Mohd Azharuddin weighs in on leadership: 'When you have talented players like Sachin and Kapil, you just let them be'
Mohammad Azharuddin became India captain in his mid-20s, at a time when veteran superstars like Kapil Dev and prodigal talents like Sachin Tendulkar rubbed shoulders in the same playing XI. At TechSparks 2023, Azhar told leaders how to go about it.
During an engaging dialogue on Day 2 of YourStory's TechSparks 2023, former Team India captain Mohammad Azharuddin delved into topics ranging from leadership and handling criticism to the Indian Premier League and the rise of women’s cricket, captivating an audience comprising avid fans, sports enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs.
Azharuddin (popularly known as Azhar), who took on the captaincy of the Indian men's cricket team from Krishnamachari Srikkanth in 1989, held on to the role for a significant part of the 90s and went on to establish himself as one of India's most successful captains.
"When I assumed the role of captain, there were many senior players in the team, and people expressed their concerns about my youthfulness and ability to manage them. However, I approached it with a positive mindset,” Azhar shared with entrepreneurs and leaders in the audience.
“I viewed the presence of these seasoned players as a valuable asset. All those players, including the great Kapil Dev, had over a decade of playing experience, I saw this as a positive. I had their collective experience to draw from,” the former skipper added.
Throughout his tenure, Azhar led the Indian team to triumph in 103 ODI matches and 14 Test matches. Notably, he also captained the team in three World Cups in 1992, 1996, and 1999.
Speaking about leading some of the most talented players of the game during his time, Azhar noted, “When you have players of the calibre of Sachin (Tendulkar) and Kapil (Dev), the most important thing was to leave them alone – they have immense talent. When they are on the field, they will manage, and you let them be.”
The former captain also emphasised the need for leaders to be open to advice. In a team of 11 players, each voice matters. “If you are a keen listener, you can become a good leader,” he stated.
Azhar also went on to shed light on what separates successful players from the rest. The crucial factor, according to him, is possessing “big-match temperament”. Many players excelled in domestic cricket but faltered on the international stage. “If you don't have big-match temperament, it’s very difficult to survive,” he remarked.
Addressing the subject of criticism and how leaders should cope with it, Azhar said that players needed to understand the role of the media in their journey.
Acknowledging the impact of negative comments, he said, “You do get affected by criticism and negative things ... I never had any trouble with the media. I would always tell them exactly what happened on the field ... I could not give more than that. As a captain, I had to protect myself and my team,” he revealed.
Azhar also made sure that each player's role in the team was meticulously defined; he also employed strategic tactics while utilising spinners Anil Kumble to the fullest on home pitches.
Commenting on his supposed bias towards left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju, a fellow Hyderabad cricketer, Azhar said, smilingly, “If I was favouring him (Raju), then I would have played all 11 players from Hyderabad.”
“He was good, he delivered ... And as a bowler, he did well in the matches he played from 1993 to 1999. He, along with Kumble and Rajesh Chauhan, bowled well in tandem, and that is why we got [good] results in that period of time,” the former captain explained.
As a batsman, Azhar was known for his strokes full of skill and grace, showcasing his mastery with the willow. His distinct style was marked by his wristy strokes, especially on the leg-side.
The famed English cricket writer, John Woodcock, aptly described this, “It’s no use asking an Englishman to bat like Mohammad Azharuddin. For it would be like expecting a greyhound to win the London Derby!”
Reflecting on his early cricketing days in Hyderabad, the former skipper said, "We predominantly played cricket on matting wickets, creating a natural environment for our development. The uneven bounce in the ball on these surfaces often led to a preference for pull and hook shots."
When asked about his all-time favourite Indian player, Azhar said, “In my opinion, it is Sunil Gavaskar. He stood as one of the finest players, showcasing tremendous courage by batting without a helmet during his time (70s and early 80s). Some players would find it challenging to even reach 7 or 8 centuries, whereas Gavaskar scored an impressive 13 centuries against the formidable West Indies attack."
He added that playing alongside Gavaskar and getting the chance to share the dressing room with him was a great learning experience.
IPL and modern-day cricket
Speaking about the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) contribution to Indian cricket, Azhar noted that the league has produced a lot of good players in the last 15 years. Many, who would have gone on to play for India in, say, four years, get instant recognition when they appear in the IPL.
“The boys are getting paid very handsomely, they deserve it, they have put in a lot of effort and hard work,” he said.
IPL has also ushered in a new era for women’s cricket, according to the former skipper. Women’s cricket is flourishing with financial support and is now on par with men’s cricket, with the introduction of the Women's Premier League—a significant step forward, Azhar stated.
“The women’s cricket team is performing really well. I congratulate them for their performances. I hope and pray that they succeed and go on to bring a lot of laurels to the country,” he added.
'Cannot escape destiny'
Azhar has experienced the dizzying highs as well as challenging lows of a career in spotlight—especially after the match-fixing allegations that hit Indian cricket at the turn of the century.
Following his journey in the game, Azhar entered politics.
“Political foray did not take much hard work, to be very honest," he shared. "To play for India, it took me almost 13 years but when I joined politics, I ran from Moradabad and became an MP in one year."
What does it take when you're seesawing between the highs and the lows?
“It is very important to have patience ... infinite patience. When you are going through bad patches, and so many ups and downs in your life, the most important thing is to have that infinite patience,” the ex-skipper shared.
“I knew my time would come. You cannot escape destiny. Whatever has to happen, will happen,” he added.
Mohd. Azharuddin’s brilliance shone in 99 Tests for India, through a journey that commenced and concluded with a century. In the ODIs, he once held esteemed records—the fastest hundred, the highest run tally, and the most catches. However, as in any sport, these records have been eclipsed by future talents.
Edited by Sohini Mitter