Ajit Laxman Wadekar’s long walk to the wicket was an unhurried, almost lazy stroll with short measured steps, and a signature drop of his left shoulder. He couldn’t be bothered by the colour of the track, the weather or the runs on the scoreboard. Writing in the Marathi cricket magazine, Ekach Shatkar a few decades ago, actor Sanjay Mone mentioned that the stroll-in and the dropped left shoulder was a trend-setter for an entire generation of cricketers from Shivaji Park in the 1980s, including swashbuckler Sandeep Patil.
On that wintry morning in 1981, in a Times Shield match between State Bank of India (SBI) and Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilisers (RCF) at Cross Maidan, we saw Wadekar’s trademark walk to the crease from the tent. It was seven years since he had given up the game at the top level but the only change in his demeanour was the ever so slight increase in the shoulder tilt. The SBI scoreboard, when he sauntered in, read three wickets down for almost nothing.
Balvinder Singh Sandhu – later to play the World Cup of 1983 - who was making the ball wobble, had picked two wickets, while I, with my seamers off the pitch, had one. Soon, Sandhu sent back another three hapless batsmen to the tent and the SBI score was 60 for 6. Wadekar played us off for the first few overs and kept the scoreboard moving with singles and twos. Every time he ran a single, he would say, “Well bowled, boy!” In between, he would play a scorching cover drive for four, smile and say, ‘Good ball!” We realised that we were taken for a jolly good ride when he entered his nineties and the SBI score was around 200 for 7.
At 97, I bowled him a bouncer that brushed past his nose, as he swayed away, and missed his gloves by a whisker. Next ball, as he ran a single, he chuckled and said, “Great bowling, boy!” On the back of Wadekar’s hundred, SBI scored 240 odd runs and RCF lost that match on the first innings, with Subrato Guha, the former India pacer, making good use of the seaming track.
That inning from the great man, long past his prime and with nothing at stake for him in the game but pride, was an object lesson in professionalism for the young batsmen on both sides. He had reconstructed SBI’s innings, ball by ball, and with the help of the lower order.
Wadekar was a cool customer; cooler than a cucumber, if you please. On that triumphant England tour of 1971, when India needed a few runs to pull off a famous win at the Oval, he famously went to sleep on the dressing room couch. Ken Barrington had to shake him out of his slumber to inform him that India had won. “I knew our batsmen would score the required runs,” he would say later to that famous question from another legend, Vijay Merchant, “How could you ‘rest in peace’ when your mates were fighting it out in the middle?"
Though the legendary former skipper spoke with a languid drawl and was perceived to be laidback, he was quick-witted and an extremely shrewd tactician. On that Caribbean tour of 1971, he is said to have plotted the selection of off-spinner Jack Noreiga in place of the more experienced Lance Gibbs, by giving him wickets in a side game.
In the first Test at Sabina Park, he enforced the follow on despite the lead being only 170 runs, since the match had been reduced to a four-day game. “Garry, you are batting again,” he told his rival skipper. “What? Are you sure about the rule?” the legendary all-rounder is said to have asked him. “Yes. Please check the rules. But you are batting again.” Wadekar thus had the mighty West Indies by the jugular and he didn’t let go till the end.
Sunil Gavaskar, the star of the Caribbean win along with Dilip Sardesai, tells of how he was locked up in a cloakroom by his skipper in the final Test, just to put Sobers under psychological pressure. Sobers who believed that Gavaskar was a ‘lucky man’ – having dropped him a couple of times in the slips – would touch him every morning for luck. He would then invariably play a big knock. In the second innings of the final Test, Wadekar knew that a big knock from Sobers would help the home side draw the series and therefore hid Gavaskar in the cloakroom. “Sobers came looking for me, didn’t find me in the dressing room and went away,” says Gavaskar. After a brilliant hundred in the first innings, Sobers scored a duck in the second knock and helped India draw that final Test, and clinch the series 1-0.
Wadekar’s childhood ambition – and his father’s dream – was to become an engineer. He therefore joined Elphinstone College to eventually get admission into the Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute (VJTI). But all that changed for two reasons. First, he was offered a chance to become 12th man in the college team by Baloo Gupte, the Mumbai leg-spinner, with the incentive of earning the then princely sum of Rs 3 as allowance. Secondly, on the day he reported for the match after his physics practicals, it was lunch time. One of the cricketers in the tent – a Test player – taunted him by saying that he had reported in time for a free lunch and pocket allowance.
Stung by that remark, Wadekar had vowed that day to work hard and play top-class cricket just to put that Test player in his place. It took him eight long years of outstanding performances in inter-collegiate, inter-university, Ranji and other first-class matches to make his Test debut when the West Indies, under Garry Sobers, came touring in 1966-67. Four years later he was made skipper in place of Tiger Pataudi for the tours of the West Indies and England.
We do not really know if Wadekar got a chance to pay back that Test player in the same coin, but knowing him, there is every chance that he may have decided to forgive him.
Those were the years we used to hear the 9 pm news on All India Radio to know what had happened in the world of sports. The day Wadekar was made captain, he was interviewed by AIR and he said, “My wife and I were shopping for curtains for our new house, at Dadar. When we returned home we saw a huge crowd outside our building. While we were wondering what had happened, a local reporter congratulated me on becoming captain.” I remember, as a fan of Mumbai cricket, doing a little jig that night.
After those celebrated wins in the West Indies and England, India again won a home series against England, in 1972-73, under Wadekar’s captaincy. The 1974 tour of England – which is famously known as the ‘Summer of 42’ - was however his undoing. After he returned from that disastrous tour – marred both by bad performances and squabbles – he was ‘requested’ to step down. Despite the fact that he could have played international cricket for another three or four seasons, he decided to retire from all forms of the game.
Wadekar served Indian cricket later as coach and chief selector too. But he will always be remembered for those two away wins; triumphs that gave Indian cricketers a different sort of confidence.
It was in 1989 that I met Wadekar again. At that time he was the Executive Director (PR and Corporate Communications) of SBI. My company had organised the All India PSU Cricket Tournament in Chembur and I had to carry a letter from my chairman to invite him as chief guest. He had been informed that I would be coming with the letter. When I was ushered into his palatial chamber at the SBI office at Nariman Point he greeted me with a great deal of warmth. Arre Austin tu aalas? (Hey, have you come?) He then inquired about Sandhu, RCF’s cricket and how the company was doing overall.
During the last 28 years, we kept meeting of and on during functions at the Cricket Club of India and at other clubs, especially during the Mumbai Cricket Association election campaigns. He was always his humble and friendly self and I often found it embarrassing to talk to him, for he had been my school-life hero. He will surely be missed by all those who love cricket.
Flashback: In 1979, our Kanga match being delayed due to rain, a few of us were watching Ajit Wadekar batting at Shivaji Park Gymkhana. Partnering him was his brother, Ashok. To a bouncer from one end, Ashok hit a six that ballooned up in the air and landed on the gymkhana terrace. Next over, it was Ajit’s turn; we saw just a swish of the bat and the ball ricocheting from the gymkhana wall. One of my senior teammates, reacting to the two sixes, said, “That’s the difference between good and great!”
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a sought-after mental toughness trainer