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The Azhar-Sachin Story



Cricket captaincy is a curious game of chances. It can bring the best out of you. It can bring the worst out of you. No matter whether you are a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler; or a genuine all-rounder. It all depends on your approach. It is as simple as that.

And approach is the key to success of the man leading the side. The game has come across a number of captains who have relished leadership. They have proved it by their impressive performances in their respective disciplines. And there have also been men who have failed to do justice to their talents, in terms of consistency, when pitch-forked at the helm.

The game has also witnessed several men who were great leaders but mediocre players. They produced amazing results on the strength of their mental gifts while contributing virtually nothing as players. It was not even expected of them.

India's star batsmen Mohammed Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar provide an interesting study in this regard.While the former has been playing for the country for almost 15 years now, the latter has been representing India for a decade. India's cricketing fortunes invariably depend on the way they perform.

And both of them have led India in a good number of Tests and ODIs. While captaincy came to Azharuddin unexpectedly, it came to Tendulkar on the expected lines. There was a striking similarity on both occasions. When they were asked to lead the country for the first time, there were apparently no other men capable enough to guide the national team in the circumstances they found themselves in then.

When the India team returned from Pakistan in 1989, without winning or losing any of the four Tests, the then captain Krishnammachari Srikkanth was immediately sacked. It was an unprecedented event in India cricket considering that no earlier captain had ever returned from the neighbouring nation without losing the series. This was the series that saw the arrival of young Sachin Tendulkar on the world stage. The selectors looked for a replacement for Srikkanth as skipper.

The tours of New Zealand and England were on and they found Azharuddin, who also had a proverbial escape in Pakistan after coming agonisingly close to losing his palce in the side because of poor form. He did not have much experience in captaining the team but he was regarded as an experienced and importantly, one of the senior players in the national team.

Unlike his predecessor, Azharuddin did not give any impression of being affected by the weight of captaincy as he regained his old touch and began batting the way he is known for. He played brilliantly both in New Zealand and in England. he seemed to be enjoying batting with an extra responsibility of having to lead the Indian team. Of course, he did not impress with his leadership qualities at first but that was altogether a different matter.

Those who saw Azharuddin bat in the Test series in England fell instantly in love with his silken batsmanship. he literally mesmerised the cognoscenti among them and gave the rest their money's worth. It was agood start to Azharuddin's career as skipper in that he was at least able to bat freely, consistently, and without curbing his natural style, which was very essential.

Slowly but surely, however, Azharuddin began experiencing a slump in his performance. Both at home and away, in Tests as well as ODIs, there was a noticible lack of consistency in his form. It would be good, better and brilliant in some matches; it would be wretched at times. Being a key batsman in the team, this was all but desirable. His form against hostile, fast bowling outside India became a matter of concern.

His suspect technique and a streak of lack of confidence in his ability against short, rising deliveries on green, fast and bouncy pitches, first in the Caribbean in 1989 under Vengsarkar and then in Australia and South Africa in 1992 under his own leadership, came in for much criticism, including from some of his journalist friends. he was thoroughly exposed by Walsh, Bishop, McDermott, Hughes, Donald et al.

Azhar the batsman succeeded only in patches and his captaincy came under fire. But for the presence of the mercurial Sachin Tendulkar in the middle order & Kapil Dev and Srinath lending teeth to the attack, India's performance Down Under & in SA would ahve been worse.

But the selectors, particularly the chairman, had full faith in Azharuddin's captaincy and they retained him for the 1993 home series against Gooch's England. Azhar played brilliantly to win the Test series 3-0 and also shared the one-day series to silence his critics. The winning streak continued as India defeated Zimbabwe in the one-off Test in Delhi and Sri Lanka in all the three Tests at home before winning the three-Test series in Sri Lanka. India also won a couple of prestigious one-day tournaments in this period which was the golden phase of Azhar's captaincy. The Hero Cup was especially a memorable one.

Amid all this, what was forgotten was the carelessness that had become a feature of his batsmanship. He would lose his wicket to an ordinary ball. He would stun everybody with an anazingly outstanding innings in between. But Azhar the batsman had ceased to become predictable.

