Replacing Sachin with Azhar as captain in 1997: When selectors spun the ball

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Sacking Sachin in 1997 was a mystery
Former Indian cricket captain Sachin Tendulkar has said in his just-launched autobiography Playing It My Way: My Autobiography that he felt humiliated and embarrassed for he was "unceremoniously" removed as the captain of the team. It was the end of his first stint as the captain.

[Read: Sachins Tendulkar's revelations: A marketing gimmick or a revenge against 'Multan Declaration'?]

Tendulkar had taken up the captaincy from Mohammad Azharuddin in a series against Sri Lanka in mid-1996 and his final series as a captain was also against the island nation in December 1997. Why was he removed in less than two years and why was Azharuddin, a decade older than the former, was made the skipper again?

It was indeed a tale of contradiction and complication.

Azharuddin was never an extra-ordinary captain, India were rabbits abroad under him

Azharuddin was never an extra-ordinary captain and despite being at the helm for six years, he had never helped India achieve any special feat, apart from home victories. The man's only victory abroad was a win against Sri Lanka, a weak outfit in those days, in 1993. Azharuddin's lowest moment as a captain came when he led the team to the abyss in a tainted World Cup semifinal against the Sri Lankans at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, ironically one of his happy hunting grounds.

Sidhu's mysterious departure from England tour in 1996 went against Azhar

The next series in England was another shocker and with Navjot Singh Sidhu abandoning the tour midway, the beginning of Azharuddin's end had begun. His affair and marriage with model-actor Sangeeta Bijlani was also a hot topic debated in cricketing discussions then.

Tendulkar replaced Azhar after the England series

Tendulkar replaced Azharuddin soon after the team came home and it was a kind of rebirth for the cricket-crazy nation. Tendulkar was just 23 then, the second youngest Indian to take up the reins of captaincy after Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and the entire nation was expecting him to deliver right from the word go.

Tendulkar's bad start as a captain in 1996

Tendulkar though had a disastrous start to his captaincy record with bad losses in the first two tournaments, one of them being the 1-4 defeat against Pakistan in Toronto. As a batsman, however, Tendulkar had made an excellent start as a captain by scoring a ton in the very first match though his team lost.

Winning the Titan Cup featuring Australia and South Africa was Tendulkar's highest feat as captain

Some pride was restored after India defeated Australia and South Africa in tests and backed it with winning a triangular series that involved both Australia and South Africa. That was the highest point in Tendulkar's captaincy record.

66 all out at Durban: Tendulkar's worst as a captain

But it all began to go downhill once India left for South Africa. Known to be rabbits abroad, India were shot out for 66 in the Durban test while chasing 390-odd runs. Skipper Tendulkar and Azharuddin put up a dazzling performance in the second test in which the former hit 169 but yet India lost the match and series.

The team could have pulled one back in the third match but for the weather. In the triangular series that followed involving Zimbabwe, Tendulkar played a defining knock of 104 at Paarl against Zimbabwe to take India to the final but India lost the final against South Africa. In fact, India had lost all the matches against the hosts in that series.

Tendulkar's differences with selectors and seniors started in the West Indies in 1997

India's next stop was the West Indies but there too, the team fumbled. In one of the tests, the Indian batting order was bundled for 81 while chasing the target of 120. It was during this series that Tendulkar's problem with the selectors began. The captain had reportedly sought an off-spinner to tackle the Caribbean left-handers but his request was turned down.

Tendulkar was upset and reacted when off-spinner from Hyderabad Noel David was flown in replace an over-burdened Javagal Srinath who eventually collapsed. India's bowling woes were not resolved but the selectors understood that here was a captain who knew to speak his mind.

From 201-3, India failed to chase 250: Skipper Tendulkar's instructions were allegedly defied

Tendulkar was left aghast after the St Vincent one-dayer which India snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Chasing 250, India were once placed comfortably at 201 for 3 but managed to get themselves bowled out for 231. It was later reported that the batsmen, including the seasoned Azharuddin, refused to go by the captain's advice. Azharuddin paid for it and was dropped for the four-cornered Independence Day tournament back home.

