Cerebral star

Ajit Wadekar had an astute cricketing brain and the personality of a superstar

Lasting bond: Wadekar with Yajurvindra Singh at Wadekar’s house in Mumbai | Amey Mansabdar


THE PASSING AWAY of Ajit Wadekar came as a surprise, as one looked at him as an icon who would live forever. I met him just before leaving for England to watch the ongoing Test series, and his words still linger in my mind. “Sunny, make sure that the team comes back winning the way we did in 1971,” he said. We were in the foyer of Sportsfield at Worli sea face in Mumbai, a building which he promoted for sportsmen. Living in the building led us to a friendship that I was truly blessed to have for the past 30 years.

Ajit was much more than a cricketer. He studied engineering, became a banker and had an astute financial brain.

A state farewell funeral with thousands following the truck carrying his casket took me back to the grand welcome that the victorious 1971 side had received on their return. A red carpet was laid out at the airport. The team was taken in an open-top motorcade. Ajit in a silver Impala leading the pack, with garlands of marigold around his neck and waving to the crowd, was an image that one can conjure as one of the most significant moments in the annals of Indian cricket.

Ajit had a personality, and a halo around him, of a superstar. His slow body-tilting to the left gait added to his awe-inspiring demeanour. He spoke softly but thoughtfully, and had mastered this uncanny art of delivering a funny one-line rejoinder that, if you were not alert, would elude you completely.

My first recollection of Ajit was way back in 1962. I was ten years old when Bombay played Saurashtra in a Ranji Trophy match at my school ground, Rajkumar College in Rajkot. Ajit rescued Bombay by scoring 151 runs, batting down the order. My prized possession then was an autograph from him. He was a hero to all of us who played the game of cricket in the 70s.

He lived and breathed cricket. He led India to three consecutive series wins—two overseas and one at home. India under his captaincy became the unofficial champion Test side in the world, as they beat the mighty West Indies, and then England in England and at home.

Ajit was much more than a cricketer. He studied engineering, became a banker and had an astute financial brain. What differentiated him from the rest was his ability to analyse the situation and foresee problems.

He once told me about his Test debut in 1966 and the story behind his close friendship with Garry Sobers. At the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai, during practice, the great Sobers saw Ajit playing with patched-up cricket boots. “Are you going to play your debut match in those boots?” asked Sobers. He replied, “Yes”. Sobers went and got a new pair of Garry Sobers Cricket Boots and said, “If they fit you, take them”. They fitted perfectly, and the next day Ajit walked in wearing the new boots to bat. Unfortunately, he got out without scoring, and on the way back to the pavilion there was a bit of a banter, as Ajit blamed the boots for his failure. The bond which developed between them remained intact right to the end.

Royal reception: Wadekar introduces Sunil Gavaskar to Queen Elizabeth II | Getty Images

The story of the remarkable change in the fortune of Indian cricket in 1971 was what every Indian cricket lover was keen to know, and I did manage to get Ajit to recount his version. He said it all started behind the closed doors of the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai. The four selectors were Vijay Merchant, C.D. Gopinath, M. Jagdale and Bal Dani. The fifth selector, Datta Ray from the east zone, could not make it as he was unwell. They had gathered to select the captain of the side to tour the West Indies. The final decision narrowed down to Tiger Pataudi and Ajit, and the outcome was a tie.

Merchant, who always batted conventionally, showed another characteristic of his personality. Being the chairman of the selection committee, he was entitled to a casting vote and he opted to use it. He did so in favour of Ajit.

Ajit never expected to become the captain, and was out shopping with his wife, Rekha, for some curtains for his new flat. When they came back home, there was a crowd. He thought something was wrong, not realising that they were there to greet him with sweets and good wishes.

Ajit, during the selection of the side, figured out that a drastic change in favour of a young side would not be an ideal solution. He blended the team with the young and the old. He insisted on the inclusion of old stalwarts like Dilip Sardesai, Salim Durani, Abid Ali and M.L. Jaisimha. He felt that the only weapon of destruction that they had was in spin bowling, and so included the trio of Bishan Bedi, Erappalli Prasanna and S. Venkataraghavan. The batting line up was inducted with youngsters like G.R. Vishwanath, Ashok Mankad, K. Jayantilal, Eknath Solkar and the latest run scoring machine in the domestic circuit, Sunil Gavaskar.

