Last summer, a new definition was given to oriental artistry as Mohammad Azharuddin, India's captain, time and again placed the ball through square leg and mid-wicket with a wristy turn of the bat at the instant of impact. Line seemed to mean little, length everything, as he feasted on England's bowling with hundreds at Lord's and Old Trafford to follow successively on one against New Zealand in Auckland. They set the crackers bursting in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Vithalwadi, in celebration not just of Azharuddin's success, but also of the return of the touch which five years earlier had launched his international career so spectacularly. Three hundreds against England in his first three Tests. That was early in 1985, and the 21-year-old was hailed as a prophet among the Indian pantheon of batting demi-gods. He was also beginning the struggle to cope with the expectations of a nation and his awe of his own reputation.
Mohammad Azharuddin was born on February 8, 1963 in Hyderabad, capital city of the Deccan plateau state of Andhra Pradesh. A doting grandfather was the first to spot the youngster's passion for cricket, and at the All Saints missionary school, Brother Joseph inculcated in him a love of the game. It was as a seam bowler, who could make the ball swing in a banana arc, that the young Azharuddin began playing for All Saints, but he progressed quickly to bat at No. 3, besides being the third seamer, for Hyderabad Schools in the South Zone Schools against the visiting English Schools side, and in 1981-82, at the age of eighteen, he made his first-class début in the Ranji Trophy. Such exposure was rather easily attained in a Hyderabad side which was going through a transition, but the experience shaped his batting even as it toughened him mentally.
National recognition came on the heels of a double-hundred for South Zone in January 1984, in the Duleep Trophy, with a place on the Under-25 tour of Zimbabwe. He did not make the short tour of Pakistan in October that year, but only because it was thought that Pakistan was no place for blooding youngsters. His breakthrough came later in the season after David Gower's England team, beaten in the First Test, had come back to square the series in Delhi. In contentious circumstances Kapil Dev was dropped from the side and Azharuddin was brought in to replace Sandeep Patil for the Calcutta Test. The rest is history.
The soft-spoken, almost shy young man was also an instant hit in the limited-overs game. Critics in Australia raved about his essentially back-foot play, which they thought had gone out of fashion along with good manners on the field. His fielding, too, made him invaluable to the side, a factor which came to his aid when his form could not match the impossibly high levels he had set in his first international season. Azharuddin is emphatic that he did not start out as a naturally gifted fielder and that he had to work hard to attain the standards he has today.
While there were centuries to be made on the plumb pitches at home, there were none abroad until his first visit to Pakistan in 1989-90. By then, following an unhappy tour of the West Indies, where fast and short-pitched bowling had provided a searching test of his technique, his place in the side was in doubt. Indeed, it was only because Raman Lamba was forced to withdraw from the First Test because of a broken toe that he played. He saved his place for the next Test with a record-equalling five catches in Pakistan's first innings - four of them brilliant ones in the slips, where he had not always stood - but batting on a hard wicket had meant a return to the horrors of his "blind" ducking against genuine fast bowling.
Advice from colleagues to stand up and hook if bowlers were trying to corner him with bouncers was not really what an uncertain and unwilling player of the hook needed to hear. Sounder advice came from the former Pakistan batsman, Zaheer Abbas, who advocated a readjustment of his grip. By wrapping his right hand further round the handle, Azharuddin found he could stroke the ball with greater control and assurance. In the second innings of the Faisalabad Test, having been dismissed for 0 in the first innings, he made his first century away from home. In the course of it, he found his confidence and his true touch returning. Changes in selection were soon to thrust him further into the limelight, and although he had little experience of leading sides, he was made captain for the tour of New Zealand in early 1990.
Such is Azharuddin's nature, however, that he takes everything in his stride, not making a drama out of a crisis, or even a crisis out of the drama that is so often Indian cricket. He set about tackling his new responsibilities with the modesty that is a refreshing trait: the devout Muslim probably believed in just praying extra hard and leaving his young team to play to the best of their resources. Such a style was disastrous to begin with, but soon enough Azharuddin learned to assert himself as captain.
The Auckland Test, the last of the New Zealand series, brought a sensational twist to his career as a batsman, for it saw the fruition of his counter-attacking style. Suddenly, everything he did came right and a truly majestic innings of 192 unfolded. Marked by straight- and on-driving of a very high order, the innings was supreme also in that it was the highest by an Indian captain abroad. His match- and series-winning half-century at Trent Bridge in the second of last summer's Texaco one-dayers was a further indication of how completely "Azhar" had rediscovered himself.
Having made his name as a stylist who used the power of his wrists to create the mesmeric effect of strokes played late, he had often been struggling in his attempt to put percentages ahead of style. It was an index of his re-emerging batting personality that he should score the centuries which fascinated Englishmen so. He explained away the seeming desperation which sparked India's strokeplay in the defeat at Lord's as the need for aggression which has always acted as a tonic for him. "It's not as if we were always hitting the ball as if we wanted to take the cover off it. But there was so much loose bowling, especially from Malcolm, that it was easy to send the ball speeding down the slope." But at Old Trafford, and again at The Oval, where a century seemed his for the taking, Azharuddin reached the very heights of artistic batting. The Old Trafford hundred pleased him particularly. "I always knew that the ball was going when I aimed to hit it." Watching some of the power developed, especially off the back foot, it was hard to believe he was playing with one of the lightest bats in modern cricket.
Since childhood, Azharuddin has believed in turning out neatly at a cricket match, be it a hit in the park or a Test. Notice how he always goes out to toss in a blazer. By his manner, he also promises to re-establish sporting standards in the game as well as sartorial ones. Certainly, if India's tour of England was a resounding success for the game, Azharuddin can take pride in being a leading contributor to it. This summer his contract with Derbyshire will see the oriental charmer return to England, with his one-year-old son, Asaduddin, in tow. The future beckons brightly. His only regret is that his grandfather, who used to stand under the trees on the boundary line watching him, did not live to see him play Test cricket.