Ajit Wadekar is not merely another Indian cricketer: he was the first captain who taught India to dream of winning, especially overseas. It was under his leadership that India won their first Test and series in West Indies (India had not even beaten them at home before that) in his first series as captain. He followed that with an even bigger milestone, beating England (a side that had recently regained The Ashes in Australia) in England for the first time. Astonishingly, he achieved both in the same season. He followed it with another triumph, against England at home before an embarrassing defeat in England ended his career.
Few remember that Wadekar made his debut against West Indies at home in 1966-67, in a three-Test series that India lost by 2-0. The remarkable 1971 series was only second time Wadekar played a series against West Indies.
Wadekar averaged 31 from 37 Tests with a solitary hundred. These are ordinary numbers under ideal circumstances, but not for an Indian left-handed batsman: his tally of 2,113 runs remained an Indian record for southpaws till Sourav Ganguly’s arrival; and even now only two Indian left-handers — Ganguly and Gautam Gambhir — have got more runs than him. He was also a titan in Ranji Trophy, finishing eventually with 4,388 runs at 59. These are phenomenal numbers.
Wadekar served as Indian coach in the early 1990s, a phase when India did not lose a single Test series at home. He also became Chairman of Selectors later in the decade.
He is currently the President of All India Cricket Association for the Physically Challenged, and has been doing an impressive job as India recently won their second consecutive T20 Blind Cricket World Cup earlier in February, defeating arch-rival Pakistan in the final.
On the occasion of his 76th birthday, Abhishek Kumar talked to the former Indian captain and the latter spoke about his playing days, and more.
Fool’s Day pranks
Wadekar was born April 1, 1941. This inevitably meant he was the victim of pranks on his birthday. He recalled: “First of all, they did not believe that I was really born on that day. However, on many occasions they played pranks. Bishan Singh Bedi once said that he would not bowl. I asked him why and he replied ‘my hand is paining and wicket is a bit skiddy’. Later I found that they are trying to fool me on my birthday. Further I gave bowling to EAS Prasanna or else there is Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. When I passed the ball to Prasanna, Bishan took the ball from him and started bowling just to prank me.”
There was also Sunil Gavaskar, one of the most infamous pranksters of the side: “Gavaskar was also very good with pranks. He used to call me to inform whether the bus has arrived or not. In order to prank me, Gavaskar used to say ‘the bus has not come yet; there is no need to hurry”. And when I used to come down, the bus had already left by then but Sunil had already arranged a car for me and then I get to know that the driver was waiting for me. During the tours, there used to be many such pranks and fun.” Also Read
We switched topics to sledging, and to my surprise, Wadekar made a somewhat lesser-known revelation: “Eknath Solkar was the biggest sledger in the team. During my tenure I told players that if you do not know words in English to sledge them then use your natural tongue — in Marathi or whatever language you are comfortable with. And anyway, they will not going to understand that. Also, the opponent players understood after sometime by the body language and expression of Solkar. The most important thing is that it must vent it out. We are not Mahatma Gandhi. There was no way we would listen to whatever they said to us.”
During my tenure I told players that if you do not know words in English to sledge them then use your natural tongue — in Marathi or whatever language you are comfortable with.
A rather lesser-known aspect of Wadekar is his mortal fear for injections. He did not deny: “Yes, I was always scared of injections. In those days, we had only two options for career: engineer and doctor. At that time there was no career in cricket. We did not earn much from cricket. So we used to play the game as our hobby. But in future, for a career, one had to choose engineering or doctor.”
“I have many good doctor friends, like Dr Shamshir and Mukund Joshi,” he added, “but doctors are only good as friends not for treatment. I used to request them to not administer injections. I preferred medicines instead.”
Ironically, his father had always wanted him to become a doctor. He pursued an engineering course instead, at VJTI after his intermediate with science at Elphinstone.
The man who played for three rupees
The discussion shifted to his initial days for Shivaji Park. He recalled his second local match, against a very strong Dadar Union: “Vijay Manjrekar picked me up. I was little frightened. “This is your chance to prove yourself. If you want to go up in the ladder, this is your best chance, since Dadar Union are the strongest team,’ he told me.
“I batted at number 3 after Sudhakar Adhikari fell. Luckily, the first ball I faced was a full-toss and I got a boundary past cover. That gave me confidence. Since then, I used to play confidently against any bowler. Also the grounds were quite small.
