This article was first published on August 16, 2018 and it’s being reshared today (April 1,2020) on Ajit Wadekar’s birth anniversary.
Indian cricket suffered a major loss on Wednesday as Ajit Wadekar, the first man to lead India to a series win in England, passed away at 77 due to a prolonged illness in Mumbai. Incidentally, Wadekar’s death comes at a time when the Indian team is desperately seeking answers to compete, even if only for a single Test, on the current tour of the British Isles.
As legend has it, the late Wadekar was happily taking a nap on the massage table as Abid Ali scored the winning runs to secure India’s famous win at The Oval in 1971 over Raymond Illingworth’s men. But Wadekar always did it in his own style. He was an elegant left-hander who liked to score quickly, for his time. And once he took over the captaincy from Tiger Pataudi, he led the team in his own way.
In an interview a few years ago, Wadekar would narrate a charming anecdote about the time he took over from the Nawab, who at that time had already gained legendary status. Wadekar would reveal how he wasn’t even expecting to be picked for the West Indies tour in 1971 and quipped, “Please ensure I’m in the team,” to Pataudi. Only to find out that not only would he make it to the Caribbean but also be captain. And before his team made history in England, they recorded their maiden series win against Garry Sobers’ star-studded XI to put to rest the myth of them being bad travellers.
It was under Wadekar’s captaincy that the legend of Sunil Gavaskar, who made his debut on that 1971 tour of the Caribbean, was born and it was when Wadekar was coach that Sachin Tendulkar took his first steps towards becoming a legend in the early-to-mid 90s. He was if anything a legend-maker.
Wadekar was also responsible for the ‘trial by spin’ that Indian teams would enforce upon all comers to devastating effect. He did it initially while holding the reins in the 1970s when he had the likes of Bishan Singh Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkatraghavan and Erapalli Prasanna at his disposal. He would later use the same strategy to turn India into a indomitable force at home in the 1990s, this time utilising the trio of Anil Kumble, Venkatpathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan to send every visiting team packing on pitches that would be heavily tailored in favour of the spinners.
India prevailed over England, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and New Zealand at home in that phase. The lone series win away from home came across the Palk Straits in 1993, while the West Indies managed to leave India with a drawn series in 1994-95. India also triumphed in the five-nation Hero Cup tournament it hosted in 1993 during his stint.
“My only weapon was spin and I had to get the best out of them,” he would say in an interview later in life. And he did get the best out of them. Amazingly he did so even away from home, and it was his spin quartet that played a huge role in two of India’s most famous overseas series wins.
He followed the twin triumphs in 1971 with a series victory at home against England, but a return to that country in 1974 brought a premature end to his captaincy and playing career as India were thrashed 0-3 in typical English conditions. It included the infamous 42 all out in the second Test at Lord’s. Wadekar was made the scapegoat for that debacle and forced into premature retirement at the age of 33.
As a No. 3 batsmen, his numbers are not extraordinary, with an average of just over 31. His lone hundred in 31 Tests coming against New Zealand in Wellington in 1968, a knock that set up a rare overseas victory. In fact, the 1967-69 period was his most productive phase as a batsman, which he couldn’t replicate after becoming captain. His 14 Test fifties include a 99 against Australia in Melbourne in 1968, 91 against England at Leeds (1967) and 85 against the same opposition at Lord’s in 1971.
Later in life, he developed a reputation of being an affable coach, despite being the first man in-charge to bring in a curfew system within the team. The likes of Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli never wasted a chance to take liberties with their coach – often having meals on his tab in hotels on overseas tours – even if they respected him dearly. He would often quip about how he could “be next” whenever you would call him for a few final words whenever one of his contemporaries would pass away in the last few years. Wadekar, like he used to be at the crease, stood firm and will always be remembered as the man who brought in a sense of stability to Indian cricket both as captain and coach, and also played a huge role in helping it create its own identity on the world stage.