April 11, 2020, marked twenty years to the day when Hansie Cronje was sacked as South African captain for his involvement in the match-fixing scandal. As I read the news, it took me back to the 2003 World Cup.

In March 2003, I was in South Africa covering the eighth edition of the tournament. After the New Zealand-Zimbabwe encounter in Bloemfontein, I had the opportunity to visit Grey College, an elite educational institution in South Africa where Cronje had studied. The college also housed the urn that contained Cronje’s ashes after he passed away on June 1, 2002, in an aircraft accident.

Towards the end of my tour diary article, that day made me wonder about India’s captain who had fallen from his pedestal. I had written:

“Cricketers are human. They, like everyone in the world, do make mistakes. Will India ever forgive Mohammad Azharuddin? The former India captain would have as many admirers as Cronje ever had. But there is a very big difference between the two: Azhar continues to live in ignominy while Hansie has passed away to a fairer land.”

The scandal that rocked India

In December 2000, former India skipper Azharuddin had been handed a life ban by the Board of Control for Cricket in India for his involvement in the match-fixing scandal. He had, reportedly, confessed to fixing matches in November that year and also emerged as a ‘key man in a group of Test cricket captains’ who were being investigated.

So, it was perhaps fair at that point to wonder whether Azhar, as he was fondly known, would ever be forgiven by his fans. The scandal had tarnished the game so much that, back then, it was tough to watch cricket without wondering if the result was fair. And tougher even to report the game. Any close match? Fixed. Any dropped catch? Fixed. Any strange dismissal? Fixed. Any shock win? Fixed. That’s just how the mind had started working.

But now, twenty years later, it seems silly that one even wondered about Azhar’s fate; for, he has not just been forgiven, he is now celebrated again. In many ways, his rehabilitation is more than complete.

In December 2019, Azharuddin, who is now the president of the Hyderabad Cricket Association, had a stand named after him at the Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium. The year before that he rung the bell at the Eden Gardens before an India match. And during India’s first pink-ball Test at the same venue in November last year, he was part of the group of former cricketers who were honoured with a lap around the ground.

Everyone now talks about his marvellous wrists, his fielding… but what of the match-fixing episode?

What really happened?

For more recent fans and followers of the game, here’s a brief recap of what was a complicated battle in courts.

K Madhavan, who was the inquiry commissioner of BCCI, made the following conclusions after an interview with Azharuddin and reading the findings by the CBI, which clearly established “the fact that he took money from bookies/punters to fix cricket matches.”

163. My final opinion regarding the role of Azhar in this regard is under:-
i) He had close contacts and nexus with bookies/punters like MK Gupta, Ajay Gupta, Gyan Gupta and Ameesh Gupta etc. and was involved in match fixing.
ii) He is guilty of unbecoming conduct and misconduct as a national level player in maintaining such frequent contacts with bookies/punters.
iii) In his case, the misconduct is aggravated, as he was the captain of the Indian team for long and let down the country and the cricket loving public in a despicable manner.

The Madhavan report was the basis upon which the BCCI banned Azharuddin for life.

But the former skipper wasn’t ready to take it lying down. He went back to court, challenging the validity of the ban and indeed, the validity of the Madhavan report.

Azharuddin challenged BCCI’s decision in the city civil court in 2001 and the court had upheld the ban in 2003. But the former India captain decided to take his case to the High Court.

P Jagdish, Azharuddin’s lawyer, told a Hyderabad court that BCCI had “deep-rooted malice” in mind while taking action against him. He went on to add that the lifetime ban was merely handed down to appease a cricket-loving population reeling from the scandal that had rocked cricket.

Jagdish also said that Madhavan had no knowledge of cricket and was not competent to hold an inquiry. He further added that the report submitted by Madhavan was in violation of the principles of natural justice, as Azharuddin was never given the opportunity to present his case.

Finally, in November 2012, the Andhra Pradesh High Court declared the life ban imposed by the BCCI on former Azharuddin illegal. A division bench of the high court set aside the earlier order of the City Civil Court.

Justice G Krishna Mohan Reddy, while agreeing with his fellow judge’s detailed judgement, observed in his short judgement, “This case is one [sic] best example of a player wriggling out of the serious allegations of match fixing, betting etc. made against him mainly because of the inaction of the Board (BCCI) to take appropriate action as per the procedure established by law.”

It is important to note that at no point during the case was it mentioned that match-fixing did not happen in Azharuddin’s case. Only that both Indian criminal law, and the BCCI’s internal procedures, were not equipped to deal with an investigation into it.

Important learnings from the judgement were that there was (and still is) no criminal law on match-fixing. The CBI had to jump through hoops to say Indian criminal law applies to this case. The BCCI had no independent anti-corruption investigation mechanism. Any investigation it did would be subject to allegations of bias. And that is why we now have an international anti-corruption body that is independent of the ICC/BCCI.

A figment of our collective imagination?

And after all that, Azharuddin chose to swiftly move on.

“I am not going to take any legal action against any authority and I don’t want to blame anybody for this also. Whatever had to happen, has happened. I don’t have any complaint,” he said after the verdict.

The BCCI, strangely enough, did not appeal this decision or feel the need to reconstitute the Committee and complete the inquiry in accordance with the principles of natural justice.

A BCCI official, privy to the events that unfolded after the Andhra Pradesh High Court quashed the life ban, told Sportstar that the BCCI’s attorney, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, had prepared a draft appeal challenging the order of the Court.

“But the matter remained there itself, the draft appeal was ready, but the BCCI did not take it forward,” said the official.

The BCCI also discussed the matter at two Working Committee meetings (November 2012 and January 2013), and it is believed that the members stated in no uncertain terms that its interests should be protected and a review petition should be filed before the AP High Court. The BCCI president then was N Srinivasan.

But that didn’t happen.

A scandal that never was?

So it brings us back to a simple question: did India’s match-fixing scandal happen at all?

Public memory can be short. A few wins here, a World Cup there and we will have moved on. For such is our tendency, we tend to remember the good and try to forget the bad. But the BCCI cannot... should not... have swept this under the carpet.

The match-fixing scandal got the game to the lowest of lows. No one wanted to watch the game. But now, we see that no one was punished for it. So clearly someone has been wronged – either the fans or the involved players. And the least the BCCI can do is acknowledge what went wrong and then try to set it right.

The board clearly believes in letting sleeping dogs lie. But their inability to make a decisive move makes one wonder if it is a signal of Azharuddin’s perceived innocence.

Recently, Shane Warne named Azharuddin in his best Indian XI. The squad only featured players he had played against but it was another step in the former Indian skipper’s startling return to prominence.

To many who lived through the match-fixing years, it seems odd because there clearly was something wrong. We may never know exactly what went down but it ensured that Azharuddin’s name will forever be accompanied by a question mark.

Indeed, our quest for an answer always seems to run into more questions: Should Azhar be remembered as the man who played 99 Tests for India with those sensational wrists or as the alleged match-fixer or, ultimately, as the man who fought injustice and scripted his rise back to the top?

Maybe, someday, we’ll get an answer. Then again, maybe not.

Watch: Former India captain Azharuddin on his ban from cricket, finishing at 99 Tests, promoting Tendulkar and more