But how did he reach Shivaji Park from Elphinstone? It all started with a bus trip, where Wadekar was travelling along with Baloo Gupte. Gupte, Wadekar’s senior at college, asked whether the youngster would want to be 12th man for a match for 3 rupees. Wadekar had agreed.
There was no looking back after that. He went on to lead Bombay, for whom he piled up some gargantuan scores batting at a rapid pace. How did he manage to score at that rate? “In Bombay, we used to play lot of limited-overs cricket, like the Kanga League and Purshottam Shield. In Kanga League, due to rain interruptions, we had to make runs quickly; it was not tough to score quickly in One-Day matches. Once the habit developed, scoring quickly was not difficult anymore.”
His only Test century came during the third Test between New Zealand and India at Wellington. Wadekar scored a brilliant 143, which helped Indian team winning the Test and claiming their first ever overseas series win. However, he does not consider the century as good as some of his domestic hundreds: “Our team was not good enough and the wicket was wet. It had rained a little. My knock was not as attractive as some of the innings I played in domestic hundred. However, I had decided there that I have stay at the crease, which was why I could manage to get that hundred. The wicket was bad, and the out bowlers did the job in the end.”
It is well-known that Vijay Merchant’s casting vote had resulted in Wadekar’s appointment as captain for the tour of West Indies. However, Wadekar had no clue about the on-goings. He was out to buy curtains, and there was no way he could be contacted in those days before mobile phones.
He came back to find a huge crowd outside his home: “At that time, I had shifted to a new home in the same ‘Sportsfield’. I was not aware of the news. I knew the fight was between The Nawab of Pataudi and Chandu Borde. And I had called both of them, asking them to ensure my place in the team.”
He was both astonished and happy when they told him the news.
Locking Gavaskar in a toilet
The first Test at Jamaica was eventful. India were reduced to 75 for 5 after Day One was washed out due to rain. Then Dilip Sardesai scored 212, added 137 with Eknath Solkar and 122 with Prasanna, and took India to 387. West Indies were bowled out for 217.
Then something unexpected happened: Wadekar asked Garry Sobers — his idol — to follow-on. He was right, of course, since the match had been reduced to a four-day contest: “I went to Garry and purposely I went to West Indies dressing-room so that their players should also know to create the psychological effect.
I said, ‘Garry, you are batting.’ Garry replied, ‘What are you talking, Ajit?’ I said, ‘you can see the rulebook and consult with the umpires; for a four-day match a side needs a 150-run lead to enforce the follow-on, not 200. Then he realised and was shocked as well.”
We moved on to the historic second Test: “We had gained a psychological advantage after that follow-on. In a way it was our preparation for the next match at Trinidad. We got a spinning track there. We had quality spinners in Prasanna, [Srinivas] Venkataraghavan and Bedi. I kept Venkat on from one and alternated with Prasanna and Bedi at the other. Venkat was a very steady bowler. He used to block and from the other we were trying to take wickets.”
Gavaskar made his debut in the second Test, that India won by 7 wickets. Gavaskar went on to score 774 runs at 154.80 — the most by any Indian batsman in a Test series and the highest score by anyone in his debut series. In his debut Test, Gavaskar scored 65 in the first innings and 67 not out in the second, while chasing 124.
Both Sobers and Gavaskar got involved in a light-hearted incident on that tour. On one occasion Sobers touched Gavaskar’s shoulder before walking out to bat and played a magnificent innings. Thereafter he made it a point to touch Gavaskar’s shoulder every time he walked out to bat.
How did Wadekar solve this? He laughed: “Garry was very friendly with us. Players like Garry and Rohan Kanhai always used to come and meet us in our dressing-room. Suddenly I started observing that after greeting me, Garry used to greet Gavaskar and touch him by saying, ‘Yes Sunny, how are you, young boy?’ And he invariably got runs. I thought this was not right. When Sobers visited us the next time, I had locked Sunny in the toilet. When Garry asked where Sunny was, I replied that he has not arrived yet from the hotel. In the end Garry got to know that I had locked Sunny and he was very sporting.”
Sleeping through history
Wadekar considers the victory at The Oval as the greatest day of his life. And yet, he was fast asleep during the final stages of India’s chase. Talking about his calm and relaxed attitude, Wadekar quipped: “See, when you play a five-day match, you get to know how the match is going. And we were quite confident after drawing the first Test at Lord’s and in the second Test at Old Trafford, the match was drawn again because of rain.”
