ALDELAIDE HEROES — Dravid and Agarkar in 2003.
1997 was a year that drove Indian cricket fans to despair. The team had been bullied all over the world. The South Africa and Caribbean tours exposed their ineptitude against pace bowling. On the flatbeds of Colombo, Jayasuriya and Aravinda gave them nightmares not yet forgotten. From Chennai to Karachi to Sharjah, the Afridis and the Anwars flayed Tendulkar’s toothless bowlers.
At home, they were struggling. Abroad, all was lost. What of India’s fielding and athleticism? A cola advertisement captured the nation’s mood perfectly at the time. In it, an upset fan urged his team: “Dive, baba, dive. I’ll wash your clothes, but dive!” India were like the Japanese who had brought swords to a nuclear fight.
It was in the backdrop of these disappointments that Ajit Agarkar emerged as a refreshing change. Labelled the genuine Indian fast bowler, Agarkar came armed with a fast yorker and a stand-offish demeanour accentuated by a permanent scowl—a sharp contrast to his mild-mannered colleagues thought too civilised for international sport.
Bless Venkatesh Prasad for all he did. But his slow leg-cutter didn’t inspire confidence when his faster ones kept disappearing into the stands. With Javagal Srinath out of the team with injuries, India needed a pacer with an edge. Agarkar happened to be it—for a while.
It was an ‘A’ tour to Pakistan that made Agarkar. He took 23 wickets in the First Class fixtures and also hit a hundred in a landmark series win for the juniors. The win was significant since the senior team was struggling against Pakistan.
Months later, he debuted against Australia in an ODI in Kochi. His arrival was ominous: he began with a yorker first-up to Michael Bevan, took a sharp catch to dismiss Mark Waugh (the mark of his quick reflexes that served him well as an outfielder), bled some runs, but took the important wicket of Adam Gilchrist. It was the start of a great season, not just for Agarkar but also the team.
Slim and short at 5’5, Agarkar was the anti-thesis of a fast-bowler. His whippy action generated pace normally associated with well-muscled limbs. He could swing the new-ball out, the old-ball in and his yorker was the answer to the prayers of countless fans awaiting an Indian to match Wasim and Waqar.
He surpassed Dennis Lillee’s record taking 50 wickets in his 23rd ODI, finishing the year with 58 from 30. It is likely most batsmen never expected the human wire to hurl a ball so fast. No Indian has managed more wickets in a year since, and happily it was also the year Tendulkar plundered 1894 runs. India won an unprecedented, unsurpassed, six ODI titles that year.
His 58 wickets in 26 Tests seem disappointing returns for a talent like that, but it was the short format where Agarkar excelled, finishing as a statistical anomaly who probably deserves more credit than he got. He had with 288 wickets in 191 games. It’s a number Zaheer Khan (India’s best of the era) is yet to touch despite having played nine more games.
While his strike rate (32.9) was one of the best in the game, his economy rate (5.07) was among the worst. His ability to take wickets came at the heavy cost of waywardness—the reason he was eventually dropped. Yet the scorebooks reveal him to be more economical than Umar Gul (5.10) and Lasith Malinga (5.08), widely considered experts of control—even if they operated largely in the T20 era.
Agarkar was also India’s fastest to 200 wickets, in 133 games, and on the day he last wore the Blue, he was the 11th highest wicket taker in ODIs, joint with Saqlain Mushtaq. Six years later, only Brett Lee and Shahid Afridi have passed him, making one wonder how someone good enough to draw comparisons with Kapil Dev could fade away so quickly.
What didn’t fade away were jibes about the seven consecutive ducks against Australia. He’s lucky to not be playing for India in the social media age, for people there can be unkind. Book-ending those ducks were bits of brilliance with the bat—a surprise 26 that stole a win from Sri Lanka in Sharjah, a record-breaking 21-ball fifty, and a 95 in an ODI promoted to No. 3.
But what does Ajit Agarkar have that Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara don’t? In 2002, he made a Test hundred at Lord’s, a great triumph of an underdog, and one of the highlights of his 17-year career that ended on October 16—a career that fluctuated wildly between the spectacular and the pedestrian, entertaining and frustrating in equal measures, but rarely was there a dull moment.