Having led Mumbai, Ajit was an astute captain. Fortunately for him, the team selected consisted mainly of players whom he had played alongside. He, therefore, managed to induce a feeling of camaraderie. His tactical decisions during the series were instrumental in the Indian team’s astounding success.

Ajit played his first tactical card in the very first Test match in Kingston, Jamaica. India got a lead of 170 runs in the first innings. The West Indians were getting ready to field when he went into their dressing room. In his quiet, effective manner, he made himself heard by telling the West Indian captain, Sobers, that he would be enforcing the follow on. Due to rain on the first day, the match had become a four-day affair. The rules in cricket clearly stated that with a lead of more than 150 runs, an opposing team can enforce a follow on. Initially Sobers did not accept it, but after consulting the umpire, A. Sang Hue, he had to. There was pin-drop silence in the West Indian dressing room, and India, through this manoeuvre, managed to get the initial psychological advantage.

India won the second Test and managed to draw the third and the fourth. The fifth, and the final, match in Port of Spain was a six-day affair. It started with an uncanny incident during the toss. Ajit, who had called heads in the earlier matches, called tails. Sobers did not realise it, and as the coin landed on tails thought that he had won the toss. But, like a true sportsman he accepted it, and Ajit elected to bat first. The misunderstanding was never publicised, and so never became a controversy.

The sixth day’s play was tension-packed. The West Indies were firmly placed to push for a win with a few early wickets, whereas India needed to bat for as long as possible. Ajit played another of his masterstrokes. Sobers had made it a point to come to the Indian dressing room and on one pretext or the other to touch Gavaskar for luck. He did it with a successful outcome in the earlier Test matches as well as in the first innings. On the morning of the last day’s play, Ajit saw Sobers coming towards the dressing room. He promptly locked Gavaskar in the bathroom. Sobers waited for his lucky charm to emerge, but without success. Coincidentally, Sobers got out for a duck later in the afternoon, and his dismissal did bring the curtains down on a possible West Indies win.

Ajit was a superb close-in fielder. He told me that the reason for the Indian team’s success on the tours to the West Indies and England was not dropping a single catch.

India’s tour to England, which came after the one to the West Indies, was also laden with some interesting tales. Ajit realised that to win in England discipline was an important factor. He brought in Hemu Adhikari as the manager cum coach, as he felt the team needed a certain amount of military discipline on and off the field. Apart from playing for and captaining India in Test cricket, Adhikari was a lieutenant colonel in the Army and was known for his strict managerial capabilities. He was a no-nonsense man.

The significance of this tour for Indian cricket could be gauged when the cricket board decided to delay the departure of the team by two days. The reason: an astrologer who had predicted the West Indian win suggested that it was not an auspicious day for the team to travel. Ajit was a religious man and accepted it readily. He believed in Lord Ganesha for prosperity, good health and for removing obstacles. On August 24, 1971, the final day’s play in a match fell on the auspicious day of Ganesha Chaturthi. Ajit was convinced that India would come through victorious, as his God was with them.

He was thrilled, when the Indian supporters arranged an elephant from the nearby Chessington Zoo and paraded it around the ground at the Oval during the lunch break. The team felt that the presence of the elephant was a good omen.

The tense and nervous Indians erupted with joy when India won. However, the cool captain was sleeping in the dressing room when Ken Barrington woke him up and said they had won. Typically of Ajit, he immediately replied in his lazy manner. “I always knew we would win,” he said.

A successful captain, coach, manager and selector, Ajit also played a major part in pushing the cause of blind cricketers. I will miss his company, his stories and most of all his naughty humour and the chuckle that followed. As Gavaskar rightly put it, we will always remember how he started a conversation whenever he met us: “Arre kya re”.

Singh is a former cricketer.