JEDDAH: Mohammed Azharuddin is one of India’s most successful cricket team captains. An artful batsman and a sharp fielder, he played 99 Test matches and 334 One-Day Internationals before quitting cricket in 2000 and starting a new career as a politician in 2009.
Despite having dealt with many trials and tribulations in his personal and cricketing life, the 53-year-old showed no signs of rancor or ill will against anybody. On the contrary, he was full of optimism.
“I believe in destiny,” he told Arab News in an exclusive interview last week. “Sometimes things happen that you don’t want to happen. Whatever is there in your destiny will happen. That is how I look at things. I am a positive man.”
Azharuddin took the world by storm with his magical wristy batting in 1984 when he scored three centuries against England in the first three Test matches of his life — a record that stands even to this day. He remains extremely popular in India and abroad and it is this phenomenal popularity that led Bollywood to do a film on him and his rollercoaster life. “It is a good film.”
According to him, cricket will flourish in Saudi Arabia when more and more Saudis are introduced to the game. “It is very important to popularize cricket among Saudis. There is a need to convince young Saudis that this is a game in which they can excel.”
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What brings you to Saudi Arabia?
A: Three of my very good friends — Syed Akram Mohiuddin, Jawed Ahmed and Muzammil Riyaz — suggested the idea of hosting the Mohammed Azharuddin Cup Intercity Cricket Championship here in Jeddah. The event was organized by the Cricket Federation of Hyderabad (CFH). I am very humbled that my friends have thought of organizing a cup in my name. It is an honor. The first match was played between Riyadh and Jeddah. The event was a big success because of the full support from the Saudi Cricket Center. The CFH has made a good beginning. Next year, they plan to do it on a larger scale. My best wishes are with them. You come to Saudi Arabia with the intention of performing Umrah and visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, and that is what I have done.
Q: Despite everyone’s best efforts, cricket still has not taken root in the Kingdom. It remains a game for expatriates and of expatriates. What in your opinion is the future of the game in Saudi Arabia?
A: The Saudi Cricket Center has been doing a good job, but I think their efforts are not being acknowledged. They need to be highlighted. Only then will people gauge the progress of the game. There is of course a need to bring Saudis into the game and I am told that there are some Saudi players here and there. The game will get proper recognition only when it is adopted by Saudis in a big way. Only then will cricket get its proper recognition. Once you have Saudis, that will lead to government support. It is, therefore, very important to popularize cricket among Saudis. There is a need to convince young Saudis that this is a game in which they can excel. The other challenge is infrastructure. If you want the game to grow in Saudi Arabia, what is essential is turf wickets.
Q: There are reports that Saudi Arabia may soon get full membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC).
A: Yes, so despite all the challenges and all the obstacles, I must admit that the Saudi Cricket Center has done a good job. Nadeem Nadwi, the chief executive officer, has been running the show for a long time. It is largely because of his efforts and the efforts of his team that Saudi Arabia will soon get full ICC membership. This is a big thing. I want to congratulate Prince Faisal bin Mohammed bin Saud bin Abdul Aziz, the chief patron of the Saudi Cricket Center, for his leading role in promoting and popularizing the game. I wish them all the best.
Q: When we interviewed you the last time in 2013, you said you were ready to contribute to Indian cricket in any way. Three years later, the Indian cricket board has still not availed itself of your help. As India’s most successful captain, why are they not using your expertise as a coach?
A: I really don’t know. These are things for the board to decide. If the board comes forward with an opportunity for me, I am ready.
Q: You were accused of match-fixing and a life ban was imposed on you. You fought a long legal battle and the court exonerated you. Right?
A: Yes, yes, the court cleared me in 2012. A division bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court delivered a verdict clearing me of any wrongdoing. It also set aside the life ban. I was completely exonerated.
Q: What is the hitch then?
A: The board has always been very supportive of me. I have no complaints against the board. I went against the board only when I was slapped with a life ban. That is when I had to defend myself. I have no issues with the board. None whatsoever.
Q: In what capacity would you want to help the cause of cricket in India?
