Remembering Ajit Wadekar: Indian Cricket’s Agent of Change
Former Indian captain Ajit Wadekar passed away on Wednesday, 15 August, in Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital.
What was Indian cricket’s best moment ever? If this question was posed to today’s generation, the answers would probably be: 1983 World Cup, 2011 World Cup etc.
Not many would venture to dig deep and actually churn out what was really the turning point of Indian cricket. That moment came much earlier in the summer of 1971 when India achieved the unthinkable. India won not one but two away Test series in the same year for the first time ever in West Indies and England.
We yearn for a Test match win abroad these days, but those were the times when even winning a Test at home or away was a privilege. So for India to win not one, but two away Test series, was the stuff of legends.
India had earlier won its first-ever Test series away from home in New Zealand in 1967 under the legendary Tiger Pataudi.
But by 1971, Pataudi’s stocks had fallen and in fact he was cast aside as captain and a player for the West Indies tour of 1971 by the famous casting vote of the then chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant.
Pataudi was replaced as captain by a Bombay man, Ajit Laxman Wadekar.
A member of the champion Bombay Ranji Trophy team, Wadekar was a typical street smart cricketer who had cut his teeth the hard way in the maidaans of Bombay.
In that sense, he was cut from a different cloth than Pataudi, who was the royal who lorded over Indian cricket in the 1960s.
India entered a new era with a bunch of young players including newcomers like Sunil Gavaskar, apart from some known faces like the famed spinners, Eknath Solkar, Farokh Engineer and Gundappa Viswanath.
A New Era of Cricket
India’s new era began in grand style with the win in West Indies.
It is considered an epoch-making moment in Indian cricket’s history, because winning in the West Indies till the 1960s was considered an insurmountable task. In fact India had never won a Test against West Indies in 23 matches in five previous series at home or away since 1948-49, because West Indies were that superior.
The 1971 West Indies team in that sense still had champions like Lance Gibbs, Rohan Kanhai, Clive Lloyd, Sir Garfield Sobers, but it did not carry the aura of the past. The Lloyd era of dominance was still some time away too. Yet, to win a Test match, let alone a series against the country was a massive moment for Indian cricket.
Wadekar was shrewd in his handling of the team. He outwitted his rival Sobers in every way. Gavaskar, to date, narrates stories from the 1971 tour to West Indies about Wadekar’s superstitions.
India’s famous and first-ever Test win over West Indies and that too at the Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Oval, also marked the grand entry of Gavaskar. Indian cricket never looked back from that moment. India returned to a famous welcome in Mumbai, only to be replicated much later with the World Cup win in 1983 and the 2007 World Twenty20 win.
Months later in 1971, India was off again, but this time to England to play the then number one side of the world. Led by Ray Illingworth, England was considered to be the then hot side in world cricket.
No one thought India could beat the former colonial masters on what were predicted to be green seaming tracks. However, the team proved all the doubters wrong, thanks to the shrewd leadership of Wadekar, who once again used his spinners brilliantly. In particular, his handling of his best weapon, the freakish Bhagwat Chandrasekhar proved to be a masterstroke.
Wadekar’s leadership was also aided by brilliant close-in catching of Solkar, Abid Ali, Srinivas Venkatraghavan and the captain himself. This would prove to be the hallmark of his captaincy.
Once again the citizens of Delhi and Mumbai turned out in full numbers to welcome Wadekar’s men. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi too gave an audience. The year of 1971 is therefore the most important and landmark moment for Indian cricket romantics.
Indian Cricket ‘Ungrateful’ in its Handling of Wadekar
However, Indian cricket was ungrateful in its handling of Wadekar. The man who was the toast of the nation in 1971 was completely vilified in 1974 when India were whitewashed in England 0-3, which also included the famous 42 all-out.
