Very few human beings, leave alone cricketers would have faced the vicissitudes of fate in such rapid succession as Ajit Laxman Wadekar, the former national captain, who passed away on August 16. Wadekar would be remembered as the skipper who experienced the peaks of success and the troughs of failure during the three odd years that he led the national cricket side. He was hailed as a national hero when he led India to victories over West Indies and England on their home turf in 1971. However, he was depicted as the archvillain when the squad lost the series against England in 1974 and he was forced into an early retirement from the game. The Victory Bat that he had unveiled in Indore in the aftermath of the heady successes was defaced following the defeat and his house was pelted with stones by irate fans of the game who were disappointed over the poor performance of the side.
Wadekar was an attacking left-hand batsman and a top-quality slip fielder. While his batting style was unorthodox and unappealing to the purists, his languid persona successfully hid a sharp catcher in the slips who could even pounce on edges dropped by his fellow “slipsmen”. Wadekar occupied the crucial no: 3 spot in the Indian batting order during the seven years that he played international cricket. He was absolutely at ease against fast bowling and was not afraid to employ the hook shot effectively. He used his feet excellently and was hence was a good player of spin bowling as well. Finally, he was one of the rare batsmen of those times who fared better in pitches outside the Indian subcontinent.
It was one of the paradoxes that Wadekar was not only a late entrant to the game but also cemented his place in Bombay side after many years of apprenticeship. He once found himself dropped from the side after scoring a century as his captain Polly Umrigar felt that he threw away his wicket after reaching the landmark! He made his test debut at Mumbai against the touring West Indies side led by Gary Sobers in December 1966. His entry into test cricket was not spectacular with scores of 8 and 4 in the two innings and he spoilt his record further by dropping Clive Lloyd at a critical stage when West Indies was in trouble. When he failed in the first innings of the next test that he played at Chennai, critics were ready to write him off, but he forced them to eat their words by scoring a stroke-filled half century in the second knock, which helped him to book his ticket for the tour to England in 1967.
The years 1967-68 saw India tour England, followed by the twin tour to Australia and New Zealand. Wadekar blossomed into a top quality batsman in international cricket during these tours. He scored his only century in test cricket, a knock of 143 against New Zealand at Wellington, besides six half centuries, which included two scores of 90 runs plus. He was not in top form during the 1969-70 season when New Zealand and Australia toured India but still managed to guide the hosts to their sole victory in the series against the latter with an unbeaten knock of 91 at Delhi.
Wadekar was not one of the top contenders for captaincy when discussions on the subject started prior to the selection of team to tour West Indies in 1971.There were rumblings over Pataudi’s style of captaincy and his detractors had increased in number following the listless performance of the side during the home series in 1969-70. Rumours were also afloat that Vijay Merchant, the chief selector was unhappy with Pataudi. Before the selectors met for choosing the captain, an event took place, which, with the benefit of hindsight, could be stated to have paved the path for Wadekar to become skipper. M.Datta Ray, the selector from east zone and a senior cricket administrator, was barred by a Court order from attending meetings of selection committee; this brought down the strength of selection committee to four. When the meeting commenced, Merchant and H. T. Dani, the representative from North zone, supported Wadekar while C.D. Gopinath and M. M. Jagdale, from South and Central zones respectively, wanted Pataudi to continue. The norm in cases of a tie is for allowing the status quo to continue, but Merchant refused to do that and used his power of “casting vote” to unseat Pataudi and appoint Wadekar as captain.
India’s victory in the test series against West Indies was achieved based on brilliant batting performances by debutant Sunil Gavaskar and veteran Dilip Sardesai, with support from off-spinner S Venkataraghavan. Wadekar was touring West Indies for the first time and did not hesitate to rely on the advice rendered by senior players as M L Jaisimha, Salim Durani and Sardesai. The side performed with admirable cohesion and spirit and shocked a complacent West Indies side under Sobers. In the first test of the series, India recovered from a dismal position of 75 runs for the loss of five wickets before proceeding to enforce follow on against the hosts. Visitors proved that their performance was no flash in the pan by winning the second test by seven wickets and then held on to that lead during the remaining three matches which were drawn. Though Wadekar went through a bad patch as a batsman during this series, he did not let that interfere with his responsibilities as captain.
This series was followed by a tour to England, who had just returned from Australia after wining the Ashes. The hosts were expected to make mincemeat out of Wadekar’s side but the visitors showed that they were no pushovers. They gave England a run for their money in the first test and hung on for a draw in the second, helped by rains on the final day. In the last test, England snatched a lead of 71 run in the first innings but a deadly spell of bowling by Bhagwat Chandrasekhar saw them getting dismissed for a paltry total of 101 in the second knock. India reached the target with four wickets to spare, thus wining a test match and series for the first
time ever on English soil. Wadekar was in excellent form with the bat during this series, which he began by hooking fast bowler John Snow for a six in the first innings of first test.
These twin victories set off wild celebrations amongst the followers of the game in India and Wadekar and his boys were feted as national heroes. When a second string MCC team under Tony Lewis toured India in 1972-73, India lost the first test but managed to win the next two matches by narrow margins to win the series. Though the difficulties faced in overpowering a weak side in home conditions should have raise many inconvenient questions, the team management chose to ignore the rapidly appearing fault lines and preferred to bask in the glory of a third consecutive series victory. This lackadaisical attitude was to lead to one of the greatest disasters in the history of Indian cricket.
India’s tour to England in 1974 is widely regarded as the worst one undertaken by the national cricket side in its history. The team was thrashed 0-3 in the three-test series and had to face the ignominy of being shot out for a total score of 42 runs in the second innings of the test match at Lords’. Besides, the side was plagued by deep dissensions and the captain was not on speaking terms with many of the senior players. On top of these came incidents such as a player being arrested for alleged shoplifting and the team getting publicly pulled up by the High Commissioner for bad manners. It remains, without doubt, the lowest point in the history of the game in this country.
When the 1974-75 domestic cricket season started, Wadekar led Bombay in the first match against Gujarat. However, soon after that, he found himself dropped from the West Zone side for Duleep Trophy, which virtually put him out of the reckoning for a place in the national squad. Piqued by this development, Wadekar announced his retirement from first-class cricket in October 1974. This was a sad and abrupt end to his career as it was widely acknowledged that he could contribute substantially to the national side as a batsman and fielder, if not as a captain.
After retirement, Wadekar focused on his career as a banker, rising up the hierarchy to reach the top echelons of State Bank of India. He was appointed as Manager of the national side in 1992 and remained in that post till the end of 1996 World Cup. He formed a good combination with skipper Azharuddin and his policy of tailoring the wickets to suit the spin bowlers saw India win many tests at home during this period. He also mentored two prodigies from Mumbai who were finding their feet in the national squad - Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli. While Tendulkar went on to achieve cricketing greatness, Kambli’s career hit a roadblock after Wadekar left the scene.
In the final analysis, Wadekar would remain the finest left hand batsman that India produced, till the advent of Sourav Ganguly. He was also, without doubt, the best slip fielder, at par with Rahul Dravid. As a captain, he definitely deserved the moniker “lucky” but it should be said to his credit that he knew how to ride his luck.
His successes came when he had benefit of receiving advice from senior players such as Jaisimha, Sardesai and Durani, but once these veterans left, his limitations as a tactician came to the fore. The complete disintegration of team spirit in the face of reverses during the 1974 tour to England exposed his shortcomings as a leader. However, despite these imperfections, Ajit Wadekar would always remain close to the hearts of cricket fans in India for it was he who made them experience, for the first time ever, the pride and glory associated with a major sporting win.