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Different strokes

Mohammed Azharuddin speaks to K. PRADEEP about Kerala, strikes, life and his future

Photo: Mahesh Harilal

THE LOVE and affection that cricket fans still have for Mohammed Azharuddin is simply unbelievable. The picturesque Kochi Refineries Limited ground at Ambalamugal in Kochi never draws big crowds. But when Azhar made a cameo appearance for Hyderabad in the South Zone Veterans' Cricket Tournament held over the weekend, there was a virtual chaos. Azhar was swarmed by school children, cricketers and countless fans. In whites once again, his shirt collar turned up in that patented style, Azhar was turning out for a regular game of cricket after a long time. And the former Indian skipper appeared comfortable in the company of his former Hyderabad teammates.

Azhar's dream

These days Azhar is busy doing other things than playing cricket. The life ban imposed on him by the Indian cricket authorities for his alleged involvement in the match-fixing issue has cut short his cricketing career. Azhar is now involved in his state-of-the-art health club set up in Hyderabad and a little bit of coaching. "You can't call it coaching as such. I go to schools when invited and help the youngsters with some tips on batting and fielding. I wish to begin a cricket academy but I'm not sure when. It was so nice of Arshad (Ayub) to call me once in a while to his clinic where I spend some time with the trainees," says Azhar flashing that ever-present smile.

Azhar spent a good part of the long drive from the airport speaking into his cellphone. He appeared a bit bothered when the driver slowed down a bit allowing those in a nearby vehicle to have a glimpse of him. When he spoke he tried hard to evade any sort of talk on his personal life and even cricket. And the effort was so very obvious.

There were those usual questions like "It's just February and why is it so hot?" There were enquiries about the ground where he was to play, the teams and the players. But there were flashes of the Azhar that one knew, his respect for the seniors, fellow cricketers and others when he made specific enquiries about some of the former cricketers of the State.

Boy next door

Azhar was always perceived as being quiet, inward, with a reputation of the boy next door. Azhar's metamorphosis from that calm, introverted young man to a dapper, fashion model-like image was simply stunning. Known to talk only about his game, Azhar now indulges animatedly on subjects ranging from society, politics and business.

"Kerala is a safe State isn't it? There is relatively less of theft and violence here. Look, you find so many houses on the fringes of the highway. It must be safe."

Like in the case of many, politics, Azhar feels, has been the bane of this beautiful State. "I believe there are so many strikes that people hesitate to invest in Kerala. Of late, I learn, the situation has improved. I'm sure with all its advantages this State can surely turn into a paradise."

A sudden burst of heavy traffic forces the speeding car to slow down a bit. Azhar looks around and enquires, "How is the business scene like? What is it that really goes in Kerala? Is it agriculture, coconuts and all that?"

Resigned to his fate

The only batsman in Test history to be stranded at 99 Tests, Azhar had always hoped, even during those tumultuous days following the break of the match-fixing scandal and the subsequent ban that he would be able to play one more game for India. But now he seemed to have resigned to his fate. "I don't find a chance to come back," he said. And when one from the crowd added that they would pray for him Azhar smiled, that toothy grin again, and thanked him.

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