Former India captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi brought to the fore the idea that playing for the country should bind a team together. Another captain of a style of his own, Ajit Wadekar, who led India to three consecutive Test series victories in the early 1970s, brought an inherent toughness in the way we approached the game with the quintessential ‘khadoos‘ approach to the game.
In 1971, Wadekar captained India to its first ever Test and subsequently series win against West Indies and later he captained the Indian team to its first-ever series victory in England. It would not be unfair to say that if Pataudi brought princely demeanour to leadership in the 1960s, Wadekar added a dash of middle-class stubbornness during the heady days of the early 1970s.
Wadekar was an astute thinker of the game with a copybook technique of the famed Bombay school of batsmanship. He played 37 Tests and made 2,113 runs with one century and 14 half-centuries, but it is those three consecutive series victories which will always hold a special place in the hearts of Indian cricket fans.
Numbers alone don’t reflect the attitudinal change Wadekar brought to the top. He made captaincy a coveted job and there emerged a certain toughness in the team to go beyond it’s brief. Earlier, Pataudi brought to the fore the idea of playing together as a team. His leading spinner, Bishan Singh Bedi, holds the former captain in extremely high regard because of that trait of the former. Wadekar, on the other hand, brought the toughness of Bombay – as it was known back then – cricket to the national setup and led the way by reposing faith in his batsmen and spinners to accomplish tough missions in the West Indies, England and at home.
It was the then chief selector, the late Vijay Merchant, who handed over the reins to Wadekar before the tours of the West Indies and England in 1971. People rarely had any expectations of the Indian team before foreign tours those days because of the lack of positive results for India overseas in those days.
Wadekar was lucky to have the prodigious Sunil Gavaskar make his debut in the series against West Indies and make an astonishing 774 runs. Add to it, his decision to form a four-pronged spin quartet with Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan. That attack formed the backbone of the Indian team. If Gavaskar was the hero in the West Indies along with the late Dilip Sardesai, Wadekar unleashed Chandrasekhar on the Englishmen during a time which could be aptly called ‘That 70s show’.
Wadekar was a product of the University cricketing grind of Bombay when education was equally, if not more, relevant as sports. His triple-hundred in the Vizzy Trophy (for West Zone Universities) record was incidentally broken by Gavaskar. He was perhaps the most elegant left-handed Indian batsman to have graced the field before a certain Sourav Ganguly arrived on the scene.
India’s tour of England in 1974 spelt the doom for Wadekar’s captaincy as India lost 0-3 to England in a three-Test series. India famously collapsed to a paltry 42 in the Lord’s Test of the 1974 series. Such was the irony that a giant bat erected in Indore commemorating the ’71 win was defaced and his house in Mumbai was stoned.
Wadekar retired from cricket and concentrated on his banking career. He reached the top position in State Bank of India and worked in a dedicated way there for the next many years.
In 1992, when India was going through an ebb in its performance, Wadekar was recalled as India’s head coach. He was the third formal appointee as coach after Bedi and Abbas Ali Baig. Earlier the position did not exist in Indian cricket and a manager was deemed to be sufficient enough for the cricketers to perform their duties.
But times were changing and there was a requirement to induct discipline and professionalism in the way cricketers approached their jobs, what with the influx of higher pay packages for them too making its way in. India played really well against the touring England side in 1993 and beat them comprehensively by a margin of 3-0 in the three-Test home series.
India subsequently entered a golden phase of being unbeatable at home with Wadekar unleashing three young spinners – Anil Kumble, Rajesh Chauhan and Venkatpathy Raju -on visiting teams in the mid-90s. It was an instant success formula and was a throwback to the era of the golden quartet of Indian cricket when Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan used to bamboozle batsmen around the world with their wizardry. Kumble went on to become the highest wicket-taker for his country in the years to come as he ended his career with 619 wickets from 132 Test matches.
Kumble credited Wadekar’s mentoring and the confidence shown by the former coach in his abilities in the initial years for his success, on his Twitter handle.
Deeply saddened by the passing away of #AjitWadekar He was more than a coach to the entire team – a father figure and a shrewd tactician. My heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones. He will be missed. Thank you Sir for the confidence shown in my ability!
The Government of India honoured him with the Arjuna Award (1967) and Padmashri (1972), India’s fourth highest civilian honour. He was also awarded the CK Nayudu Lifetime achievement award for his contribution to Indian cricket.
Wadekar’s demise is indeed a sad occasion for Indian cricket as it has lost one of its shrewdest tacticians to have graced the field in cricketing history who taught India how to win overseas.
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