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Ajit Agarkar, born on December 4, 1977, is a player whose career traversed unusual heights and depths. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at an enigma who had a career involving a medley of being selected and axed spanning over a decade.
Sharjah, 1998. When a mysteriously promoted Nikhil Chopra fell, India had to score 31 from 22 balls. They had three wickets in hand as Ajit Agarkar walked out to bat. This being the pre-T20 era, the match was as good as lost, but an Agarkar scored 26 in 12 balls to help India beat Sri Lanka with five balls to spare.
He was expensive earlier in the day, leaking boundaries and picking up two late wickets. But by the end of the day, he was a hero. That is the quintessential Agarkar for you. He had achieved feats that spanned both extremes. He rose to heights – especially in One-Day Internationals (ODIs) hitherto unknown to the world. He rushed to 50 ODI wickets in 23 ODIs, setting a new world record that was his own till Ajantha Mendis emulated the feat in 2009. At that stage he was possibly expected to fill the big shoes of Kapil Dev. Whippy, short and with a pace that seldom matched his fiery aggression, Agarkar impressed most critics in his first year despite being expensive, mostly due to his uncanny ability to pick up ODI wickets. Despite his rather smallish frame Agarkar could generate unexpected pace off a short run-up and had also learnt the art of reverse swinging the ball well.
Then, a year later, Agarkar toured Australia. He scored 19 in the first Test at Adelaide, but then began his famous string of ducks – starting with a first-ball duck in the second innings. He followed this with a king’s pair in Melbourne and then another golden duck in the first innings at Sydney – out five times in five balls. He somehow survived the first ball in the second innings, but he fell the very next ball. The run did not to end there. When Australia toured India a year later, Agarkar fell for a pair at Mumbai, thereby making it seven ducks in a row against the Australians!
Test hundred at Lord’s
Sandwiched between the two came his first real feat with the bat: he smashed the hapless Zimbabweans all over; he added 85 with Reetinder Sodhi in 39 balls, out of which he scored a 25-ball 67, pounding seven fours and four sixes. In the process he registered the fastest ODI fifty by an Indian – off a mere 21 balls, and completely wrecked the Zimbabwean attack, being especially harsh on Alistair Campbell, who was asked to bowl the final over. He finished the day with 3 for 26.
He had still not “arrived”, everyone said. A solitary performance against Zimbabwe proves nothing – ran the verdict. The next year – at the Mecca of cricket – India were up against the daunting task of chasing 568 for a victory. Walking out at 170 for six, Agarkar helped VVS Laxman add 126, and then, with nine wickets down for 334, Agarkar hit out as Ashish Nehra held fort, adding 63 for the last wicket, scoring a Test hundred at Lord’s in the process. Of his illustrious colleagues, only Sourav Ganguly (and years later, Rahul Dravid) have managed the feat. Just to prove the erratic nature of his career, the unbeaten 109 remains Agarkar’s only Test score above fifty. He followed the innings with an ODI 95 batting at No 3 against the West Indies later that year.
His revenge against the Australians came in 2003 at Adelaide. He had an ordinary first innings with the ball, despite taking two crucial wickets in Australia’s first innings score of 556. Then, after Dravid and Laxman lifted India to 523, Agarkar ran in with the new ball.
Justin Langer, Agarkar’s “bunny” (he fell to Agarkar five times in the series), was trapped leg-before; Ricky Ponting cut him hard to Aakash Chopra at point for a duck. Then, with the Australian score on 184 for six, Agarkar scythed through the rest of the line-up to bowl them out for 196; it was only fitting that he was at the crease when Dravid hit the winning stroke to pull off an Indian victory on Australian soil after over two decades. The six for 41 remains his only five-for in Test cricket. He followed it up with a six for 42 against the Australians at Melbourne in an ODI on the same tour.
Next year, Agarkar became the fastest to reach the milestone of 1,000 runs and 200 wickets in ODIs – a feat he reached in only 131 matches. And then, he faded away from the forefront, mostly due to lack of consistency and expensive bowling. With more and more new seamers appearing on the horizon to assist Zaheer Khan, Agarkar slowly faded into oblivion. His ODI career of 288 wickets – a tally next to only Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath among Indians – from 191 matches is quite impressive, and his bowling average of 27.85 is bettered by only Kapil Dev among Indians with 50 ODI wickets. However, an economy rate of over 5 and erratic performances meant that Agarkar could not retain his place in the Indian squad.
He continues to perform well in the domestic circuit, though. In the epic Ranji Trophy Final of 2010, he took 5 for 81 to bowl out Karnataka and clinch the match by the narrow margin of six runs. After being axed from the Mumbai side, he came back with a vengeance to lead his home side in both versions of the game. And amidst all this, he has not ruled out a comeback to the national side either.
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