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Azhar: time for a break

The tour of the Caribbean has ended with a resounding defeat in the final one-dayer. The Indian squad is likely to be changed to some extent before the next serious engagement -- the Independence Cup in India -- and the names of some who may be axed have already been mentioned. Sidhu, Laxman and Ganesh are three who may be left out for the four-nation one-day tournament which is being held to mark the 50th year of independence from Britain.

There has, however, been no talk at all about Mohammed Azharuddin, one player who does very much deserve a little time away from the team -- or maybe a permanent holiday. His is a question of attitude but there are signs that this is telling on his ability as a cricketer and he seems a pale shadow of the batsman he was. There are various reasons attributed for the way he has chosen to bat after he was relieved of the captaincy last year -- some put it down to the fact that he now has a younger wife and must show the exuberance of youth while at the crease! This may or may not be true, but the fact remains that he has been trying to hit every ball to kingdom come from the moment he takes his guard. His top score in the Caribbean was a miserable 40.

The team management had a chance to send a message to him during the one-dayers in the Caribbean but the one time they chose to drop a recognised player it was Ganguly, not Azhar. Probably, there is a feeling that the selector from his zone -- Shivlal Yadav -- is in good, or else it may be the old hangover which existed for some time while he was captain, the feeling that it would not be good politics to drop the lone Muslim who is a regular in the Indian team. (Karim is only an occasional visitor to the 11). This may sound funny but it must be borne in mind that soon after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in India in 1992 and the subsequent communal riots and questions over India's claim to be a secular country, the prime minister (P.V. Narasimha Rao) did take particular care to call him up whenever India won anything and these calls were always featured in their entirety on national television. He was proof, said the politicians, that India was indeed a secular country.

At that time, the questions over Azhar's captaincy had not come to the level they had last year. There has rarely been a question over his batting but now it seems that he has, of his own accord, shown a disinclination to play to the team's needs. It is also apparent that bad blood still exists between him and Sidhu; the latter's sudden injury which kept him out of the third and fourth one-dayers owes more to petulance than anything else. It is time for the Indian cricket selectors to show all these blokes that no-one is indispensable.

Many times during the Tests and one-dayers there was a need for Azhar to play a major innings. But he batted as though he had not a care in the world and, more often than not, got out to shots which schoolboys are often told to avoid. It sometimes looked as though he was cocking a snook at the team management and saying: "No matter what I do, you'll have to pick me." The Indian management which generally lacks balls has swallowed it and done nothing. Of course, Madan Lal has very little leg to stand on as he is a political appointee; Tendulkar has not exactly distinguished himself on this tour and therefore he has not much to stand on either.

Azhar has been a fixture in the team since he made his debut. There was never a question mark over his attitude on or off the field until he became captain. Then it became apparent that he could not get along with people who were senior to him -- witness the cases of Kapil Dev and Sidhu. The personal crisis which he went through also affected him to some extent though he denied anything of the sort. Once he had put all that behind him, people hoped that he would be back to his usual form and take on the responsibility which he must needs shoulder as the seniormost member of the team.

That, alas, has not been the case. And so one must ask in all seriousness -- are the Indian selectors perpared to demonstrate that the time for prima donnas is over? They cut Kambli to size when he was strutting around (the sad thing is that they seem unprepared to forgive the man after he appears to have reformed) and now it remains to be seen whether form or regional politics will take precedence again. Last time, it was regionalism. I suspect that it will not be any different this time.

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