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Ajit Wadekar transformed a has-been team into winners
In Ajit Wadekar’s autobiography, My Cricketing Years, there is a picture of Sunil Gavaskar and him strolling down a London street during the 1971 tour. Wadekar, unlike Gavaskar, was impeccably dressed in a well-pressed suit, holding an umbrella above their heads, and the look on his face was one of supreme confidence. He was leadership personified. So, it was no surprise that during that tour, India had its first series win over England in England.
Ajit Wadekar, known as ‘Professor’ in cricketing circles, has always been regarded as a master tactician. Standing in the slips, he would silently plot the downfall of the batsman. And he would, in the midst of all this brainwork, take some splendid catches of the feared bowling quartet of Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, E.A.S. Prasanna, Bishen Singh Bedi and S. Venkataraghavan. When asked about the qualities of a good captain, he said, “A captain has to plan for every ball. Strategies planned at team meetings are all fine but on the field, things are changing all the time. For example, the batsman might suddenly become aggressive. So, the captain has to change his bowling permutations, so that he can get wickets. He should also be able to read the wicket accurately every morning, before the day’s play, so that he can fine-tune his strategy.”
A captain, he continued, also has to get the boys to gel together, as a team. “They come from different cultures and from different corners of the country. You have to nurture the will to win among them,” he said.
Wadekar was a stylish left-handed batsman, and when India arrived in England, during that famous 1971 tour, the players knew the biggest threat was the tall, burly, fast bowler John Snow. And, as captain, he led from the front. The first four bouncers that Snow hurled at him, he struck it for boundaries. The message was not lost on his teammates in the dressing room. And if you want to know how cool he was, under pressure, think of this: on the last day of the pivotal third Test against England at The Oval, he got run out first ball after scoring 45 and when he returned to the pavilion he told Gundappa Vishwanath and Farokh Engineer that they would have to get the 173 runs for victory, come what may. Thereafter, he went to sleep on the massage table only to be awoken by England manager Ken Barrington who told him that India had won. Wadekar’s classic reply: “Who asked you to wake me up? I knew we were going to win.”
It was an epochal triumph. The nation embraced the team in a tight grasp. There were felicitation functions galore and a motorcade from the airport to the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai. “There were lakhs of people on the road,” remembered Wadekar. “It was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life. I don’t think any other Indian cricket team received this honour.”
Earlier, under his captaincy, India had defeated the West Indies in the West Indies. Whenever India played in the West Indies, they would get mauled. This time, also, it was expected to be a brownwash. But the captain had other ideas. “We did our homework,” said Wadekar. “We realised that the Windies players loved to play their strokes, so we thought of ways to curb it. We also realised our fielding had to be superb, because dropped catches meant the batsmen would go on to hit big scores.”
Wadekar was also not averse in trying to score a psychological point or two. In the Test, at Sabina Park, he was the first Indian captain to enforce a follow-on. Garfield Sobers, the West Indian captain, looked surprised when Wadekar told him about the decision. “Are you sure?” he asked. Wadekar’s reply was a calm, “I am absolutely sure.” Even though the match was drawn, India had gained that vital mental edge. And they went on to win the series 1-0, with a win in the second Test at Port of Spain, thanks to Dilip Sardesai’s and Sunil Gavaskar’s batting, among other exploits. Later, when India went to England, the players had the self-belief that they could win. In 1972, when England toured the subcontinent, India won the series, 2-1, to register back-to-back wins.
But such is the fickleness of the Indian public, that three years later, when as captain, Wadekar suffered three heavy successive defeats against England in England, during the three-Test series, there were demonstrations outside his home and he was stripped of the captaincy of Mumbai and India. Soon after, he retired from cricket, at 33. Years later, a philosophical Wadekar would say, “When you are playing for India, you have to take all this in your stride.” Incidentally, in the four years he captained the Mumbai team, they won the Ranji Trophy three times, thus enabling the state to win for 16 years consecutively. Wadekar was in the team all along. Thereafter, he had a stint as an administrator in the Mumbai Cricket Association, and was the manager of the Indian team that toured South Africa in 1992, which India lost. But he rebuilt his reputation when India won in Sri Lanka for the first time and in the four years he was at the helm, the team never lost at home. So the man has done it all: player, captain, manager, chairman of selectors, administrator, columnist and an executive director with the State Bank of India. His name is etched in gold in Indian cricket history. He showed us we need not lose whenever we played abroad; it was an indirect lesson in character-building for Indians, still coming to terms with the 200 years of white rule, which had ended just 24 years ago. If there is one thing the 64-year old would like to change in his impressive CV, it would be his birthday: April Fool’s Day.