Getting hold of Azhar is, at times, still as tricky as it was when he captained Team India. The only difference in his second innings is once ‘caught’, he talks. Years of cricketing upheavals could not change Md Azharuddin — he remained the same man of a few words throughout his career. But politics has done what sporting glory — or the lack of it — could not.
I was preparing to key in a rather routine piece in office on Saturday evening when a senior came up and said, “He is in town — at the VVIP guesthouse, to be precise. Try and talk to him. You may have a lighter stuff for Sunday reading.” But there was this catch — he was about to rush to the airport. Someone should have known he was here the whole day to take part in a UPCC event, I thought to myself. The senior tried to line things up, but in vein. “Just give it a try,” he said.
I rushed. I reached the guesthouse and located the room he was putting in. I sent in a request. People surrounding him — actually getting themselves photographed with him — said all media talks were over and Bhai was about to leave. I barged in. I had to. He was talking on the phone.
I requested, “Just a few questions.”
“Not possible, I’m leaving,” he replied.
“Just two questions.”
“But I have to go.”
“Can we talk while going downstairs?”
“It doesn’t happen like that.”
“Just one question.”
He gave in.
I knew, I had the copy.
“You cannot go about burning down people’s houses like that. It’s undemocratic,” was the first thing he said. The former India cricket captain’s outburst was in context of the arson and vandalism resorted to at UPCC president Rita Joshi’s house in Lucknow on July 15. “It all happened in a high-security zone. Even now the police are biased.”
I recently got an idea that he had begun to talk when he took everyone by surprise when he delivered his first speech in Parliament as Moradabad MP. “Yeah, I spoke out against monopoly in sports federations,” he told me while going downstairs. Even though I struggled to stay close to him in the face of betel-chewing party workers jostling to get clicked alongside him, the once-reticent ‘wonder boy’ was not short of issues.
Though many may disagree, I understand the change in demeanour can, in a way, be attributed to the fact that Azhar seeks to change his image, as it was not too long ago that he was banned for life from playing cricket for his alleged role in a match fixing scandal. He last played for India in 2000 before the issue ruined his career.
When I last met and spoke to him, exactly three months ago, the stylish Hyderabadi had said he would play a long inning. And he is already showing signs of doing just that. Even as the Congress sought to play down the remarks of Joshi — which was followed by violence at her house — he courted arrest to express solidarity. It was only on Saturday that the party said the UP government was responsible for the attack.
He admits life has changed and it has changed in a big way. “It’s now different. From cricket to campaigning and now political responsibilities.” “I have identified issues in my constituency all this while and I’m now trying to find out ways to address them.” His priority: health, education and sports — in that order!
When he was about to get into an SUV, I knew the interview had to be stopped. I had spent years marveling his batting, fielding and captaincy — I have been a big cricket fanatic (people who love me will vouch for it for lesser amount of time I give them due to this ‘futile sport’). So, I thought, a handshake would not be a bad idea.
“I’m a big fan of yours.”
He reluctantly responded. He only smiled. He seemed relieved.
I last met him, when he was campaigning. I told him he did not look like a politician (wearing blue jeans, designer goggles and his all-time favourite Nike shoes). Azhar smiled, “Politics is still new to me. Cricket was my profession.” But he quickly added, “But this will not be cameo. I will play a long innings.” During a roadshow, Azhar threw flowers and garlands at girls and women and when they returned the gesture, the best fielder of his times, caught the offerings with the same old precision.
Fitness still is of paramount importance for him. He wakes up at 6.30 without fail (blame it on clock alarm!), offers namaz then does light workout. At 8 am, he reads newspapers and has tea with old film songs playing in the background.
A close aide confides, “He hates wearing kurta-pyajama but even when he has to do that, he never forgets his goggles and shoes, adding, “Due to bumpy political rides, he sometimes needs light massage to help get good sleep at night.” He prefers brown bread and omelet in breakfast but no oily food and he always carries energy drinks, fruits and packaged water.
When I returned to office (the interview was over in a few minutes), the senior asked, “Could meet him?” “Yes,” I said and proceeded to key in. but it was a different ballgame altogether!