Ajit Wadekar served India in various capacities © Getty Images
Ajit Wadekar served India in various capacities © Getty Images

Ajit Wadekar, born April 1, 1941, led India to the top of world cricket for the first time. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of an aggressive batsman, a top-notch slip fielder, an astute captain, a successful manager, and a national selector.

Ajit Wadekar was born on April 1, and has regretted it ever since: “Instead of me fooling others on this day, people try to fool me.” That is possibly the only day of the year when he they can fool him — it has generally been a success story otherwise.

People typically remember Wadekar as the captain who won two overseas Test series in 1971. What people tend to overlook that he had scored 2,113 runs in 37 Tests; he was the first Indian left-hander to cross 2,000 runs, and has been surpassed by only Sourav Ganguly and Gautam Gambhir in recent past. Batting at No 3, he had scored 1,899 runs — next to only Rahul Dravid, Mohinder Amarnath and Dilip Vengsarkar.

At domestic level, Wadekar’s record reads: 15,380 runs at 47.03 with 36 hundreds over a career that spanned 17 years. His record was phenomenal in the Ranji Trophy, where he amassed 4,388 runs at 59.29 with 12 hundreds. A giant of domestic cricket, he was one of the mainstays of the Bombay side during their famous run as national champions before, during, and after the 1960s.

Wadekar was more aggressive than elegant, and more efficient than ostentatious. He was tall, bony, and batted with an open stance; he stood with his feet wide apart, and often hit the ball harder than most people expected of him. Despite his aggression, there was a calm reassurance in his batting and general attitude which soothed his side — more so when he led them on the field.

An excellent accumulator of runs, he could not perform at his best at international level, possibly because of the burden ushered upon his shoulders when he was still fresh as a player at Test level. The more he took his team to newer heights, the more it went on to affect his Test records.

Early days

Wadekar showed an aptitude for mathematics at a very young age — a trait that possibly played a crucial role in the shrewdness he displayed as a captain and manager. As the school days came to an end, the Wadekar household was confused: they could not decide whether to make him an engineer or a doctor. Ajit chose the former himself because — unbelievably — he was mortally afraid of injections. “I would much rather face a bouncer from Snow, Dowe, or even Lillee”, Wadekar says.

He was passionate about the game when in school, but had generally restricted himself to tennis-ball cricket. Once, after acquiring full marks in algebra, his father gifted him a cricket bat autographed by Neil Harvey — thereby exposing Wadekar to proper cricket.

And then, one day, when Wadekar boarded the bus for Elphinstone College, he found Baloo Gupte, his college senior and Indian Test cricketer, on the same bus. Gupte told Wadekar that they needed a twelfth man for a match for INR 3. Wadekar agreed, and boarded the bus. The decision would change his career in a way very similar to Bollywood movies.

Test debut

Despite scoring heavily at domestic level, it took Wadekar several seasons to make his Test debut. By then he had already become a much feared batsman in the domestic circuit, dominating every opposition with machine-like accumulation of runs that eliminated one team after another from the Ranji Trophy, season after season. He had also won the Arjuna Award in 1967 — the fifth cricketer to win the award.

Making his debut in the Bombay Test of 1966-67 against an ensemble cast of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Garry Sobers and Lance Gibbs, Wadekar managed only 8 and 4 and was dropped for the next Test. He was brought back for the third Test at Madras, and scored a duck in the first innings. Critics were sharpening their knives already.

He finally came to his elements in the second innings, top-scoring with 67 in 98 minutes. His innings ensured that for the first time in the series India had actually seemed like winning a Test. Wadekar had finally arrived.

The New Zealand tour

The same year, Wadekar scored a First-Class career-best 323 in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Mysore. After Mysore had scored 341, Wadekar simply batted Mysore out of the match. He followed it by scoring 83, helping Bombay to win yet another Ranji Trophy.

Wadekar had a decent tour of England, which was followed by an ordinary tour of Australia. He wasn’t quite able to come to terms with the extra bounce of the Australian pitches: Sam Gannon knocked out his tooth with a bouncer in India’s tour match against Western Australia, and clean bowled him next ball — thereby starting what turned out to be a disastrous tour for the southpaw.

