The Kerala cricket team has cooked up quite the storm in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy 2021, winning all three of their first three games, and 26-year-old Mohammed Azharuddeen from Thalangara in Kasaragod, Kerala’s 14th district, is right in the middle of that storm.
After a quickfire 30 in Kerala’s tournament opener against Puducherry, Azharuddeen really turned on the heat against 41-time Ranji winners Mumbai. Chasing 197 for the win, he put on 129 runs for the first wicket alongside veteran opening partner Robin Uthappa. Azharuddeen was the star of the show. The right-hander completed his century in 37 balls before finishing on an unbeaten 137 off 54 balls as Kerala scaled the mountain of a target in under 16 overs.
Speaking to Sportskeeda in an exclusive interview, Mohammed Azharuddeen suggested that he was ‘completely in his zone’ during the course of the innings that has now made him an overnight national sensation.
“It feels so good. That day, I was completely in my zone. I didn’t bother about what was happening, or what the bowler was trying to do. I was just in my zone and playing according to the merit of the ball. I just wanted to express myself, that’s it,” Mohammed Azharuddeen said.
While the youngster does appreciate the spotlight, he also acknowledged the pressure that comes with it. And while he did love the highs that came with an innings of that nature, the early dismissal in the game against Delhi has helped Mohammed Azharuddeen stay on his feet, happy to be reminded that he’s only human, after all.
“It feels good but at the same time, the next day I felt pressure as well. After that innings, I got out first ball (in the game against Delhi). After all, we’re humans and that was a good reminder. There was a bit of pressure but that’s okay, since it is the first time I am handling this (kind of attention),” the 26-year-old added.
Mohammed Azharuddeen credits the Kerala team management for the renewed clarity in his role
Every team is made up of a group of individuals who need to play a certain role to help the team achieve their goals. When it comes to the current Kerala team, Mohammed Azharuddeen believes the renewed clarity regarding each player’s roles has helped him and his teammates perform at the level that they have shown in the past week.
As far as he is concerned, Azharuddeen says his role is to give his team the start they need at the top of the order for them to carry on, given the depth in batting that the team from this generally football-crazy state possess.
“They just made things clear. What my role is. What I need to do. I don’t have to play sensibly and to win every match, I don’t have to play long innings. I have to play my shots and give the team a good start. I am an opener, and I am opening with Robin Uthappa. Robbie bhai is a very experienced player. We just need to give the team a good start. We have good depth in batting, they’ll take care of the rest. That is my role, and similarly, everybody in the team has been given a role to play,” Mohammed Azharuddeen told us.
To perform quite like his team has, however, the backing of those in the think tank is essential, to say the least. And Mohammed Azharuddeen understands and appreciates the difference that his captain and coach’s support has made.
“The team management has told me, ‘You can go out there and express yourself, and we’ll back you fully.’ We’re normally scared that if something goes wrong, you may not get another chance. Now it is so clear – ‘if you’re playing for the team and you’re doing your role properly, and you’re still not getting runs or wickets, that’s okay, we’ll back you’,” Mohammed Azharuddeen added.
Robin Uthappa, Sreesanth, and Sanju Samson have helped me a lot: Mohammed Azharuddeen
Every successful team comprises the right mix of raw youngsters waiting to show the world what they’re made of and a group of seasoned seniors showing the newer players the way. The current Kerala team is no different.
While Robin Uthappa’s best years may be behind him, his exploits in the domestic scene and forays at the international level are well-documented. Newly-appointed state captain Sanju Samson is now a household name, thanks in no small part to his IPL performances for both the Delhi Capitals (née Daredevils) and the Rajasthan Royals.
Their presence, coupled with that of the returning S Sreesanth, has only helped Mohammed Azharuddeen further up his game. While Uthappa’s achievements speak for themselves, his presence clearly means more for Kerala than just the runs he scores.
“They (Uthappa, Sreesanth and Samson) really helped me a lot. When it comes to batting, Robbie bhai (Uthappa) helped me. How to play, how to approach the game without changing my style of play. He helped me to apply myself positively while batting,” Mohammed Azharuddeen said.
S Sreesanth is returning to competitive cricket after a 7-year break. But if Mohammed Azharuddeen is to be believed, the Indian international speedster is still the positive character he was before the ban. Perhaps, a more mature version. The Kerala opener credits Sreesanth with motivating him and pushing him to be the best version of himself.
“Sreesanth kept motivating me. He keeps talking to me, and pushing me to improve. You will not hear a negative word from the man. I’ll give you an example. When we were practicing just before the first game against Pondicherry, I was batting in the nets and I feel like I was not getting it right because of the bounce of the wicket. The bounce at Wankhede is a little different compared to Kerala. Sree bhai came up to me later and said, ‘Ajju you’re batting well. Don’t worry about anything, just continue this.’ I was a little confused at first but he is someone that gives me a lot of confidence. He lifts other players. He just loves to do that. He just comes, talks to us and lifts our confidence,” Mohammed Azharuddeen revealed.
Sanju Samson’s batting elegance has found admirers far and wide. Mohammed Azharuddeen is no different. The man from Thalangara looks up to every aspect of Samson’s life – whether it is the way he plays or how he conducts himself. It is no surprise, therefore, that Azharuddeen now seems to be blooming under Samson’s captaincy.
“Sanju is like my role model. I follow everything. How he speaks, how he interacts with players, how he interacts with others, how he prepares himself, his work ethic, his confidence, his aggression, everything. I love to watch him play,” Azharuddeen added.
Playing for India is my only inspiration: Azharuddeen
Like any youngster growing up in this cricket-crazy nation, playing for India was the ultimate dream for Mohammed Azharuddeen. With a goal quite as high as the one he has set for himself, Kerala’s latest batting sensation sees no reason to look up to any other player for inspiration.
“There’s no player I specifically look up to for inspiration. The goal of playing for India is inspiration in itself. Apart from that, I don’t feel there is a need to look up to any other player to get inspired,” Mohammed Azharuddeen concluded.
While the cricketer that he was named after ended up playing internationally for 15 years, that longevity may be a tad too much to expect from the 26-year-old Mohammed Azharuddeen. But with more performances like the one against Mumbai, the day may not be too far away when he joins his state captain in India’s blue.
Published 16 Jan 2021, 18:33 IST