He added: “Since it was the second half of the season, we were not expecting much rain in the final Test. I knew that there was little for the bowlers in this wicket. The ball was not moving as well, and even if it did, we were good players of spin. So I decided to relax a bit. It is very difficult when you tour England. We have to play tour matches every day. It is a small country, but we used to move by bus to everywhere to play.”
After the series, the entire Indian team and captain Wadekar were given a warm welcome. They became the toast of the nation. The Victory Bat was erected in Indore as a token of celebration.
Unfortunately, there were no financial benefits: “I don’t think the Board had that much money to spend on cricket in that time. They were not financially well-off. However, I got a promotion in the State Bank of India. Others were rewarded the same as well. However, the kind of respect and recognition we earned was enough for us.”
Wadekar believes that the win had probably laid the foundation of cricket becoming the biggest followed sport in the nation: “Before that, we were not winning. It was the first time we started thinking about winning matches overseas. We did win the odd match at home, but foreign cricketers often blamed the Indian umpires for their defeats. Winning overseas was surely the big thing. It made people believe.”
During that tour India played total of 16 tour matches, 8 of them before before the first Test. This was common in those, in stark contrast with the modern era, where tour matches have been reduced to a mere formality.
Is this the reason for most teams not being able to win consistently away from home? “I think this is a major reason. Overseas conditions are different. Climatic conditions are totally different. There used to be more than 10 tour matches those days. After playing for that long, the Tests made us feel that we were playing at home.”
Pataudi, under whom Wadekar had made his Test debut, played under him during the home series against England in 1972-73. The media has always made it a point to mention that Pataudi had not given one hundred per cent under Wadekar.
However, Wadekar put an end to the rumours: “No no, he was very relaxed. The media highlighted it too much, but nothing of that sort happened. Tiger and I were very good friends. We used to drink beer together. When he was captain, Tiger used to consult with me; I did the same when I became captain. He also played for Sussex, so he was aware of the climate, bowlers and wickets. As a result his inputs became crucial.”
Wadekar also justifying his preference of Venkat over Prasanna: “Prasanna was a genuine off-spinner, but I wanted to keep tight from one end with Venkat to build the pressure. We had world-class spinners but no quality seamer. Because of this we had to keep in mind that we could not afford to go for runs. That is why Venkat used to bowl from one end, while I alternated between Bedi and Chandra from the other. Venkat did not have variations but he could bowl tight.”
In those days India had an outstanding set of close-in fielders, in Gavaskar, Abid Ali, Venkat, Solkar and Wadekar himself, among others. How did they field so well in an era when fielding was not considered as important as it is today?
“Since we used to play for Bombay in domestic cricket alongside players like Polly Umrigar and Bapu Nadkarni, we were always concerned about our fielding. You also need to take catches to win tournaments like Kanga League,” explained Wadekar.” We worked on our catching skills. We knew that even if our bowling was not that strong, we could restrict the opposition to a reasonable score.”
The shoe that slipped
Bombay’s famous 16-season run in Ranji Trophy came to an end in the 1973-74 semi-final against Karnataka. After Karnataka had put up 385, Bombay were cruising comfortably at 198 for 2 when Ashok Mankad played one to point. Wadekar called for a run, Mankad sent him back, and Wadekar, in an attempt to get back, slipped. Sudhakar Rao’s throw found him short. Prasanna and Chandra then bowled out Bombay for 307, knocking them out of the tournament, and a new page was turned in the history of Indian cricket,
What really happened? “I was confident of my shoes but I had not seen the spikes on backward side of the shoe. Yes, it did slip while taking that run and that caused my run out.”
Summer of 42
After beating them away and home, India toured England again in 1974. Unfortunately, their dreams of winning a third series came down with a crash. India were whitewashed 0-3, and Wadekar never played again.
What went wrong? “I remember it was the first half of the season and it kept on raining. We played many tour games before the Tests started, but almost every game was interrupted by rain. That did not let us adjust to the conditions. In 1971 we got to play every practice games, which was the reason behind our victory. In 1974 we hardly got two or three complete matches. Most tour matches were half-played due to rain.”
On June 24, during the second Test of the series, India were bowled out for a humiliating 42 at Lord’s. Later that day the Indian team were scheduled to go Indian High Commission. The Indian team arrived late, which led to misunderstandings.
Wadekar cleared it up: “We left our hotel on time but got stuck in traffic. We arrived there an hour after the scheduled time. Our ambassador was quite disappointed. A group of ministers had also arrived and were waiting for us. I went towards one of them to talk but he moved away.”
