Thursday, January 20, 2005

Breakfast with a fallen angel

For a week now I have not been able to bring myself to write anything in these pages. Not because I have been too busy, although that could be proffered as an excuse. Not because I was under the weather, though I have been that too. But because there is something I have been desperate to write, but simply unable to find the form or words to. So, I’m just going to blurt it out.

About a week ago, I arrived at the Marriott in Juhu, to meet someone for breakfast. I hadn’t met in him in more than a year, but he looked just the same – fit as anything, trendily dressed, with a shy smile on his face. No, it wasn’t the breakfast that was a problem either – he ate papayas, drank fruit juice without sugar, and ate boiled egg whites. I, not being as fitness conscious, helped myself to something more substantial.

The problem was the conversation – and it lasted about an hour, was always cordial, occasionally friendly, but consistently surreal. The man was Mohammad Azharuddin, a man who has given unbridled joy with his lascivious flicks through the on-side, with his wrists-of-steel inside-out lofted drive over extra-cover, why, even with his one handed catching at slip. And yet, here was a man claiming matchfixing never happened, claiming Hansie Cronje was a victim of circumstance.

There are some players who you simply cannot hate. If you love the game you have to hate those that betrayed it by fixing matches, or even merely compromising the integrity of play by underperforming in a personal capacity. And yet, even with a lifetime ban hanging around his shoulders, it is impossible to hate Mohammad Azharuddin.

He spoke with such tenderness about his two young sons, Asad and Abbas, and how their cricket was coming along. He spoke about the public, and how he had never once faced a hostile reaction after the matchfixing crisis. He spoke about some of India’s players, and listed the small adjustments in technique that would make a huge difference to the way they played. He spoke with humility about being destined to end a career on 99 Tests. If you spoke to him, you would believe he is a humble man who cared deeply about cricket.

For a moment, I too was taken completely in. Then, after he left for a spell in the gym, I was left, sipping my coffee, smoking a cigarette, thinking.

What is the cricket world to do with its fallen heroes?

Do we discount more than 15,000 international runs? Do we put aside everything that we know as true, and yet can rarely prove, merely because someone is an irresistible character? So many questions.

And yet, while one meeting with Azhar is enough to make you question so many things you believed strongly in, disturb you even, there are others, perhaps equally guilty, who get by without causing a ripple. Wasim Akram was slapped on the wrist by the Qayyum Commission for his involvement in betting and matchfixing. He was fined, even prohibited from ever becoming captain of Pakistan again. Yet, we talk of him merely as the god of left-handed fast bowling.

What hypocrites we all really are.