It is bit of an irony that former India skipper Ajit Wadekar, 77, passed away in the midst of India’s Test series against England. Their slip catching in the current series has been so bad that someone remarked that champion former slip fielder must have died of shame.
In his book, Cricket, The Men and The Game, Tony Grieg, the late England skipper said that the Indian team of his era was the best fielding team without doubt. He showered praises on the extraordinary close-in catching of skipper Wadekar at slip, Venkatraghavan at gully, Abid Ali at backward short-leg and the incomparable Eknath Solkar at forward short-leg. He said he hadn’t seen a catch go past them.
Indeed, Wadekar was safe as a bank at slip and this inspired others to try harder to match the skipper’s standards.
Wadekar, the left-handed batsman who made the India number three spot all his own for a number of years, was a street-smart cricketer whose influence on Indian cricket went way beyond his playing days.
For one, he rose very high in the State Bank of India hierarchy and used that clout to help young cricketers in a variety of ways. At the same time, he was acknowledged as a thorough banking professional, who even if had not got in through sports, would have made a name for himself in the industry.
But for sheer everlasting impact, it was the path-breaking Test series wins against West Indies in West Indies and England in England in 1971 that made him a legend.
He was controversially appointed India captain instead of the charismatic Nawab of Pataudi for the tour of West Indies in 1971. Fellow Mumbaikar and chairman of the selection committee Vijay Merchant’s contentious casting vote settled the issue in his favour. He thereby inherited a team that was fiercely loyal to Pataudi. Yet he got them around to perform brilliantly. Some of the exploits of that team were truly magnificent and Wadekar was the catalyst that made it possible.
The back-to-back series wins abroad stirred the imagination of the country like nothing else. Till then India had never beaten the mighty West Indies anywhere, let alone on their home turf. Tales of how Wadekar floored Gary Sobers in the very first Test when he walked into their dressing room and asked the West Indies to follow-on made the rounds for years. That Jamaica Test had been reduced to a four-day affair after the first day’s play had been rained off. The great Sobers was unaware that the margin for follow-on for a 4-day match was 150 runs, rather than 200. He was in disbelief and had to repeatedly check the rules copy and with the umpires before he reconciled to the ignominy.
Wadekar had the four great spinners, BS Chandrasekhar, Bishen Singh Bedi, EAS Prasanna and S Venkatraghavan as his primary weapons. Salim Durrani was his surprise weapon and used sparingly but to devastating effect. Then there was that brilliant bunch of close-in fielders who made rival batsmen extremely conscious, nervous and wary of their presence. His prime batsmen were the young legend-in-the- making Sunil Gavaskar, GR Vishwanath, Dilip Sardesai and himself.
Wadekar’s team made the two series in 1971 and the home series against England in 1972-73 absolutely memorable with resounding wins. India had never won three successive series on the trot and the cricket-crazy public were intoxicated with such unparalleled success.
Naturally, expectation levels were sky high. Thus when the team came a cropper in England in 1974, the public let loose their wrath on the skipper. India lost 3-0 and the consequences of it left Wadekar a shattered man. He lost all support and was hounded out of the team he led so gloriously for close to three years. He quit the game at all levels immediately.
I interacted many times with Wadekar after he was appointed Indian team coach. I was a young reporter and those were the days when editors insisted that every copy ought to have quotes. We would derisively refer to this as ‘quote journalism’ with many senior journalists staunchly resisting it.
But a handful of us would meet Wadekar everyday on that tour of Sri Lanka to get quotes for our despatches. That series in 1993 was the first in Sri Lanka after their president had been assassinated and cricket was played amidst a 6 pm to 6 am curfew.
The Indian team and a few of us journalists were the only occupants of that heavily fortified hotel in Colombo, which meant getting quotes from players and Wadekar was not difficult. But Wadekar was happy to oblige at the ground itself and the manner in which he did was a revelation of how guarded he could be with his comments.
There were two major issues on that tour — a ball-tampering allegation against the Indian team and legality of Muttiah Muralitharan’s bowling action. He parried both issues effectively, throwing the onus on the reporters: “You were all keenly watching the match. So you know that it was not done,” he said of the first. Of the chucking, he was just as subtly evasive: “You are watching the Test from a very good vantage point. You know what’s happening.”
It was not difficult to see why Wadekar rose so high in SBI ranks, the highest ever by a sportsman. He was diplomatic, but firm; precise but non-committal with his statements. Above all, Wadekar had a deadpan look even when he cracked a joke. Few could make out whether he was angry or happy! Nothing, his words, tone or body language gave him away. This probably contributed to his success as skipper.
His tenure as coach-cum-manager ran from the historic series against South Africa in 1992 till the conclusion of the World Cup at home in 1996. He also served as chairman of selection committee for a while.
Wadekar will long be remembered for instilling pride and self-belief in the Indian team. The three series wins in a row — two abroad and one at home — were probably the coming of age of Indian cricket. Truly, Wadekar was the pioneer of India’s surge for cricketing excellence. He will be missed.