India toured New Zealand next — and this was where he blossomed as a batsman for the first time. In the first Test at Dunedin, Wadekar top-scored in each innings; the first-innings 80 helped India secure a slender lead, and the second-innings 71 ensured that there was no nerve as India chased 200 for their first overseas Test victory.

After India lost the second Test at Christchurch, Wadekar played possibly his greatest-ever Test innings. After EAS Prasanna had bowled out New Zealand for 186 in the Wellington Test, Wadekar scored 143, which was the only fifty in the innings. With his diligence and application, he batted New Zealand out of the Test before Bapu Nadkarni mopped things up. India won the fourth Test at Auckland as well, thereby winning their first overseas tour 3-1. Wadekar scored 328 runs — the highest among Indians — at 46.85 in the series. It was not the last time he would help India win an overseas series.

Ascent to captaincy

Despite their first overseas victory, Indian cricket seemed to be on its wane towards the end of the 1960s, and it called for a change. Before the twin tours, the selection committee met to choose the team, and to everyone’s surprise, Wadekar was equal on votes with Tiger Pataudi, and Chairman of Selectors Vijay Merchant used his casting vote to elect Wadekar as the captain of India.

Years ago, when Wadekar was in college, Merchant had predicted that Wadekar would go on to lead India one day. It was his casting vote that eventually went on to select the Bombay middle-class player over the blue-blooded prince.

Wadekar had gone out shopping with his wife that day “to get some tapestry to furnish the drawing room”. On his return, he found a substantial crowd, many of them journalists, flocked outside the building. As a perplexed Wadekar tried to investigate, he was congratulated, and even garlanded by the group of people.

Almost immediately, Pataudi announced his unavailability for the twin tours — he had not played under another Test captain for close to a decade now.

The West Indies tour

As the Indians landed in West Indies, they were greeted by a poem in one of the Jamaican dailies, which ended with:

A million cheers, Wadekar,
God’s guidance we extend,
To all the gallant sportsmen
With whom we will contend.

The Indians immediately felt at home, perhaps no one more than their captain.

After the first day was washed out, India scored 387 in the first innings at Kingston, propelled by Dilip Sardesai’s 212 — an innings that set the tone for the series.

When the Indian spinners bowled out West Indies for 217, Wadekar told Garry Sobers “hey Garry, you have to follow-on”, since the required lead for a four-day Test was 150 runs.

In Wadekar’s own words, “There was a stunned silence in the West Indies dressing-room when I asked them to follow-on. Sobers was blissfully unaware that rain had reduced that first Test to a four-day match! Consequently the follow-on margin fell from 200 to 150. Umpire [Douglas] Sang-Hue confirmed that the decision was in order.” It was the first time that India had got West Indies to follow-on.

In the second Test at Port-of-Spain, Wadekar found a debutant named Sunil Gavaskar in his side. He would go on to have the greatest debut of all time — scoring 774 runs in 4 Tests. In this Test, however, he managed 2 half-centuries — 65 and a match-winning 67 not out. Sardesai came good once again with 112, and the spinners bowled beautifully in tandem.

On the decisive fourth day, Wadekar displayed his strategic brilliance by bringing on Salim Durani ahead of his three frontline spinners — Bishan Bedi, Prasanna, and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. Durani immediately bowled a fastish one that spun sharply and bowled Sobers through the gate. It was a rare, amazing spectacle to see the 36-year old Durani jump in the air and punch it in elation.

Wadekar also noticed that when Durani spun the ball into him, Clive Lloyd had a tendency to turn it towards mid-wicket, often uppishly. Wadekar placed himself at short mid-wicket; Lloyd immediately hit one to Wadekar, who managed to catch it off his fingertips. The West Indian wickets fell in a heap, and Gavaskar guided India to victory. As a final example of strategic brilliance, Wadekar promoted Abid Ali, the furious runner, above himself — and Gavaskar and Abid Ali ran hard enough to unnerve the fielders and win the Test for India.

