As the pitch eased out, Mohammad Azharuddin gained in confidence and stood tall as he began square-cutting both, the quicks and the slower bowlers, with equal panache © Getty Images
As the pitch eased out, Mohammad Azharuddin gained in confidence and stood tall as he began square-cutting both, the quicks and the slower bowlers, with equal panache © Getty Images

On December 26, 1998, India captain Mohammad Azharuddin stood tall against a ruthless Simon Doull on a nippy Wellington pitch and took India from a wobbling 16 for 4 to a respectable total. Jaideep Vaidya revisits that defiant century at Basin Reserve.

Boxing Day Tests always bring that added flair and excitement with them. The festive season is in the air and the colourfully dressed crowd is in the mood for some electrifying action. This match had even more riding on it, since the first Test of the series at Dunedin had been washed out without a single ball being bowled.

New Zealand pacer Simon Doull did not disappoint the home crowd as he ripped through the Indian top order after Azharuddin won the toss and elected to bat. The pitch was definitely helping the seamers and it did look like the decision had backfired after the India top four — Navjot Singh Sidhu, Ajay Jadeja, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly — were back in the pavilion with scores of 0, 10, 0 and 5 respectively after 10 overs.

Azharuddin walked out in his trademark white helmet in the 11th over with a young Sachin Tendulkar at the other end. The Indians needed a partnership, and how! Doull was looking rampant and was using the wind nicely to swing the ball; someone needed to stand strong against him. Azharuddin obliged by getting off the mark with a wristy flick down the leg-side for four off an attempted yorker from Doull that strayed down the leg.

As the pitch lost its early nip and time ticked on, Azharuddin gained in confidence and stood tall as he began square-cutting both, the quicks and the slower bowlers, with equal panache. The way he transferred the weight to his back-foot and had a late jab at the deliveries was frustrating to watch for the New Zealand bowlers, but poetry to the handful Indian fans present.

After a defying 83-run stand, Azharuddin lost Tendulkar (47) to Doull and then Nayan Mongia (0) in quick succession. But that did not deter him as he went on cutting and flicking effortlessly. His 50 was brought up with a nudge down mid-wicket for a single off Doull. It had taken 87 balls and 125 minutes including 8 boundaries. “When all else has been falling down around him, the Indian captain has come to the party,” said Ian Chappell in the commentary box.

However, India were 130 for 6 at this stage and still not out of danger’s way. The Indian captain needed someone from the lower order to hang around with him while he went about with the scoring.

Anil Kumble (11 off 25) tried his hand for a while, but was sent packing by Doull for his seventh wicket. This was his best bowling figures in Tests and the fourth best by a Kiwi in the longer format. Javagal Srinath (7) wasn’t to last long after that as India tottered along to 149 for 8. Venkatesh Prasad (15) was the next bat in and the Indian fast bowler stuck around with his captain for a good hour as the duo took the visitors past the 200-run mark.

Azharuddin then reached three figures with a dab down long-on for two. It was his 21st Test century, but probably his most valiant. When the rest of the Indian batting had fallen down like a pack of cards, the tall Indian captain was there to weather the storm. He remained unbeaten on 103 as India were eventually bowled out for 208, a score which looked far beyond reach at 16 for four when he had walked in.

Azharuddin’s 156-ball innings included 14 boundaries and, even though the wagon wheel isn’t available, rest assured that majority of those were in the deep backward point and deep third man regions. His late slashes down those areas, with minimal power but intricate timing, off Doull, Chris Cairns, Dion Nash and Daniel Vettori would have pleased the cricketing purists and provided them the perfect Christmas present.

Azharuddin could not prevent an Indian loss, but had definitely etched his name in the annals of one of the greatest overseas knocks by an Indian in testing situations.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and writer at Cricket Country. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog – The Mullygrubber )