A: That is for the board to decide. The Indian team is doing very well. I would like to coach youngsters at the grassroots level because that is what interests me.
Q: A film about your life has just been released and is getting good reviews. What are your reflections on the film?
A: It is a very good film. Very informative. Very inspirational. They have tried to capture all that happened during my cricketing life into the film. They have also taken quite a lot of cinematic liberty. For instance, there are songs in the film that I have never sung in my whole life!
Q: How much of it is fiction and how much real?
A: It is not a biopic or a biographical film. It is a film based on the events that took place during my cricketing career. It is a very good and very positive film.
Q: You watched the film with your son?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: What was his reaction?
A: He also has a small part in the film. He was on the film-making team as an assistant director. When Emraan Hashmi, the Bollywood actor who plays me in the film, is batting, my son is the one who is sledging me. (Sledging is the practice of making taunting or teasing remarks to an opposing player, especially a batsman, in order to disturb his concentration.)
Q: Which particular moments in the film are your personal favorites?
A: There are many such moments in the film. It is very difficult to pinpoint one particular scene. There is one sequence about an India-Pakistan match in the film in which Javed Miandad says, “Today, we are going to win the match because Allah is with us.” I ask him: “What makes you say that?” He responds: “Because today is a Friday.” So I tell him, “I believe you have forgotten that my name also includes Mohammed in it.” This is only a dialogue. It is not to degrade anybody and the film does not degrade anybody.
Q: Did that sequence really happen?
A: As I said before, they have taken many liberties. It is a fact, however, that in those days India would always lose a game against Pakistan on a Friday in Sharjah.
Q: You have gone through a lot of trials and tribulations and have always emerged triumphant. Do you have any regrets in life?
A: I have only three regrets in my life — losing my grandfather, my grandmother and my son. I have worked hard in my life. I am happy. I look at my life in a very positive way. Those three deaths were very difficult for me.
Q: You don’t feel sad that you were wrongly implicated or that you had to go through those tough times?
A: No. That is my destiny. Sometimes we have to have patience. Sometimes things happen that you don’t want to happen. Sometimes things are not in your hands. Whatever is there in your destiny will happen. That is how I look at things.
Q: No rancor, no ill will, no ill feelings against anybody?
A: No. I don’t have any ill feelings against anybody. I don’t feel that way. I am a positive man.
Q: This is a question that you may not want to answer but here it is: There is a perception among a large section of the Urdu media that members of a particular community are discriminated against during the selection process. Is there any truth to this view?
A: It is totally wrong. If you perform well, you will get selected. If you don’t perform well, you will not get in. If your performance is consistent, then you will surely get a chance. The perception you mention is not correct and I disagree with it.
Q: There is no politics in team selection?
A: No. The selectors are doing a good job and this is the reason why Team India is winning. The board has done a good job in selecting good selectors.
Q: What is the state of Indian cricket?
A: Very good. Now Anurag Thakur has become the chairman of the cricket board. Cricket is in young hands. Hopefully, we will have new ideas. Different ideas. He possesses a very shrewd mind and he will put that into the game. He has been there for the last four or five years and has gained a lot of experience working under different presidents. He will bring that experience into play. It is always good to see young people coming up.
Q: As the most successful captain, if you were to give Anurag Thakur three bits of advice, what would they be?
A: Promote the game in the villages. There are many stars waiting to be discovered in our villages. Two, promote young people in administration. Three, think positively and don’t pay attention to what others say about you.
Q: I am sure you watch Indian Premier League (IPL). There is so much glamorization of cricket. Is this good?
A: There is nothing wrong with that. The IPL has done very well in the last nine years and has produced some very good players who otherwise would not have had a chance. Anything that takes the game of cricket forward should be appreciated.
Q: You wish you were playing today in this era of IPL?
A: I would have enjoyed it.
Q: What happened to your political career? You were a Congress MP from Moradabad and then moved to Rajasthan and lost the last Lok Sabha elections.