Sudhir Naik was charged for shoplifting on that tour as well, something Wadekar denied straight away: “All those allegations were false. It all happened because Marks & Spencer wanted some publicity. Why would Sudhir do such thing? It was all done for cheap publicity,” said Wadekar.
Wadekar became the first Indian captain to lead the side in ODIs during in 1974 at Headingley. Did the Indians realise that they were creating history? Were the cricketers aware of the concept of limited-overs cricket? “Bombay players were quite friendly to the format because of the tournaments like Kanga League and Purshottam Shield, but players from other states were not aware of it. They did not know they had to score quickly. The bowlers did not know they had to keep things tight instead of going flat out for wickets.”
The man who vanished
Wadekar was dropped immediately after the debacle. He never played another Test. Weren’t the selectors too harsh on him? “I don’t think so. At that time I was working for State Bank. I had not got promoted for quite some time. It was also not right to get promoted without going to work. It was a conscious decision on my part as well. The selectors also got to know about my seriousness towards the job. How long I could have played cricket anyway?”
Wadekar played the role of drinks carrier, player, captain, coach, manager and Chairman of Selectors for India. He did almost everything for the game and still keeps on contributing to All India Cricket Association for the Physically Challenged.
But what was his greatest achievement? “I have achieved things in life. With every achievement I thought that that there could not be anything better, but achievements kept coming my way. I don’t think about all that. Even now I am getting respect and currently with handicapped cricket. 1971 was definitely was my proudest moment. It was not expected of us, which was something great. I was also lucky to have players like Gavaskar.”
As mentioned, Wadekar coached India in the 1990s. India did not lose a single home series with him as coach. Talking about his tenure as coach and difficulties he faced during that period, Wadekar revealed that communication was the biggest issue: “Our country is too big and too diverse, unlike England and Australia where they speak only one language and follow one religion. There are numerous religions, cultures and languages here. It is very difficult to get all five fingers together. That was the biggest problem. Communication becomes difficult among players because of language barriers. Suppose if you have people from South Zone. They will speak in their own languages. Others never got to know whether they were talking to you or abusing you. Despite that we performed very well in 1990s.”
During this coaching tenure players like Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble made their way to the Indian team. They later went on to become legends.
What were the like in those early days? “Sachin was already famous here. Kumble was also very talented and it was difficult to read him. His fastest delivery used to be quicker than Ramakant Desai or Chandrasekhar. I had never seen such a sincere, serious cricketer like Kumble. He is a good learner of the game, devoted and very intelligent. He knew exactly how the wicket behaved and changed his pace and flight accordingly. He is a very clever chap. Now, as coach, he is the right person for the job.”
What about Mohammad Azharuddin, with whom Wadekar formed one of the most famous coach-captain combinations for India? “There was a very good friendship between Azhar and me. Azhar respected me a lot. He used to follow whatever instructions or advice I used to give him. He never used to say no. He used to come to my room and express his views. He was a very modest and a great talent.”
India had elected to bowl in the semi-final of the 1996 World Cup. The decision backfired, and Sri Lanka caught India unawares on a rank turner. After many years, Vinod Kambli alleged that the match was fixed and it was already decided that India would bat after winning the toss.
What was the real story? “I think Azhar changed his decision because he saw some dew in the wicket. He changed his decision out there. But then, we also got a good start.”
Later in 1999, some members of the Indian team (Azhar included) were charged with match-fixing. To add fuel to this story, Manoj Prabhakar carried away a few sting operations, as part of which he landed up in Wadekar’s building. Wadekar dismissed Prabhakar’s act as juvenile: “It was childish act. I do not know why he did it and I think he did it for publicity.”
Unlike most old-timers, Wadekar has accepted T20 gracefully: “People do not have time to watch five-day cricket. They prefer more day-night matches. This is why T20 cricket and limited-overs cricket is rising; people obviously do not have enough time to watch Test matches”.
His approach towards DRS is quite modern, too: “Cricket is a game of chance. We used to take decisions sportingly in our times. But now that technology is there, why not use it? I cannot say whether DRS could have helped us to do better in our times, but we would have definitely accepted it.”
I asked Wadekar for his all-time India XI, and he duly obliged:
Sunil Gavaskar (c), Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Sachin Tendulkar, Eknath Solkar, Kapil Dev, Syed Kirmani (wk), Anil Kumble, EAS Prasanna, Ramakant Desai, Bishan Singh Bedi. 12th man: Ravi Shastri.