England made the legend of Ajit Wadekar the captain, and England marred it as well. Having tamed Garry Sobers’ mighty West Indies in his maiden series as captain in the Caribbean, the Mumbai man led India to a famous 1-0 series triumph over England the following series in the same year (1971) that catapulted his standing in Indian cricket to great heights. While MAK Pataudi presided over India’s first overseas series win (3-1 against New Zealand in 1967-68), Wadekar, who passed away in Mumbai on India’s 72nd Independence Day aged 77, helmed the country’s first away wins over West Indies and England.
The heady days of 1971, however, were well beyond him by the time India travelled to England in 1974. The dressing room was a divided house and the off-field controversies did little to bring sanity into the group. India lost the series 3-0, including the Lord’s Test where they were bowled out for their lowest ever total of 42 – a blot that stands out as much as Wadekar’s shining feats. Wadekar never played for India again after the series and retired at a young age of 33, with Pataudi wresting the captaincy. It was a sad end to a glowing captaincy career that has been equalled only by Rahul Dravid, who too led India to series wins in the West Indies and England between 2006 and 2007.
As a batsman, Wadekar was underwhelming but few can lay claim to the greatness he achieved as captain in a short period. Victory over Ray Illingworth’s England, scripted by the brilliance of leg-spin legend BS Chandrasekhar at The Oval, raised Wadekar’s stock. From February 1971 to July 1974 -- sandwiched between two of Pataudi’s stints as captain – Wadekar did enough to etch his name as one of the finest leaders Indian cricket has produced, and while his numbers as a Test batsman (2113 runs in 37 Tests at an average of 31.07) belie his reputation as one of the best of his time from India, he was one of the most celebrated captains in the country. Long before Saurav Ganguly was credited with ‘teaching India how to win away’, Wadekar had done it in his quiet, efficient way.
Chosen as the captain by virtue of a casting vote by then chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant (the casting vote was necessitated as the selection panel was split on whether to retain Pataudi as captain or not), Wadekar inherited a fine team built by Pataudi. Barring Sunil Gavaskar, who made his debut in the 1971 West Indies series, K Jayantilal and wicketkeeper P Krishnamurthy, the rest of the squad was molded by Pataudi and primed to surprise the world. Wadekar was perhaps in the right place at the right time to get the right results and that’s probably why he was often referred to as the ‘lucky captain’ but ‘nothing can be farther from the truth’, says his long-time team-mate, rival and colleague G R Viswanath.
“You can’t be just lucky and win three important series in a row (including the one against England at home in 1972-73),” pointed out the Karnataka stalwart. “Of course he was soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but he knew what he was saying and doing. He was very shrewd and he showed that in his captaincy. I wouldn’t say we won solely because of his captaincy (on the field) but also because of the way he handled that team. My first tour itself was under him and it was a lovely experience for me personally.” Viswanath described Wadekar as one of the best left-handed batsmen and a touch artiste. Coming from Viswanath, himself one of the most stylish batsmen, that’s a big compliment.
“His bat never went above the shoulder after a drive like any typical left-hander,” he pointed out. “For him, a drive was just a forward defensive push; whether he defended or drove, nobody knew. There was no exaggerated follow-through. The ball went exactly where he wanted it to. He scored tons of runs, I don’t think anyone scored as many runs before playing for India. In my early days, whenever Bombay played, I always looked at how many runs Wadekar had scored and invariably it would be a 100. I still feel he should have played for the country much earlier than he did.”
As with every captain, Wadekar’s reign wasn’t without selection controversies. His choice of S Venkataraghavan over the more accomplished off-spinner EAS Prasanna in England raised many eyebrows, and perhaps justifiably so. Prasanna had raced to 100 wickets in just 20 Tests by then and the snub obviously didn’t go down well with the Karnataka magician. Prasanna, though, nurses no bitter feelings now. He says it was all sorted and ‘we carried on’.
“He was an excellent human being but unfortunately, he was very soft-hearted. He never believed in saying no and that was his weakness,” Prasanna observed. “And because of this nature, he had to concede many directives from people. That said, he was a godsend for Indian cricket because he took the game to a different platform which is being cashed in on by people today,” he noted.
So then, did he discuss his omission with Wadekar ever?
“Despite whatever happened (between us), we still had a cordial relationship. And also, I understood that certain decisions that he had to take, he took them because of circumstances. We did discuss the 1971 issue, and his answer was ‘anybody in my position would have done the same’.” In his second stint with the Indian team as its cricket manager, Wadekar forged a winning alliance at home alongside skipper Mohammad Azharuddin. And not unlike during his captaincy days when he used the famous spin quartet to pull off wins, he was instrumental in adopting the same strategy to pulverise every visiting team. With the leg-spinning legend Anil Kumble leading the charge and Venkatapathi Raju and Rajesh Chauhan playing the support cast, India became an unbeatable force in home conditions for much of the 1990s.
Wadekar was a giant of Indian cricket and donned many hats – player, administrator, selector, coach/manager. It is, however, as captain that his legacy will endure.