Azhar was dropped but India failed to make the finals of the prestigious Independence Cup at home

It was said then the man's commitment was not above suspicion! In the prestigious tournament which was organised on the occasion of the country's 50 years of independence, India failed to make it to the finals after losing to eventual champions Sri Lanka and arch-rivals Pakistan.

Azhar was back for the next set of tournaments with a bang

Azharuddin returned to the squad for the Asia Cup and the tour of Sri Lanka and he put up a good show with the bat. He was the top scorer for India in the final of the Asia Cup and also in the one-day series against the Lankans that India lost 0-3.

Tendulkar's off-form and it was being told that he was feeling the pressure of captaincy

On the contrary, skipper Tendulkar, with just one half-century, was completely out of form in the one-day matches played in Asia Cup and against Sri Lanka and a section of the selectors suddenly began to back Azhar's elevation to the top post again!

It was told that Tendulkar was feeling the pressure of the captaincy and that was affecting the team's performance. Surprising, nobody was speaking much about India's pedestrian bowling attack and the over-dependence on the likes of Venkatesh Prasad and Anil Kumble (Javagal Srinath was obviouley overstretched).

Call for Tendulkar's ouster gathered momentum but India's good show against Pak held back the knives

In the next two tournaments against Pakistan in Toronto (second edition of Sahara Cup) and Pakistan, Tendulkar's off-form continued while Azhar had a slightly better show. The pace was gathering for Tendulkar's ouster but with India winning 5 out of 8 just concluded matches (4-1 in Toronto and 1-2 in Pakistan) against the arch-rivals, it was difficult to take the call. Late board president Raj Singh Durgapur also backed Tendulkar and the knives were back into the pockets.

Azhar's shocking run-out in Sharjah: Even the commentators were left in disbelief

But the shock was still waiting to happen. India's next bilateral engagement was with Sri Lanka in 1997 end and after the three test matches were drawn 0-0, the team went to play a four-side tournament in Sharjah where it lost all three matches. But more than the losses, it was Azharuddin's pathetic run-out against the West Indies that had raised most eyebrows.

Even the commentators of that match were left in deep shock when Azhar ran himself out for four and India lost the match by 41 runs. The national selectors had summoned the man in a close door meeting and it was reported that he was reprimanded for the careless act on the ground.

The then board secretary Jaywant Lele was also upset with Azhar

According to this Rediff.com report, Jaywant Lele, the then board secretary was present in a selection committee meeting in Sharjah and believed that Azharuddin should have been sacked for he felt that performance mattered more than reputation.

Yet, Azhar replaced Tendulkar for the new year!

Back home, India's series with Sri Lanka resumed and in the two one-day games that followed (one was abandoned because of unplayable pitch), Azharuddin scored a 24 not out and 28. Tendulkar's scores in these two matches were 82 not out and 6. With the last series of the eventful 1997 getting over, Mohammad Azharuddin looked Lady Luck's choice and before India took the field again, he replaced Tendulkar as the captain for the next set of events featuring teams like Pakistan and Australia.

Lele was silent.

Ramakant Desai, who was the chairman of the selectors then, said the move to remove Tendulkar was not pre-determined and it was agreed by all that burdening the man with captaincy was not in the interest of Indian cricket, the Rediff report said.

Justifications for Azhar's re-appointment as the skipper

The not pre-determined defence had caught many by surprise. For there were instances were selectors had spoken about the intention to topple Tendulkar and even a section of the print media speaking about the pre-determined move to sack the Master Blaster. It was alleged openly that Tendulkar faced the axe because the bookmakers could not make way with him and hence there was a game somewhere to get the path clear through influence.

Tendulkar didn't forget and he hit 9 centuries in 1998 to prove his commitment

But why back Azharuddin as captain again for he was neither getting younger nor he had a great record in captaincy. There were newcomers like Sourav Gandguly and Rahul Dravid in the team by then. To this, one even said that he was then a happily married man with Mrs Bijlani and hence could focus on the job better.

It was a hilarious justification indeed for at that point of time, people like Tendulkar and Ganguly were no less happily married either. It was also told that there was no question about Azharuddin's commitment. It was his supporters who got themselves run-out this time.

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