NEW DELHI: Ajit Wadekar, who skippered India to historic away triumphs against the West Indies and England in 1971, passed away at a Mumbai hospital on Wednesday. He was 77 and ailing for a while.
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“He is never nervous or embarrassed by crisis,” wrote Vijay Merchant in the foreword to Wadekar’s autobiography, My Cricketing Years. When India was making painful progress over England in the decisive Oval Test, most Indian supporters were in a state of high anxiety. But Wadekar was in deep slumber.
“It is no secret that I was fast asleep during India’s finest hour. The cheering and the excitement of our supporters at the Oval did not disturb me. Alex Bannister of The Daily Mail put it neatly when he wrote, “Like Montgomery before Alamein, he had laid his plans in advance and retired to confident sleep,” said Wadekar in his autobiography, which was narrated to sports journalist KN Prabhu. He had scored 48 and 45 in the match. Among Indians only Dilip Sardesai (54 and 40) had scored more.
Apart from wrenching out two hard-fought 1-0 series wins against Gary Sobers-led Carribeans and Ray Illingworth’s England, Wadekar also led India to a 2-1 victory in a tightly contested series against Tony Lewis’ visiting side in 1972-73. No Indian skipper had achieved hat-trick of series triumphs before.
As a southpaw who batted at No 3, Wadekar was unfazed by the speed merchants. Few Indian batsmen could honestly claim that. He could hook and pull the fearsome and the fastest, even Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, with relish. When on song, there was ‘a relaxed silkiness’ to his batting that seduced pundits and spectators alike. During his time he was also among the sharpest catchers (46 in 37 Tests) in the slips.
Wadekar scored 2,113 runs at an average of 31.07. He had just a solitary Test century to his name. The Bombay batsman was often a victim of the nervous Nineties; three times to be precise, including once at 99 against Australia in Melbourne in 1967. But he scored a composed unbeaten 91 to secure India a rare triumph at Feroze Shah Kotla in Delhi against Bill Lawry’s dominant side in 1969.
His lone ton, 143, came against New Zealand in Wellington a year earlier for another winning cause. India won that series 3-1, its first away win from home. New Zealand cricket writer Dick Brittenden wrote in the Wisden, “Wadekar at Wellington gave his side the long and thoughtful innings that was needed.” On both these occasions, India was led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the man Wadekar would replace at the helm, on the basis of chairman Merchant’s casting vote after the selectors had tied.
“He set an excellent example in discipline and team work and by persuasion and sociable nature was able to extract full co-operation and the best effort from them (the team members). He never threw his weight about just because he was the captain and never split the team into groups or parties. He knew how to handle men and his players learnt to respect him not only for his cricketing ability but also for his captaincy and gentlemanliness,” wrote Merchant in the same foreword.
Funnily, Wadekar was scared of taking injections. “I can hardly bear taking an injection…I would rather face a bouncer from Snow, Dowe or even Lillee,” said the cricketer, whose felicity with mathematics earned him a job with the State Bank of India.
His departure from international cricket, sadly, was ignominious after India’s crushing 3-0 loss to England in the controversial tour of 1974. It didn’t help that he had also lost batting form. “…the vindictiveness with which the Indian cricket administrators pursued him was quite staggering,” wrote Mihir Bose in A History of Indian Cricket.
Much later, Wadekar enjoyed a successful comeback to the spotlight as manager of the national squad. Mohd Azharuddin was the captain then. But most would always remember him as the leader who gave millions of Indian cricket lovers their happiest moments in the 1970s.
Ajit Wadekar will be remembered for his rich contribution to Indian cricket. A great batsman & wonderful captain, h… https://t.co/BMS06xvCEV
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi)