Indian board's attempted own-goal
It ended with a flick off the pads, the stroke that had captivated millions of fans for close to two decades. This time, under the floodlights at the Bangabandhu Stadium, instead of racing away to the square-leg fence, it looped to the fielder positioned for the shot. We weren't to know it then but that would be the last stroke Mohammad Azharuddin would play in a 16-year-career that spanned 99 Tests and 334 one-day internationals.
His Test swansong had been a cavalier century in a hopelessly lost cause and, by the time he arrived in Dhaka for his one-day farewell, the air was thick with stories of his involvement in the match-fixing scandal that had seen Hansie Cronje's fall from grace. When the contents of the CBI report and the BCCI-instituted Madhavan inquiry were made public, Azharuddin's transformation from authentic hero to arch villain was complete.
Over the following months, he did himself few favours. The first significant interview after the life ban handed down by the BCCI included cheap shots at the likes of Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri and even Sachin Tendulkar, and his insinuation elsewhere that he was being persecuted for being a Muslim met with the derision it deserved in a country that he had captained for 47 Test matches.
More than a year later, he was the only one of 16 nominees not to be present at Wisden's Indian Cricketer of the Century awards. That slight is said to have hurt him deeply, as did the angry reaction from Ehsan Mani, then ICC president, when Azhar was invited to the 2004 Asia Cup by a TV channel.
The latest episode, in which the BCCI's new dispensation seeks to rehabilitate Azhar, has a lot to do with the ICC and little to do with the man himself. The squabble between the ICC and the BCCI, over matters ranging from the Members Participation Agreement to the function on November 4, is characterised by as much one-upmanship as that between two kids arguing over whose mother is prettiest.
While he still protests his innocence, in most people's eyes he committed the gravest crime of all, far worse than popping a diuretic or injecting a steroid.
Those justifying his rehabilitation point to Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, and the light rap on the knuckles that Cricket Australia gave them for their involvement with a bookmaker. But one wrong shouldn't beget another, and it's regrettable that the BCCI, which was in a minority when it came to investigating such misdemeanours, should try to undo its own good work.
The decision to honour Azhar casts it in poor light. The ban had been its idea, based on plentiful circumstantial evidence unearthed by the CBI, Madhavan's interviews and even the King Commission. Paul Condon's report on corruption within the game praised the CBI inquiry, and the idea of felicitating a man whose name crops up each time anyone investigates match-fixing will be deeply discomfiting to many in the cricket community.
No one denies his contributions to the game as a batting artist, or his role as captain in India's many successes on home soil in the 1990s, but all of that is obscured by what followed. Cricketers have slipped up before, but those like Herschelle Gibbs, and even Cronje himself, admitted to their mistakes -- at least in part -- and sought forgiveness. In Azhar's case, there has not been a single admission of wrongdoing. If he's as innocent as he claims, and it is germane to point out that he has not yet been found guilty in a court of law, it begs the question why so many of his former team-mates, including some of the game's greatest names, haven't bothered to stay in touch with him.
While he still protests his innocence, in most people's eyes he committed the gravest crime of all, far worse than popping a diuretic or injecting a steroid. He was seen to have betrayed the fans, whose faith sustains the game as much as any heroics on the field. He should be allowed to get on with his life, and live with his mistakes, but any attempt to gloss over them will only set an appalling precedent for the future of a game whose beauty has been marred by one scandal too many in recent times.
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Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo