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On March 2, 1968 Ajit Wadekar scored a dominating 143 to help India take lead over New Zealand in the series. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at an innings that went on to define the course of a historic series for India.
Though India had won the first Test at Dunedin by five wickets, the hosts came back strongly to win the second one at Christchurch by six wickets. The four-Test series hung in the balance as the teams headed for Wellington.
India had never won an overseas series till then. They had hardly even come close to achieving that target. Here, too, they had taken the series lead, but had almost squandered the opportunity to have that elusive series victory by losing the second Test. The situation looked even more doomed when Graham Dowling won the third toss in a row, and decided to bat for the third time in the series.
Rusi Surti, that fine left-arm seamer, provided with the early breakthroughs. He took the first two as New Zealand were reeling at 33 for three, and then his third as the Kiwis lost Keith Thomson; 88 for 4, and Vic Pollard walked out to join Mark Burgess. The two set up camp on the Basin Reserve pitch, and serious attritional cricket followed.
Bapu Nadkarni — the undisputed Shylock of Indian cricket — sent down over after over with relentless accuracy. At the other end, Erapalli Prasanna tested the batsmen with the mystery of his flight and turns. And due to Bishan Singh Bedi not being available for more than two overs, ML Jaisimha tied down the New Zealand batsmen with his off-breaks. The Kiwis crawled to 147 for 4 at stumps, managed to survive against some quality bowling.
They could not hold the Indian spinners back for long, though. As Nadkarni held one end up, Prasanna kept on taking wickets. After Burgess was caught off Prasanna for 60 and Pollard off Nadkarni, Prasanna ran through the rest. New Zealand collapsed to 186. Prasanna took 5 for 32 — including a spell of 5 for 19 in 10.2 overs — to finish the good work done by Surti on the first morning.
India lost Abid Ali early, but the left-handed Ajit Wadekar joined Farokh Engineer at the crease, and decided to put his head down as Engineer opened up. Richard Collinge, Dick Motz, and Bruce Taylor moved the ball around, but Wadekar dealt with them ease as Engineer began to play his strokes.
The partnership added 60 runs before Engineer was unfortunately run out for 44 in 77 balls. He hit seven fours and laid a solid foundation for Wadekar and the others to capitalise on. Surti did not last long, but Wadekar found a dependable ally in his captain, Tiger Pataudi.
Wadekar was already a big name in the domestic, but was yet to establish himself on the international scene. He realised that this was his best shot at establishing himself firmly at the top level, and batted with great composure to reach a well-compiled fifty. Pataudi supported him ably, and when the captain edged one off Taylor, India were 23 runs behind.
In walked Chandu Borde, who had by then metamorphosed from an all-rounder to a specialist batsman. He saw India to 186, the New Zealand first-innings score, when Collinge had him caught-behind. Jaisimha, once an aggressive cavalier opener, had to play a supporting role to Wadekar; he stuck to an uncharacteristic role as India reached 200 for five at stumps with Wadekar on 78 and Jaisimha on five.
The third day saw a change in Wadekar’s approach. He left behind all his diligence after the initial minutes, and began to play a flurry of strokes. Jaisimha stuck to his task, and soon the moment arrived. Wadekar became the fifth Indian left-hander to score a Test hundred, and the second — after Salim Durrani’s 104 at Port-of-Spain in 1961-62 — to do so overseas.
As Wadekar played with authority, Dowling went to a defensive mode. That did not stop the elegant left-hander from playing his strokes. He soon went past Bapu Nadkarni’s 122 not out at England at Kanpur in 1963-64 to register the highest score by an Indian left-handed batsman.
Meanwhile, Jaisimha fell for 30, scored out of a partnership of 70 with the junior batsman. Nadkarni perished soon, and with Venkataraman Subramanya as the only batsman of some reputation, Wadekar shifted to the top gear. He finally fell for 143, giving Roy Hartford his fifth catch. Subramanya slogged around a bit and remained stranded on 32 as the Indian innings finally ended at 327, 141 runs ahead.
Somewhat mysteriously, Dowling ordered the pitch to be rolled by a seven-ton roller between innings. As a result the ball spat from a good length from the very beginning, and Pataudi summoned his spinners early in the innings. Despite a 35-run first-wicket partnership, Nadkarni took three quick wickets to reduce them to 49 for three.
Burgess joined Congdon, and the two used their feet brilliantly against the Indian spinners. Prasanna and Bedi bowled well, but the star of the day was definitely Nadkarni. It was a keen contest between the three Indian spinners and two batsmen who not only stuck to their task, but also kept on scoring runs.
Congdon eventually reached his fifty, but Bedi soon snared him just before stumps on day three. New Zealand managed to save the innings defeat before close of play as Burgess reached his second fifty of the Test; they finished the day two runs ahead, with six wickets in hand, and if they had managed to put up a decent partnership the next morning, they were in with a chance.
They could not. Nadkarni picked up Thomson for a blob. Taylor decided to hit out, but Nadkarni got Burgess out of the way pretty soon. He had now taken five of the top six wickets with a miserly economic rate, and had kept the pressure on with a relentless accuracy. As the tail was exposed to Prasanna, he simply ran through them. Nadkarni took another wicket and finished with amazing figures of 30-12-43-6, and New Zealand collapsed to 199.
With 59 to get, Abid Ali began a furious assault, scoring 36 with seven boundaries. Wadekar was there during the winning hit, and India romped home with eight wickets in hand, reaching the target in 13.3 overs.
What happened next?
Brief scores: New Zealand 186 (Mark Burgess 66; Erapalli Prasanna 5 for 32) and 199 (Mark Burgess 60, Bevan Congdon 51; Bapu Nadkarni 6 for 43) lost to India 327 (Ajit Wadekar 143, Farokh Engineer 44) and 59 for 2 by 8 wickets.
(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)
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