During this series, Sobers had developed a curious superstition of going to the Indian dressing-room and touching Gavaskar’s shoulder before play every day. In the third Test at Georgetown, Sobers missed out on his ritual, and failed; in the second innings he did manage to do it, and promptly scored a hundred. Wadekar got to know of this. When Gavaskar (scoring 124 and 220) had virtually bailed India out in the fifth Test, Sobers was scheduled to bat on the sixth day for a vital run-chase. Wadekar hid Gavaskar in the dressing-room toilet way before Sobers visited the Indian dressing-room. The great man was denied his ritual, his confidence was probably dented a bit, and he was clean bowled by Abid Ali for a golden duck!

It was the first time that India had won a Test on West Indian soil. Marshalled by Wadekar and motivated by Gavaskar’s performance, the Indians held on to their lead. India finally managed to win their first ever series on West Indian soil — and from nowhere the team that had looked so dejected a season back had now emerged as the victors.

The England tour

From West Indies the Indian moved on to England. Like in West Indies, they had never won a Test in England before — let alone a complete series. Unlike the previous Indian teams that had toured England, Wadekar’s team won the first tour match. All three Indian spinners — Bedi, Venkat, and especially Bhagwat Chandrasekhar — bowled beautifully, and received accolades from the British press.

On the evening of the victory, Appa Sahib Pant, the Indian High Commissioner, told Wadekar jokingly that he had hoped that one of the Tests would be drawn, another washed out, and the third would result in an Indian victory. Seldom have words turned out to be this prophetic in the history of the sport.

Wadekar took some uncanny decisions on the tour. In the match against Leicestershire, time was running out when Chris Balderstone and Roger Tolchard were playing the Indian spinners comfortably. Wadekar tossed the ball to Gavaskar, with the words “you talk about your leg-spinners; here, have a go, but it will be just one over.” Gavaskar removed Tolchard immediately, Chandra and Venkat ran through the match, and India won by an innings.

With Venkat playing a perfect foil (and taking 9 for 93 in the second innings against Hampshire) and Bedi impressing all and sundry, Wadekar now faced the unenviable task of choosing between Prasanna and Chandra. Both were champion spinners in their own ways, and Wadekar eventually went for Chandra.

All three spinners bowled well in the first Test at Lord’s, and the Test ended with India requiring 38 runs with 2 wickets in hand. Wadekar’s Indian team had won the hearts of the English press like no other Indian team had done before. Wadekar himself top-scored in the first innings with an aggressive 85, studded with 11 boundaries. In John Arlott’s words, the Lord’s Test “had demonstrated the shift in power of world cricket”.

Not only did play well, but for the first time an Indian time refused to accept the facilities dished out by England. When they had arrived in London from Bournemouth, the Indians were put up in an accommodation that was more of a hovel than a hotel. Things changed, though: in Gideon Haigh’s words, “Wadekar and his upstanding martial manager Lt Col Hemu Adhikari demanded, successfully, that the accommodations be upgraded.” Things were changing.

Rain washed out the second Test at Old Trafford, with India in a bit of a corner. Chandra seemed to have lost the purple patch by then, and it was a toss-up between him and Prasanna. In India’s last tour match before the third Test, Chandra reduced Nottinghamshire to 115 for 6 from 56 without loss, taking all 6 wickets, thereby auto-selecting himself. It would turn out to be a historic choice.

Leading by 71, England ran into Chandra in the second innings of the Test. Chandra took 6 for 38 — a spell that is still considered one of the finest ever by an Indian. The Indians fielded beautifully, Venkat held one end up, and India were left with a target of 173.

After Gavaskar fell for a duck, Wadekar walked out, scored 45 (after 48 in the first innings), and got run out. It did not bother him so less that when Brian Johnston interviewed him at the boundary line on his way out, he kept on saying “no English” to whatever Johnston asked. A frustrated Johnston asked him “Ajit, you have been talking to me throughout this tour in English. How could you forget English so soon?”

