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By Suresh Menon
Should we rejoice that Mohammad Azharuddin has been reprieved by the High Court or vent our frustration on a cricket board that made no effort to build a case that would have held up in court? Charity suggests that every man deserves a second chance, but in Azharuddin's case there has been no apology, no sign of remorse for dragging Indian cricket through the mud at the turn of this century. Truth and reconciliation go together; you cannot have the latter without the former.
The Court has not said – it cannot – that the former India captain was not guilty of fixing matches. It has merely indicated that the Board had no evidence to back its claim. This is not such a subtle difference even if Azharuddin himself – quite naturally – prefers to interpret the judgment as one absolving him of the deed.
Will the BCCI challenge the decision in the higher court? Indications are it will not. There is a lack of interest, and a wish to let bygones be bygones. If the Board does not make the effort, it will send out the wrong message to the younger players, especially those like T P Sudheendra who are accused of spot fixing, and can now look at the future with arrogance.
Among his contemporaries in the Indian team, Azharuddin's fate was sealed long ago. For a once-popular player who represented the country in 99 Tests, he is friendless among those he played with. How India lost a Test in Barbados that they should have won chasing just 120 runs, or played against Hansie Cronje's South Africa have a lot to do with this.
When reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were doing the Watergate story that ultimately led to the resignation of American President Richard Nixon, they were given sound advice: “Follow the money.” It is a good formula in match-fixing cases too.
A decade and more after the events that led to Azharuddin and a few of his colleagues being banned, it might be painful to dredge up this dark phase of Indian cricket. The bookie-player nexus, the number of calls made to bookies on the morning of important matches by players, the confessions of the late Hansie Cronje who spilled the beans about the bookie he was introduced to in India, dodgy results in some India games, the suspicions of Indian managers like Sunil Dev and board officials like I S Bindra who spoke of the behaviour of some players, the investigations into the affairs of Indian bookies all throw up a pattern that cannot be ignored.
The story of Azharuddin will now move into the category of “unproven” from the one labelled “everybody knows”. The public support he has garnered after the High Court decision is based on his skill as a wristy batsman and not on the relief that the notion he used his charming wrists to tote up more than runs has been dismissed.
Nearly three decades ago, when England visited India, Azharuddin, then 21, made his bow with centuries in his first three Tests, a feat unparalleled. At least one report then suggested the arrival of the new Bradman, not for the manner of making the runs so much as for the batsman's appetite in making them. Half a dozen years later, he became India captain – a compromise candidate after a threatened player revolt and a drawn series in Pakistan under Krishnamachari Srikkanth.
When Hansie Cronje confessed to fixing matches, a letter-writer wrote in a newspaper, “He was adored. Now we know he was a fake. When we cheered he mocked us. When we suffered for his loss of form, he counted his money. Out hero was just another greedy man.” It was a sentiment echoed thousands of kilometres away in another continent, of another national hero.
Azharuddin, now a Member of Parliament, has the right to be judged as innocent till proven guilty. That is the civilised response to the High Court's verdict. Yet, it is scary how close a bunch of players came to destroying the fabric of Indian cricket by their greed and lack of a moral centre.
India recovered well from those terrible days. A whole generation has grown up without the trauma. And for this the then skipper Sourav Ganguly and the other cornerstones of the Golden Age of Indian cricket – Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kumble, Srinath, Harbhajan, Prasad – deserve a nation's gratitude.