“There were naysayers. There still are. The men who swear by Pataudi refuse to acknowledge that Wadekar was special as skipper. But the results are incredible”
His birthdate was a day to pull off outrageous pranks. Ajit Wadekar never quite enjoyed having been born on 1st April.
It would have been so much better if the news that floated across the world on August 15, 2018, had been a similar prank. Unfortunately, it is not. The first Indian captain to win two overseas Test series passed away even as the nation celebrated the 71st anniversary of independence.
It is curious that this journalist penning the piece now came to know of the unfortunate news while sitting in the pressbox at The Oval, where Surrey and Hampshire were locked in a Twenty20 Blast contest. It was here, in 1971, that Wadekar had enjoyed perhaps the crest of his career. Bhagawat Chandrasekhar had bowled England out and India, after making heavy weather of a small target, had finally made it, thus winning their first ever Test and series in England. Ken Barrington, the manager of the England team, had entered the Indian dressing room to offer his congratulations. He had found the Indian captain snoring away. After being nudged awake, Wadekar had said that he always knew that India were going to win. Alex Bannister later wrote in The Daily Mail: “Like Montgomery before Alamein, he had laid his plans in advance and retired to confident sleep.”
Unfortunately, he cannot be nudged awake any more.
Wadekar led India to triumph for the first time in West Indies, in 1970-71. And he followed it up with beating England in England the following summer. It made him the most successful of Indian captains. Among all Indian captains, only Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni have won two series outside Asia (the former coincidentally also against West Indies and England, the latter against West Indies and New Zealand).
The work was cut out for Wadekar, as he came to the helm replacing the charismatic and enormously popular Nawab of Pataudi, that too by a casting vote of the great Vijay Merchant. A middle-class man replacing a blue-blooded Nawab in those days was not really easy. However, Wadekar took all that in his stride.
There were naysayers. There still are. The men who swear by Pataudi refuse to acknowledge that Wadekar was special as skipper. But the results are incredible.
Under his captaincy, India won not only the two overseas series, but also beat England back home in 1972-73. But then came the horrific series of 1974 in England where India were trounced 0-3 and were bowled out for 42 at Lord’s. Wadekar retired from cricket after that series.
A short reign at the top, embracing both sides of the spectrum.
However, Wadekar was much more than a pathbreaking captain. He scored 2113 runs in 37 Tests. The average was just 31.07, but the runs were made in an extremely stylish fashion. Several of his memorable innings came in crucial moments.
Being a left-hander, there was an additional elegance in his batsmanship. In fact, he became the first left-hander to score 2,000 Test runs for India, and till now only Sourav Ganguly, Gautam Gambhir and Shikhar Dhawan have gone past him.
At No 3, he made 1899 runs. It may not look a lot by modern standards, but only Dravid, Cheteshwar Pujara, Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar have scored more in that position for India.
But Wadekar, significant as he was at the Test level, was a giant in domestic cricket. Over 17 years he amassed 15,380 runs at 47.03 with 36 centuries. In Ranji Trophy alone he scored 4,388 runs at a humongous 59.29 with 12 hundreds. He was one of the architects of Bombay’s continuous triumphs in the 1960s and 1970s. No wonder someone like Dilip Vengsarkar maintained that Wadekar was his all-time favourite batsman, before international exposure tilted the balance in favour of Greg Chappell.
Wadekar was a superb close infielder as well, especially in the slips. With Eknath Solkar, Abid Ali and Srinivas Venkataraghavan he combined into a world-class close catching cordon, something that the spinners of that era really exploited.
In his later days, Wadekar served the Indian team as manager. With Mohammad Azharuddin as captain, he formed an excellent partnership, and India became virtually unbeatable at home.
The stint as manager had to be interrupted due to a minor heart attack in 1994, but he came back to resume his role for another two years.
Later, he became the Chairman of the National Selection Committee in 1998-99. Thus Wadekar emulated Lala Amarnath by playing the roes of captain, coach(manager) and chairman of selectors of the Indian cricket team.
Ajit Wadekar passed away on 15th August, 2018, after a prolonged illness. He was 77.