Ajit Agarkar announced his retirement from all formats of the sport on October 16, 2013. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at the career of the enigmatic character of Indian cricket.
As Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, and Virat Kohli pulled off one of the most sensational run-chases in the history of One-Day Internationals (ODIs) on television I ransacked the internet to keep an eye on the records that tumbled in the process. Then it appeared — almost unbelievably — before my eyes.
I double-checked. No, it has really happened. Ajit Bhalchandra Agarkar has retired from all forms of cricket.
Throughout the 1990s the Englishmen were in pursuit of the next Ian Botham; the Indians counted on Ajit Agarkar to become the next Kapil Dev. He did not quite make there, but ended up achieving more than most Indian cricketers. Sheer numbers, however, are not enough to judge the impact Agarkar had on Indian cricket at the turn of the millennium.
We had heard that he was a top-order batsman in his early days; what we saw was a medium-fast bowler instead. He had a slender frame, bore an indecipherable expression on his face, had a smooth action, and looked anything but intimidating as he ran in to bowl in a loose, unassuming action.
For a man of his physique he could be deceptively fast at times; he was wayward at times, and yet — somehow he managed to pick up a lot of wickets, especially in the shorter version of the sport; Agarkar was the fastest man to reach 50 ODI wickets — in just 23 matches (though the record has been bettered by Ajantha Mendis subsequently).
Also a decent batsman he reached the 1,000 run-200 wickets double in only 131 ODIs — the fastest in the world to do so. He played with a bat so straight and could hit the ball so cleanly that it was a surprise that he did not turn out to be a full-fledged all-rounder; he was also an outstanding out-fielder — possibly the best in India among fast bowlers since Kapil.
Other than Anil Kumble he is the only Indian to have picked up six-fors in both Tests and ODIs; he has scored a Test hundred at Lord’s; and his 21-ball 50 remains the fastest by an Indian. His ODI bowling average of 27.85 and strike rate of 32.9 (the best by an Indian) are phenomenal numbers. Combine that a batting strike rate of 80.6 and you get a top-quality bowling all-rounder. He also led Mumbai to the Ranji Trophy last season.
Ducks in Australia
Agarkar conceded over five runs an over in a pre-Twenty20 era; his Test bowling average read a sub-par 47.32; he managed to get out five times in five balls in the Australian tour of 1999-2000 (19 and a golden duck at Adelaide; a king’s pair at the Melbourne Cricket Ground; and a golden duck at Sydney Cricket Ground) before scoring a two-ball duck in the second innings.
His ‘run’ continued as he managed another pair in his next innings against Australia – this time at home, making it seven ducks in a row. Then he got a run off a Stuart MacGill on Australian soil in his next outing against them – and boy, was he relieved! It was the greatest Agarkar smile the world of cricket has seen in a long time.
The Gabba rose to its feet and applauded loudly; had there been a passer-by just outside the stadium he would probably have taken it for a significant career milestone. Then he did something that only a man with a sense of humour could have: he raised his bat in acknowledgement. A few days later he demolished Australia at Adelaide with six for 41, and was quite aptly at the crease when Rahul Dravid hit the winning runs to pull off an extraordinary victory.
But these are about the numbers and moments. What of the man, then? Agarkar played cricket for India when they were outplayed in all formats of the sport (after a moderately successful 1998) — especially outside Asia. Even in the subcontinent they were beaten black and blue by the Sri Lankans, especially in the absence of the injured Javagal Srinath.
Agarkar had not arrived as a messiah; he never gave the image that he would run through the opposition, or even confine them to a low total; agreed, he picked up wickets, but was wayward, and was often taken for plenty. However, one cannot take away the one aspect that set him apart from a lot of Indian bowlers who would be only too happy to pick up a third of Agarkar’s tally: he had attitude.
Agarkar never shied from taking it to the giants. His inaccurate line and length often meant that he went for runs, but he was never one to take his eyes away from the batsman irrespective of whoever he was. Perhaps the attitude was a product of the competitiveness that formed an essential part of his growing up in his Mumbai days; perhaps it had to do with the fact that he was a rare quality fast bowler in Mumbai – the champion of all Indian states — but not really known to produce quicks.
He did make his presence felt on the ground. His slight build perhaps did not reveal it, but he could be as aggressive as anyone; his smooth run-up seemed to be all of calm, but the fire in his eyes was unmistakable; he would come back at the batsman, bowl all over the place and get smacked, but eventually would end up producing that one good ball which would find the edge and seek refuge in the eager gloves behind the batsman.
His eyes would light up. The fist would punch the air. The celebration would not be anything extravagant — but those eyes would light up for a few seconds in joy; and then, if it was a really good day, his mouth would curl into the unmistakably innocent minuscule smile.
By the time India’s glory days had begun Agarkar was not a certainty in the side anymore. He was not a part of the Indian success story of the 2000s; however, he tried his level best to hold the Indian flag aloft during the dark days of Indian cricket, during those overseas defeats, the cloud of match-fixing, the innumerable controversies, and the lack of a penetrating bowling attack.
He did not win India as many matches he could have; in fact, his inaccuracy was often scorned at; but he was an amicable character and an honest trier. The Indian supporters, despite cringing at the wides, no-balls, long-hops, and full-tosses, still waited patiently because they knew – they always knew – that the one special delivery was always around the corner.
Agarkar’s tale was much more than one of unfulfilled promise. There were sporadic success stories punctuated by too many failures for comfort, but as he hoped he would be able to unleash that one skiddy snorter or that one special out-swinger, so did we. He was not one of those heroes this cricket-crazy nation worshipped mindlessly day in and day out. He was, instead, one of us.
We will miss you, Ajit Agarkar. We have too many memories associated with you.
(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 Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/