A: I am very thankful to the people of Moradabad for sending me to Parliament in 2009. Even though I lost, I am thankful to the people of Rajasthan for showering their love on me in 2014. At the moment, our party is not doing very well but Congress has seen many ups and downs. It will come back very soon and with full force.
Q: What about your relations with Rahul Gandhi?
A: I have a good rapport with everybody. He is a great leader. Sometimes hard work pays off after a very long time. You need to have patience. He is a very patient man and will be successful in the future. He has worked very hard and has given his best. People may say many different things about him but he is an outstanding person and an outstanding leader. Look, we ruled the country for 10 straight years so there was anti-incumbency against us. We will come back. Insha’Allah.
Q: One of the regrets you said is losing one of your sons in a road accident. We continue to see people losing lives on the road because of reckless driving and speeding in cars and on bikes. What is your advice to youngsters who are burning their tires?
A: They have to be careful. Young people don’t fear death. That is a big problem. When you are young, you think you can do anything. When you grow up, you realize life is precious. When these youngsters speed in their cars or on their bikes, they want to take a selfie with the speedometer in the background. They want to boast about how fast they were going. This is extremely dangerous. This is setting a bad example. If someone has done 230 km/h, others are egged on to do 240 km/h. We need to create awareness about this and parents have a big role to play. Bikes can be extremely dangerous and because I lost my son, I know what they can lead to.
Q: Are you shaping your other son’s career?
A: He wants to be an actor and has signed to play the lead in a Telugu film.
Q: But we expected him to be groomed as a cricketer!
A: Expectations do not always become reality. He tried his hand at cricket but I think he got discouraged because he did not get a chance at the right time. When you don’t get chances, you lose interest. Since he worked on the film with me, he has gained experience and we hope he will do well in films.
Q: Did he play IPL?
A: Yes, he did. He went to two or three IPL trials for KKR, Pune and Rajasthan. But he was unlucky. KKR could have picked him because we were given to understand that he had done well. He was a bit unlucky. This is how life is.
Q: Does he feel the pressure of being the son of a celebrity father?
A: He is the best person to answer that question. I have been very open with him. I told him if he wanted to play cricket, then he should play cricket. He should not feel obligated or pressured because his father is a cricketer. I supported him in all his decisions. Now that he wants to pursue a career in acting, I will support him. One hundred percent.
Q: Hyderabad won the IPL championship this time. Being the quintessential Hyderabadi you must be extremely delighted?
A: Yes, of course. I was very happy. They won after a long time. I think the last time they won was in 2009. They have done very well. In the first two/three matches, they fell apart. But then they picked up marvelously and I am very happy for them.
Q: When you were circumambulating the Kaaba, who was/were in your prayers?
A: My grandfather is always the first person in my prayers. I lived with him from when I was 40 days old. Also my parents and then my son who died. And my son Abbas and all my family members. Everybody. When you are facing the Holy Kaaba, you are in a different world. Names keep coming from your memories of people in your life so you pray for everybody.
Q: You call your son Abbas? We thought his name was Mohammed Asaduddin?
A: Yes, his official name is Mohammed Asaduddin but we call him Abbas at home.
Q: We see you with your collar turned up all the time. What is the reason for that?
A: During the first years of my cricketing career I used to field in the deep — long-on, long-off, deep mid-on, deep mid-wicket. There you had the advantage of the shadow of the stadium. When I became captain, my movement was restricted mostly inside the circle, such as slip, silly point, cover. There the sun was very harsh and my neck was burned. Sometimes I put cold towels on my neck and then I started turning my collar up to protect my neck. It became a fashion statement and everybody started doing it.
Q. In a way it also tells us about your positive attitude toward the game and life.
A: Oftentimes things don’t go the way you want them to but if you stay positive, things turn around pretty soon.
Q: One last question, when you reflect on your cricketing career, which particular match or innings do you derive the most pleasure from?
A: When I was leaving for the tour of England in 1990, my father told me, “Bete, try scoring a century at Lord’s.” When I scored 100 runs at the Lord’s Cricket Ground, he was really delighted. I was happier than he was, because nothing is more thrilling than fulfilling your father’s wish.