A gloomy morning dawned for Indian supporters at Eden Gardens on 29th November 1996, the 3rd day of the 2nd Test in the 3 match series between India and south Africa. The visitors had got off to a roaring start on the 1st day, scoring in excess of 350 in a day's play. Venkatesh Prasad's second morning heroics pulled India back into the match and restricted the South African 1st innings to 428.
However the uncharacteristic 'sporting' surface of Eden held little joy for Indian batsmen and by the end of 2nd day's play India, down to 152/6 and with a specialist batsman having retired hurt with a wrist injury, were staring at humiliation. I heard the score on a radio on my way back from work and refused to catch up on the day's highlights that night.
That injured specialist batsman was Mohammad Azharuddin. It looked less likely that he would be in a hurry to come back and rescue India, given his apparent disinterest of late and his indiscretions in the 2nd innings of the 1st Test that should have cost India the match but for debutant VVS Laxman's 2nd innings 50 and Srinath's 4th innings bowling heroics on a crumbling Motera turf. The Eden test was the comeback match for the newest star of Indian cricket, Sourav Ganguly, who got injured during the ODI tournament preceding the tests.
Azharuddin's wretched run with the bat over the past year made him a suitable candidate to yield the Test place to the youngster. Eventually the long-struggling Sanjay Manjrekar made way for Sourav Ganguly and that Motera Test came to be Sanjay's last international match.
On that 3rd morning Azhar came out to join Anil Kumble soon after start of play at the fall of Javagal Srinath's wicket. India were 161 at that point, still 68 runs adrift of the 229 they needed to prevent following on. I happened to be on my way to work when the 7th wicket fell. [Reminds me of a few similar situations; I wonder if I am perpetually destined to be in travel mode whenever something special happens in cricket with South Africa involved in it?].
The sports loving folk of Kolkata seldom stop supporting their team (notwithstanding the recent aberrations) even in the deepest moments of despair, and there they were on the streets and in the public vehicles, transistor radios firmly pressed against ears.
Not much happened over the 1st few minutes after his arrival. Then came a rumbling from one corner of the bus. It went something like this: "Azhar por por duto char marlo," [Azhar just hit two consecutive boundaries]... "Abar ekta," [another one]..."chaar tey chaar" [four fours]...."panchkhana char maarlo ei over ey Azhar!" [Azhar has hit 5 boundaries in this over!]. Azhar was on 47 by then and India were no more in danger of being made to follow on.
At the office, we all kept walking up to the privileged radio-wielding gentlemen in one pretext or the other. This continued till the lunch breather. Azhar was unbeaten on 97. He got great support from Kumble. A debutant South African bowler named Lance Klusener took the brunt of Azhar's fury. Azhar came back and completed an amazing century in all of 74 balls.
He was dismissed soon after while trying one hoick too many, but not before taking India to within 100 runs of the South African total. it could have been better had he managed to stay on. Who knows, his team might even have managed to avoid defeat in such a scenario. That was not to be.
The other sad fallout of Azhar's dismissal gets reflected to this day on Anil Kumble's Test batting record. The 88 he scored in the surreal passage of play (before running out of partners) remains Kumble's highest Test score till date, and looks rather unlikely to be surpassed. But if that special partnership had continued for another hour Anil could well have secured his 1st and only Test century. He deserved it that day.
I certainly watched the highlights that night. And again before start of next day's play. In the breathtaking five-four over Azhar played across a Klusener near yorker at middle stump and the commentator was heard gasping, "He's gone" thinking Azhar missed it, only to realise that the ball had inexplicably changed direction and disappeared into the square leg boundary.
Azhar had adopted an unorthodox open stance in that series in order to counter the short-pitched bowling he expected from the South Africans. Coming from a caresser that innings was uncharacteristically violent but that particular moment, which I had once tried to click from TV pictures of a re-telecast of that innings many years later, and some others from the day's play bore the unmistakable signature of the wizardry that was Azharuddin at his best.