Predictably enough, Kapil Dev' assertion that Md Azharuddin was not popular with the team members has stirred a hornet's nest. According to the present coach, the former Indian captain is an unwanted person in the Indian dressing room. It is well known that the team management vetoed the views of the selection committee, which wanted Azhar to be in the team for the Carlton & United Series. Now we know why.

Azhar, fighting to stage a comeback, is not in the mood to take such things lying down. Reacting angrily, he called for the Board of Control for Cricket in India to ask Kapil to substantiate the statement. ``As far as I know, I never had any problems with the team. No one should be allowed to get away with such baseless statements.''

If Azhar says he never had a problem with the players, then what can one infer from the Sidhu walkout from England in 1996? It will be easy to blame Sidhu for the sorry episode, but there are always two sides to a coin and Azhar must also shoulder his share of the blame. Also, from reports over the years, it was clear that all was not hunky dory between Azhar and some team members and in fact there were stories of one senior player offering to retire if Azhar was retained as skipper after the 1999 World Cup.

It's true that Azhar had a long stint as captain, first from 1990 to 1996 and then from 1998 to 1999. But a long tenure does not ensure a captain's popularity with the players. It is well known that Azhar was foisted as captain on the team because he was a pliable candidate, because the BCCI officials found the mild mannered Hyderabadi easier to handle. There was certainly nothing in his captaincy qualities to warrant such a long stay at the top. The fact that he is - statistically - the most successful captain in Indian Test cricket does not make him a shrewd skipper or a successful tactician. He was lucky to be appointed captain in the first place, fortunate to have retained it for so long despite a succession of reverses for the first three years and his statistical success was largely because of victories over weaker teams on our designer home pitches. Even his re-appointment in 1998 was largely a retrograde step and as events proved, Indian cricket did not make any great headway in his second tenure.

It is one of the ironies of the game that Azhar is one among only three captains to have led their country in three World Cup tournaments. But look at the record of the two captains he shares this honour with. Clive Lloyd's tally is two titles and a runner-up position on the third occasion and Imran Khan's record is one triumph and twice semifinalist. Azhar, on the other hand, managed to keep his place despite a record of one semifinal and twice beaten in the group matches.

As if his lack of leadership qualities was not enough, Azhar was a disaster as a communicator. He played hide and seek with the media. At press conferences, he answered mostly in mono syllables, made it clear to the mediamen that he was not interested in the proceedings, and just yawned or looked this way and that as if he was doing them a favour by spending a few minutes with them.

But look at the same Azhar now. He is aware that he needs the media to stay in the public eye as he tries to make his way back into the Indian team. So now all over the country he makes himself easily accessible to the media, attends meet the press programmes readily, and gives interviews freely to all and sundry.

A lot was made of the Indian team requiring the services of Azhar `Down Under', with some even going on to say that he would have made a difference to the side's fortunes. However, given his record in the past one year, and more so his showing in Australia in 1991-92 when he was eight years younger, the odds are that Azhar, who completes 37 in a few days time, would have failed. Perhaps he should count himself lucky that he was not exposed by Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and others on the faster, bouncier tracks in Australia.

To back Azhar's return to the Indian team, cricket followers pointed out to his form around the domestic circuit. Does a century in the Ranji Trophy or a half century in the Wills Trophy or the Deodhar Trophy on the kind of batsman oriented pitches we have in the country qualify for a comeback? And for a player with over 15,000 international runs?

That Azhar has been an outstanding batsman no one will deny. His record speaks for itself and he would be in anyone's list of all time great ten Indian batsman. But age catches up with the best of players and while it is a tribute to the former Indian captain's fitness that he has carried on for 15 years batting and fielding as only he can, it is obvious that Azhar's best days are behind him. Indeed, it is kind of sad that an artist like him can no longer command a place in the side. But if it is any comfort to him, GR Viswanath, from whom Azhar is a direct descendant, met with much the same fate. After playing 87 consecutive Tests for a world record, the supreme touch artist had one poor series against Pakistan in 1982-83, was dropped at the age of 34 and was never considered again. Viswanath being Viswanath, he just quietly left the stage, though privately he did seem hurt that he wasn't given another opportunity. Does Azhar then deserve another chance?

Perhaps the most telling comment was made by Sunil Gavaskar in reply to a question on TV on Wednesday. Asked whether it was right to keep a player away just because he may not be popular with some of the team members, Gavaskar firmly replied in the affirmative. He said that team spirit was all important and if it is found that this atmosphere is destroyed by the induction of someone who is not popular, then he should be kept out.

Gavaskar had a point. Indian cricket is in the doldrums right now with a string of reverses. This is certainly not the right time to do anything that would undermine team spirit - especially when it means gambling with a 37-year-old well past his best who may or may not come off.