Wadekar responded with a nonchalant “only Hindi”, returned to the dressing-room, and promptly fell asleep. Alex Bannister later wrote in The Daily Mail: “Like Montgomery before Alamein, he had laid his plans in advance and retired to confident sleep.”

When a bleary-eyed Wadekar was finally woken up by his teammates, he was ‘moved to tears’ as he got to know of the achievement. He later wrote in his autobiography “it was the greatest day of my life”.

Ken Barrington came to the Indian dressing room, and uttered the words “It’s all over. The match is yours. They’ll want you up there on the balcony.” As he strode out, even the typically unperturbed man gave in to emotions.

Ajit Wadekar makes his way on to the pitch for the presentations after India won the Third Test against England by 4 wickets to win the Test series 1-0 at The Oval, London, August  24, 1971 © Getty Images
Ajit Wadekar makes his way on to the pitch for the presentations after India won the third Test to win the Test series 1-0 at The Oval, 1971 © Getty Images

He did not allow his side to relax, though. The Indian team finished with what was easily the best ever tour record for an Indian team in England — 6 wins, with only a single defeat against Essex early on the tour. When the Indians returned home, they were hailed as world champions.

The Vijay Balla (Victory Bat) — an enormous concrete bat with the names of the players — was erected at Indore to commemorate the twin victories, and Wadekar was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972.

On top of the world

Wadekar’s India had now defeated West Indies and England at their dens. With Pakistan’s ascent still a few years down the line, Australia’s lacklustre performance, and South Africa’s ban, India were definitely the contenders for the best team in the world. They still had to deal with England at home, though.

Tony Lewis, making his debut — and leading the side — led England to a surprise victory in the first Test at Delhi. This brought the fans back to the ground, and they realised that a lot was left to be achieved. The second Test at Calcutta, though, saw the resurgence of Wadekar: he scored a crucial 44 in the first innings, and then, as England chased 192, his astute handling of Bedi and Chandra helped win the Test by 28 runs.

The drama was not over yet. Pataudi was back for the third Test at Madras — possibly with the intention of having one final stint as Indian captain. While Wadekar scored another 44, Pataudi scored a brilliant 73 and an unbeaten 14 (as India ambled to 86 for 6 for a victory) as India went 2-1 up in the series.

India, in an attempt to hold on to the lead, played with caution in the fourth Test at Kanpur. Wadekar top-scored with 90 and Pataudi scored 54; though there was no doubt that Wadekar, with his performance as captain, was the ideal leader, there were ominous signs that one big failure would mean that the prince may be back at the helm.

Wadekar made a dazzling 87 in the fifth Test at Kanpur (while Pataudi failed), once again missing out on a hundred, as India managed to draw the Test and take the series 2-1. It was his third score in the 80s (along with his four 90s); had they been converted to hundreds, he would have gained a greater stature as a batsman.

It didn’t really matter, though. Whatever doubts were there regarding India’s supremacy in world cricket had vanished by now. India were the best side in the world, and it was Wadekar who had led a combination of seniors and youngsters to reach them to the summit.

The slip

The slide started in 1974 — but before the ill-famed tour of England. It began in the Ranji Trophy semi-final against Karnataka. Prasanna won the toss, Gundappa Viswanath and Brijesh Patel scored hundreds, and Karnataka scored 385. Prasanna then bowled Gavaskar with a peach, which brought Wadekar — arguably the most feared of the contemporary batsmen in the Ranji circuit — to the crease. Bombay also lost Ramnath Parkar, but Wadekar and Ashok Mankad set up tent, and at 198 for 2, it seemed like déjà vu.

And then, as Mankad played one towards point, Wadekar called for a single, was sent back by Mankad, and as Sudhakar Rao threw the ball to Prasanna, the Bombay captain slipped and fell mid-pitch. Prasanna removed the bails off, and Wadekar was short of his crease. Prasanna and Chandra, contenders for a slot in the Indian team, bowled Bombay out for 307, and Karnataka had managed to eliminate Bombay. It was the first time since 1957-58 that Bombay would fail to clinch the Ranji title. They have still dominated the Ranji Trophy, but not to the extent they had for over a decade and a half.

