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There are challenges aplenty facing Indian cricket and the idea of the nation of India, today. Happy days on either front are not as plenty as we’d like them to be. But to put this in context I wanted to take us back 20 years to the day and talk about a much harder day in the fabric of Indian cricket and India and how they both did not just survive but came out stronger. And the protagonist for this story is one Mr. Mohammed Azharuddin.

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Flashback to 29 January 1993 –

The Indian cricket airplane was in one of its periodic turbulent times at the start of 1993. In spite of the presence of its greatest bowling talent ever in Kapil Dev and the arrival of a once-in-a-lifetime talent named Sachin, the national team had kicked off the decade with epically unsuccessful tours of West Indies, New Zealand, England, Australia and newcomers South Africa. The team went 0/19 in tests and 8/28 in ODIS on these tours while also finishing seventh out of nine teams at the World Cup. The last decade had not been kind to the team at home as well. The 80’s saw India fail to win home series against England, Australia, Pakistan and West Indies with the only fleeting success coming against then-minnows New Zealand and Sri Lanka. It was a dismal time with fans seeking solace in random flashes of brilliance like a Javagal Srinath spell or a Praveen Amre 100.

Cricket is never good in taking on a role that analogizes it to life or the nation. But cricket plays an integral role in the entertainment of India and the mood of large swathes of the nation. So I think it is fair to talk about how this Indian performance or lack thereof fit in with the events across the nation at that instance in time. The country was still reeling from its worst religious riots since Independence and in parallel the nation’s middle class was being opened up to shinier and newer toys each passing month thanks to generational measures taken on by then Finance Minister – Mr. Manmohan Singh. Growing up in Bangalore I remember December ’92- January ’93 as being months where I got 45 days off from school for the riots that started 2000 kilometres away. It was also the period when cable TV became accessible and I could watch Doogie Howser, M.D, professional wrestling ,A question of Sport and Santa Barbara (not that I watched it). For a lot of lucky sheltered middle class Indians, this was not a scary time yet. No bombs had exploded in Mumbai yet and we only had to stay away from riot-hit areas. But it was a weird time. Unsure of what to make of this sudden influx of TV programming for a few hundred rupees per month while being told going out is unsafe.

Watching cricket on cable TV was the solace of many including myself. Watching professional coverage of the sport with actual pre-game and post-game shows on STAR SPORTS (then called PRIME SPORTS) was a brand new experience that I sunk myself into. Doordarshan had sucked the joy out of watching cricket for many years with its contempt for the language and quality. They also mastered the art of showing the worst camera angles and capturing none of the ambience or crowd noise. STAR SPORTS was a godsend and for once Indian fans did not have to wait for Channel Nine coverage to watch their players perform with some clarity. Also, cricket on cable TV was not disrupted by Lok Sabha debates.

So When India entered the Calcutta test match vs. England on January 29 1993, a nation chewed on its finger nails uneasily. Its first and only Muslim captain was on a one test trial presumably to be given one last chance at a test on home turf. The scope and nature of religious riots were yet to be fully understood. Whether they would impact teams visiting and whether the cash cow that was the Indian fan base would be overridden by factors such as religious and domestic violence was a legitimate concern. Cable TV and professional coverage had expanded to covering cricket in India for the first time via Trans World International and the success & experience of the commentary team of Charles Colville, Henry Blofeld, Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower, Sunil Gavaskar and Harsha Bhogle would determine the feasibility of professional broadcasting of Indian cricket that it so badly needed. A few unlucky breaks here and there and Indian cricket may have slipped into a few more abysses. Fans may have had to put up with universally hated Doordarshan for a lot longer and the IPL may have never come to be.

But what a test it was!

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Coming in at 93/3 in the post-lunch session in front of 90,000+, Mohammed Azharuddin went on to craft an innings of extraordinary style and fluency. Always stylish and languid to a fault, Azhar took English bowlers to the cleaners without a single chop or hoik. He rolled his wrists and then rolled them again and then rolled them some more as he scored more than 50% of the runs scored by the team’s batsmen. A lot of players put in tough spots like this may have fought thru the times with gritty hard-nosed survival. Azharuddin chose aggression, a free swinging bat and a strike rate of 90. Watch this Youtube video below (Thanks RobeLinda2!) to see how hard Azhar made it for the language to describe his knock. There’s only so many synonyms to stylish.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrXTkg94jPI&w=420&h=315]

It was an innings that had a mezmerizing all-inspiring effect on the team and possibly the country. India resumed their reliance on spinners at home and picked three relatively new ones for this game. The move paid off spectacularly and a two-decade long home dominance premised on spin and batting commenced. India would go on to lose only three series at home over the next twenty years. This is rarefied air and dominance seldom seen in the history of test cricket. Little did those of us watching the match live think this would be the case. If anything, captains on one test trial runs should not be liberating a fan base of decades worth of baggage. But Azharuddin did and future felonies aside, for that India will be entirely grateful.

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The success of the TWI broadcast and commentary cannot be understated either. TWI actually made money and made English-speaking Indian fans of the game happy. It made TWI so happy that they came back 10 months later for the HERO CUP and in conjunction with STAR SPORTS provided some extraordinarily memorable images and sounds of the Eden Gardens. This was the precursor to the influx of huge, previously unseen corporate money into cricket broadcasting which made cricket stand out from every other sport in India for its lucre and quality of coverage. Demographic trends may have made this inevitable but the success of the broadcast ensured sooner rather than later that the Dorodarshan model (don’t care) of covering cricket was a goner. Now I just wait for the day when commentators as good as the original six were, return.

It’s 20 years since and it is unlikely an Indian captain will ever face the personal pressures that Azharuddin did that day. Cricketers are better paid now, can extend their vocation days thru various T-20 leagues now and there is such a high volume of cricket now that match and series losses can be offset quicker. On January 29, 1993, Mohammed Azharuddin was a dead man walking. Indian cricket was going nowhere. All that happened next was an innings of majesty and unparalleled elegance that started a 20 year period of dominance at home. What happened was next was an unparalleled growth in popularity, coverage and money in cricket as well. Here’s to repeating history….

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