contained 25 fours and a six, a strike rate of 71.2. All the other batsmen who had stayed an hour or more at the wicket in the second innings, boasted strike rates ranging between 32 and 44. The Hyderabadi master had played in a different zone.

What followed?

There was going to be no dogged Protean resistance.

Batting out ten hours for a draw was taken out of the equation in the first hour and twenty minutes. Kirsten was trapped in front by Srinath. Herschelle Gibbs bowled by Prasad. And the Indian captain sent in a searing throw to beat Darryl Cullinan. South Africa were struggling at 39 for 3, and the spinners had not yet got into business.

Cronje, using his long reach and sweeping the tweakers in front of square, counterattacked for an hour and a half. But then, on reaching 50, he tried to turn Joshi against the spin, through the mid-wicket that had been left vacant, and was caught at cover off a leading edge. Hudson, who had batted nearly three-and-a-half hours for a measly 31, perished bat-pad to Kumble. By the end of the fourth day, South Africa were 127 for 5, with just the formalities to wind up on the final morning.

The Proteans had returned to the fold after two decades of isolation by playing West Indies in 1992. Since that one-off Test, they had played 10 series, won 7 and drawn 3. They had not lost any rubber. But even this incentive was not really enough for them to put up a spirited resistance.

On the final morning, without addition to the score, McMillan slog-swept Joshi. The ball went high into the outfield square of the wicket. Running back from short-leg and diving full length, substitute fielder VVS Laxman took a spectacular catch.

Soon after that Srinath got the ball to reverse and caught Richardson plumb.

The end was delayed by two hours of rallying by Klusener, Symcox and de Villiers, the last named spending 52 balls over 2 runs. But it was just a futile attempt to delay the inevitable.

The curtain finally fell when Srinath ran in, Adams prodded at it and the ball flew to the slips. It was apt that it ended in the hands of Azhar. The classy maestro from Hyderabad won both the Man of the Match and the Man of the Series awards.

Was it during this Test that Azhar had introduced Mukesh Kumar Gupta to Hansie Cronje? Maybe, maybe not. There can be many doubts about his integrity, hints at shady dealings.

But it is undeniable that Mohammad Azharuddin possessed genius. No one can question those wrists that won matches for India. The knock at Kanpur was one of the best innings ever played on a difficult wicket. An artistic masterpiece carved out on the trickiest of surfaces.

Brief Scores:

India 237 (Nayan Mongia 41, WV Raman 57, Sachin Tendulkar 61; Paul Adams 6 for 55) and 400 for 7 decl. (Anil Kumble 42, Sourav Ganguly 41, Mohammad Azharuddin 163*, Rahul Dravid 56) beat South Africa 177 (Gary Kirsten 41; Anil Kumble 4 for 71) and 180 (Hansie Cronje 50) by 280 runs.

Man of the Match: Mohammad Azharuddin

Man of the Series: Mohammad Azharuddin

(ArunabhaSengupta 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.)