Sunday, 17 February 2013

From Distant Lands to Derbyshire 10 - Mohammad Azharuddin

Even though I have now passed (in some style, might I add...) my half century, I hope that it is still understood that I never saw the legendary Indian batsman who once bestrode English cricket like a colossus, Kumar Shri Ranjitsinjhi.

Descriptions of the majesty of his batting abound, most notably from the pen of the great Sir Neville Cardus, who waxed lyrical about the bat being a magician's wand in his hand, his wrists of steel and the fact that no bowler could contain him when it was his day.

Much the same could be said about Mohammad Azharuddin.

'Genius' is a much overused word these days, but never has one been more apposite than for the Indian maestro who was Derbyshire's overseas player in 1991 and 1994. There were days when he didn't look especially interested, often when the game was in an especially dull phase and the weather was as grey and inhospitable as English weather can get.

Yet give him the sun on his back, a top bowler to bat against, a large crowd or a challenging wicket and Azharuddin could produce batting of spell-binding brilliance. On such days, one felt that he could have used a chair leg or the proverbial 'stick of rhubarb' and still sent the bowling to all parts.

An innings by Peter Kirsten was one of efficiency, playing himself in and then opening up. Dean Jones was much the same, perhaps with a more obvious desire to dominate the bowler and the opposition. Azharuddin was more of an artist, frequently producing strokes that seemed scarcely possible, often leaving it late before choosing the final destination of the ball. He rarely seemed to hit it hard, like a Hayden or Gilchrist; exquisite timing generally caressed it to the boundary, or over it, depending on his whim at the time.

In 1991, Azharuddin scored 2016 first-class runs for Derbyshire at a shade under 60. There were seven centuries and ten fifties  in his innings that summer, as well as a further 500 runs in one-day matches. No matter how impressive the batting of those around him (and the likes of Barnett, Bowler, Adams and Morris were no slouches) Azharuddin took the art of batting to uncharted waters, much as he had done at Lords against England in 1990.

He was unable to come back until 1994, which is when, straight off the plane, he played the finest innings I have seen in my 45 summers of watching Derbyshire.

It was given the most scenic of backdrops, Queens Park, Chesterfield. Durham racked up 625-6, then bowled us out for 341, enforcing the follow-on. The wicket was turning increasingly and the likelihood of Derbyshire batting out a day and a half looked remote. Chris Adams and Peter Bowler took us to 169-3 before Azharuddin came in, when the fun really started.

Adams and Azharuddin took us to a relatively calm 305-3 before the former departed just short of a century as the wicket deteriorated. From there it was a steady procession, but Azharuddin scored a century before lunch on the last day as he moved from 72 to 172. Remember, this was in a situation where his side were in peril...

He opened the day with a square cut of such timing, such panache, that the ball was rebounding from the boundary boards before most supporters picked up where it had gone. Left-arm spinner David Graveney was the obvious danger man and Azharuddin used sublime footwork to get down the wicket and negate the turn, several times hoisting him over the boundary at long off and long on.

Former Derbyshire man John Morris was by this stage at Durham and was stationed in front of us on the boundary. When exhorted by his captain to 'go back on the rope', Morris, always ready with a quip, turned to the crowd and said 'The only way I'll catch this bloke is to get up in one of these trees'...

So well - so majestically - did Azharuddin play that the game was almost saved, until Phil Bainbridge finally got him with one that 'stopped' and the Indian was well caught by John Morris at orthodox mid-on for a quite wonderful 205, scored from 270 runs while he was at the wicket. Everyone else after Adams looked like they were batting for perhaps the first time in a long while. Azharuddin looked, and was, on a different planet. It was a quite extraordinary innings for which 'genius' was the most - no only -  apposite word. We lost the game, but those present had a memory to last a lifetime.

That season ended in a degree of acrimony, Azharuddin leaving early for his international commitments but requesting that Derbyshire honour his contract in full. It sullied another year of memorable knocks, especially in the one-day games, where he averaged over 70. There were times when one almost felt sorry for those trying to bowl at him, as he seemed to have two or three shots for any ball they cared to bowl, as well as time to play them. The nature of the parting left a return impossible, but it was undoubtedly magnificent while it lasted.

Like his Derbyshire spell, Azharuddin's cricket career ended in well-documented controversy and his future involvement in the game remains in doubt. No one who saw him at his best will forget the wristy magic of his batting, however and while not perhaps a genuine great of the game, he was up there in the next tier.

Those who saw him bat will remember it for the best of reasons. Can any cricketer really ask for more?


Oliver said...

A little off topic, but I'm enjoying Guptill's performances for New Zealand. Nice to see him return to form. It wasn't that long ago that I was hoping he would get dropped so that we could have him as our overseas player... what a difference a few weeks makes.

Peakfan said...

Its that old saying mate - form is temporary, class is permanent. Gup was always only a couple of balls in the middle of the bat from good nick.
Totally agree - I'm loving his batting too!

Sabila Shah said...

where can i find his videos, mean cricket bating videos.

Peakfan said...

Head for Youtube Sabila, there's lots on there!