India fails to win the 1996 World Cup amidst high expectations - Manoj Prabhakar was dropped - Sidhu walked out of the England tour accusing Azhar of singling him out for rough treatment - Prabhakar casts aspersions on Azhar - Azhar failed with the bat in England - etc...etc...etc. Azhar's days as captain were numbered and with more controversies surrounding him, the England tour proved the last straw.

The much awaited appointment of Tendulkar as captain took place as Azharuddin became "unwanted". Many wanted the selectors to discard him from the team. But he survived the storm - somehow - to make a resurgent comeback, as it were.

Tendulkar also had no problem whatsoever batting freely despite the burden of captaincy on his young shoulders. He too began on a winning note. India won the one-off Delhi Test against Australia and the first against SA at Ahmedabad before allowing the Proteas to come from behind and level the Calcutta Test where Azhar played the unforgettable 74-ball hundred at his favourite ground. Strangely, while Tendulkar's batting was as good as ever in Tests, his form was quite unlike in One-dayers

One had not seen Tendulkar fail in one-dayers so consistently especially after he hit a century in his first match as captain. But there he was - disappointing himself and 900 million fanatic Indians - getting out to bowlers not fit to tie his boot-laces! He would play a good match-winning knock or two occasionally, but the real run machine in him was clearly missing. It was not difficult to see that the weight of captaincy was putting tremendous pressure on him as he was the mainstay of the team's batting in one-day cricket. He of course, denied the charges, but his body-language said it all.

Unlike his predecessor, Tendulkar had tough assignments right from the start as captain. First Australia, then a back-to-back series against SA and finally the West Indians and the resurgent Sri Lankans in their own dens. And several one-day competitions in between and thereafter, particularly theIndependence Cup at home.

Tendulkar flourished with thw willow in SA & in the Caribbean too his form did not disappoint much. In the West Indies, he played magnificently throughout to get three brillant 80-odd runs but couldnt convert them into hundreds. However it was his early dismissal in the one-dayers that had been causing worry. At a stage the selectors also ordered him to bat in the middle-order but all that was rubbish. What was needed was a minor adjustment in his stroke production in the mid-wicket region where he used to lose his wicket repeatedly.

With India not doing anything remarkable under Tendulkar, and particularly with the concerned people arguing that tha pressure of captaincy should not be put on a young and a most talented cricketer like hime, the selectors thought it wise to relieve hin of the burden of leadership in the hope that it would allow him to bat freely in the one-dayers also as there was no problem at all with his batting.

The selectors fell back on Azharuddin, their old favourite. The prophets of doom were ready again but luckily, they were in for a surprise. In his second innings Azhar put India back on the winning line. Both Azhar and Tendulkar regained their originality as batsmen, Azhar under the weight of captaincy and Sachin without the cares of it. Whatever way we lok at it, the gain is Indias.

More interesting was to watch Tendulkar bat at his vintage best against the visitors from Down Under. He had an average of 110.50 in all forms of cricket after that tour! Sachin devastated Shane Warne & Co to leave them speechless, gaping in admiration.

Then came the unforgettable Sharjah tournament which witnessed Tendulkar in all his glory. Much has been said and written about his exploits which made his detractors eat humble pie, especially the ones who had the temerity t suggest that he should never open for India in one-dayers.

Importantly, Tendulkar earned genuine praise from the Aussies themselves with Warne and the Waugh twins going gaga over him, comparing him with Don Bradman. It is the ultimate tribute to Tendulkar. Remenber, the Aussies are very miserly when it comes to hailing someone. But then, so sublime was Tendulkar's batting in Sharjah that all kinds of accolades and encomia were possible. And he surely deserved them.

Thats a mild comparison of a player who excelled as a captain and one who relished being free of captaincy.

******* Test Avg ODI Avg
Azhar during Tendulkar's captaincy 44.52 41.51
Sachin during Azhar's captaincy 43.41 61.61
Azhar after regaining captaincy 77.75 50.00
Sachin after losing captaincy 111.50 58.81
Sachin as captain 45.96 37.00
Azhar as captain 46.21 41.63