That was probably the beginning of Wadekar’s fall. Things would only get worse from there.

Summer of 42

Things changed drastically after that. To begin with, Wadekar did not get Pandurang Salgaoncar for the tour; Salgaoncar, who had spent the summer in Alf Gover’s school and was the fastest bowler in the country, was overlooked. There was no Sardesai; Gavaskar had not scored a hundred since his first series; Viswanath was more of a dazzler than an accumulator; Wadekar had insisted on Pataudi’s inclusion, and had offered to relinquish his role as the captain if necessary: but Pataudi would not give in, and had withdrawn.

Additionally, there was a row between Wadekar and Bedi before the first Test. Bedi wanted Wadekar to talk to the Board to pay the cricketers more – but Wadekar saw this as a move for Bedi to form his own ‘camp’ in the side that already had Pataudi supporters. All in all, the series began in the foulest of moods.

Things did not improve when Prasanna, a staunch Pataudi supporter, had to be left out for the first Test. Wadekar had injured his finger, but his absence would have meant that the vice-captain Venkat would lead India — an idea that almost provoked a revolt. Wadekar took field with the injury, along with Farokh Engineer, who was nursing a minor injury as well — which meant that India fielded only 9 fit men at Old Trafford, and lost by 113 runs despite Gavaskar’s 101 — one of the greatest innings in his illustrious career.

The Ajit Wadekar-led India team lands at London Airport in April 1974. It was arguably the worst tour India for Indian cricket — on and off the field. © Getty Images
The Ajit Wadekar-led India team lands at London Airport in April 1974. It was arguably the worst tour India for Indian cricket — on and off the field. © Getty Images

Things turned for the worse at Lord’s. Chandra injured his finger in his tenth over, and did not bowl again in the Test. Prasanna, making a comeback to replace Venkat, toiled hard to take 6 wickets, but England still amassed 629. Things looked fine at 131 without loss before India collapsed to 302.

Though India were definitely the weaker side in the series, they have been putting up a fight throughout the series, and were not exactly humiliated. That changed when they were bowled out for 42 in 17 overs by Geoff Arnold and Chris Old, losing the Test by an innings and 285 runs. From heights never achieved before, India had fallen to an abysmal depth.

The tour was marred even further by the allegations of shoplifting on Sudhir Naik and an argument between the Indian team and the Indian High Commissioner.

The rout was completed at Edgbaston, when India scored 165 and 216 (to his credit Naik top-scored in the second innings with 77), and England won by an innings and 78 runs after losing only 2 wickets as they scored 459.

Wadekar’s house was stoned after the third Test, and the Vijay Balla was defaced. However, things did not stop at that. Wadekar resumed Ranji Trophy with a match against Saurashtra, where he made a very bold declaration (after 4 overs) in the second innings, and almost won the match outright.

A swift end

It was then that news broke out that Wadekar, the captain of the West Zone Duleep Trophy side, was dropped — for no apparent reason. A dejected, fuming Wadekar retired immediately from all First-Class cricket. The Board arranged for an impromptu benefit match, and that was that.

Later years

Wadekar served as the manager of the Indian team in the 1990s, forming an excellent bond with Mohammad Azharuddin, making India a formidable, virtually unbeatable, side at home. He suffered a minor heart-attack during India’s league match in the Austral-Asia Cup of 1994, but came back to manage and coach the national side again. His tenure lasted from 1992-93 to 1995-96.

After signing off as coach, he had a stint as the Chairman of the National Selection Committee in 1998-99 — making him only the second Indian cricketer (after Lala Amarnath) to assume the roles of captain, manager (or coach), and chairman of selectors.

Of late, Wadekar has been flooded by a deluge of awards — the Mother Teresa Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bombay University’s Sportsperson of the Year, Ruia College’s Jewel of Ruia Award, the Castrol Lifetime Achievement Award, and the biggest of all — BCCI’s CK Nayudu Lifetime Achievement Award.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ovshake and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)