It was one of the most unforgettable tours by India, with the current one competing to be ranked alongside it. One of the many moments off the field that India experienced, was being asked to ‘get out’ by the then Indian High Commissioner BK Nehru from a party at his residence in London. Wadekar bore the brunt of the High Commissioner’s fury for turning up a little late for a party in the honour of the side.
The result of India’s loss was felt personally by Wadekar, who lost his place in the West Zone side on his return and thereafter in the Bombay side.
He retired immediately from all forms of cricket, completely broken by the experience. It was quite unfair, the treatment meted out to him, but Indian cricket and its fans can be brutal.
Return as Cricket Manager
He was then a forgotten man for Indian cricket till 1992, which is when he made a grand return as the Cricket Manager.
Since 1990, Indian cricket had employed former cricketers like Bishen Bedi, Ashok Mankad and Abbas Ali Baig as Cricket Managers (Head Coach in today’s lexicon). The then captain Mohammad Azharuddin had a fall-out with Bedi on the 1990 England tour and felt Indian cricket did not need a permanent Cricket Manager.
It was the first big Captain-Coach spat of Indian cricket, which is very rarely remembered these days.
But Azhar changed his view when Wadekar came along in September 1992 on the historic first-ever tour of South Africa. Azhar and Wadekar struck a famous partnership, which lasted till March 1996. Wadekar, much like his days as captain of India, brought spin and close-in fielding back into focus. Anil Kumble really came into his own under Wadekar, when he spun India to famous wins in that golden phase from 1993-1995, albeit at home.
Unlike today, when the captain is the boss both on and off the field, Wadekar read the riot act as Cricket Manager. He famously introduced a Code of Conduct for the Indian cricket team, which became a talking point in 1993.
Much like his captaincy, Wadekar was at the centre of a change in Indian cricket with a number of seniors moving away when he came along. The fact that the likes of Ravi Shastri, Kapil Dev, Kiran More, Krish Srikkanth were either on their way out or retiring, helped Wadekar forge a new path for Indian cricket.
Sachin Tendulkar’s rise coincided with Wadekar’s tenure, including his birth as an ODI opener in 1994.
Wadekar’s tough approach also meant that he cracked the whip when required, like when he was instrumental in dropping Manoj Prabhakar and Nayan Mongia for a spell of slow batting in 1994 at Kanpur. When he suffered a heart scare in 1994 at Sharjah during the Australasia Cup, the entire squad was affected by it, such was the impact he had on the side.
His stint with Indian cricket as Cricket Manager ended in tears, most famously signified by Vinod Kambli, after that infamous loss in the 1996 World Cup semi-final. Azhar, who did not want a full-time Cricket Manager, was now all for one and that too only Wadekar.
Return as Chairman of Selectors
Wadekar returned to Indian cricket as a selector and then as the chairman of selectors in 1998.
But this was not as successful a phase as his stints as Captain and Cricket Manager had been.
There were quite a few faux pas with players’ names being confused and the wrong players being chosen. He had to finally take a call of sacking his protégé Azhar as captain after the 1999 World Cup, and hand over the role back to Tendulkar.
That was the last time Wadekar was actively involved in Indian cricket in any capacity. In his over 30-year tenure in various capacities, he contributed a lot. Years later in 2004 he turned a columnist with the ghost writer being yours truly. By then his observations got a bit dated with all his replies juxtaposed against the highs of 1971.
The fact that 1971 stayed in his memory for that long, should also be a clue of how we should all remember him.
Indian cricket owes him a debt for repackaging its brand not once but twice. The only way to do that would be to launch an Ajit Wadekar Project, the aim of which should be to plan how we can win Test matches and series abroad consistently.
Nothing can be a bigger tribute to the man than that.
(Chandresh Narayanan is former cricket writer with The Times of India, The Indian Express, ex-Media Officer for ICC and current media manager of Delhi Daredevils. He is also the author of World Cup Heroes, Cricket Editorial consultant, professor and cricket TV commentator.)
Subscribe To Our Daily Newsletter And Get News Delivered Straight To Your Inbox.