It was the early 1990’s. An ex-Miss India (1980), the glamorous model turned actress met the stylish skipper of the Indian cricket team in the photoshoot for a commercial.
The actress had been told that, the skipper was economical with his words. He could hardly be described as expressive. He was not one to express jubilation — no fist pumping or jumping with joy — over success on the field.
A shy, soft-spoken young man from Hyderabad, the skipper usually let his bat do all the talking. Not to mention his incredible agility on the field. His style statement was his raised collar, which he would say was an alternative for a handkerchief around his neck to protect himself from sunburn, especially when he fielded at silly point or point. And of course, the legendary wristy shots he regularly punished the bowlers with.
However, contrary to expectations, Mohammad Azharuddin spoke to her the first time they met. And the words flowed between them as they kept running into each other in events, social events, parties and flights all through the early 1990’s.
The lady herself was nursing a broken heart at that time after her break-up with one of the leading men in Bollywood almost at the altar of marriage. She found solace in the warmth of the company of the immensely talented captain of the Indian cricket squad.
Love did not take long to blossom between Md. Azharuddin and Sangeeta Bijlani.
Azhar came from humble origins in Hyderabad. He was the eldest son of the family with five younger siblings. When he met Sangeeta, Azhar was married to Naureen and had two sons. As Azhar embraced his flashy lifestyle and walked the corridors of the high echelons of the glamour world, tongues inevitably wagged, his detractors even going to the extent of attributing the occasional dismal performances of the team or his own self to his love for Sangeeta and for the good life.
The Indian media has always been notorious with attributing success or failure on the field to a sportsperson’s private life off it.
When one chooses to walk down a difficult path, one is likely to face roadblocks, resistance from the family and aspersions of the society in general. Especially when the individuals involved are celebrities in their own rights.
However, the proof of inner strength lies not in making unconventional choices, but in seeing them through. If we believe in the choices we make for ourselves, none of these resistances should really matter.
It was evident that Sangeeta and Azhar were serious about each other and their relationship was anything but the casual fling between two celebrities that gossip columns initially made it out to be.
Azhar, like the gritty fighter he was on the field, chose to listen to his heart. A strong-willed woman herself, Sangeeta did not want to be the other woman or Azhar’s second wife while he was still married to Naureen.
In 1996, Azhar divorced Naureen and married Sangeeta in the eye of a media storm. Azhar made costly material sacrifices for his divorce, to be with the woman he fell in love with.
To his two sons Abbas and Ayaz, their father had always been a man of few words, and very busy with his game. The boys continued to meet their father every few months. To probing questions from reporters they could not avoid after they started playing junior cricket themselves, Azhar’s sons had to say, “We don’t read newspapers. All we know is that, dad is only a phone call away.”
In 2000, when Azhar was at the zenith of his career, the Indian cricket board banned him for a lifetime in the match-fixing controversy. Azhar was slapped with a lifelong ban following allegations of his involvement in fixing three ODI matches. There were other Indian crickets who were implicated as well.
Azhar went through a rough patch. He was no longer allowed to pursue his true passion – cricket, and the allegations made him the target of the irk of the nation which had till the other day worshipped him as the most successful Indian cricket captain till date. However, even at the peak of the match-fixing controversy, Sangeeta stood by her man steadfastly like a rock, weathering the storm along with Azhar, hand in hand.
However, more misfortunes were in store for Azhar.
Azhar’s younger son 19-year-old Ayaz was a right-handed batsman like his father, and many considered him to be the proverbial chip off the old block. Azhar wanted his career to flourish and was sure he would play at higher levels. However, destiny had other designs.
The young man found his adrenalin rush in fast bikes, and ultimately lost his life on one in 2011. When he received news of the accident, Azhar rushed back from London to be with his son. A man who rarely displayed his emotions, Azhar wept when the doctors broke the news to him. Ayaz fought valiantly for six days but finally succumbed to his injuries.
After Azhar lost his younger son, the former India captain used what he knows best - cricket - to start a new innings with his older son Mohammad Asaduddin, whom he called Abbas. The father and the son became each other’s best friends as they mourned and tried hard to come to terms with the tragic and untimely death of Ayaz together.
The year 2012 brought some solace. Claimed as unsustainable by the High Court, on 8 November 2012, the Andhra Pradesh High Court lifted the life ban on Azharuddin, imposed on him after the match-fixing scandal of 2000.
Azharuddin contested in the 2014 elections from Tonk-Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan and went on to become a Congress MP.
Azhar and Sangeeta had had a fairy tale life together that, however, lost its magic somewhere along their journey. From 2010, fourteen years since they had tied the knot, the distance between the two began to grow. Time and circumstances took their toll on the extraordinary love story of Azhar and Sangeeta, who had challenged norms and had ignored the collective criticism of the nation, to listen to their hearts and set up their own world.