Some years back, while conversing over the phone, Ajit Wadekar recounted a prank he had played on Brian Johnston during India’s tour of England in 1971. The great broadcaster had requested for an interview to which the India captain readily agreed. On the date of the interview, as the microphone was turned on and camera rolled, Wadekar suddenly started saying: “Me, English. I no speak English.” Johnston was completely flummoxed before discovering that he was at the receiving end of a practical joke. Over the harmless prank and the subsequent retake, a friendship was forged that lasted till Johnston’s passing away in January 1994. Wadekar had a great sense of humour.
Back then, cricketers and cricket correspondents used to complement each other. Their relationships thrived on mutual respect. Things have changed now, but that’s a different issue. Gundappa Viswanath has recently recovered from a serious illness. It was deep into the evening on Independence Day when news came from Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital that Wadekar had breathed his last. Necessity knows no law or decorum and even though it was 10.40 pm, a reaction from the former batting great became the need of the hour.
Viswanath had already retired, but after being informed about his former captain’s death, he spoke for close to 15 minutes. He described Wadekar as a “good-natured and quiet” person, reminiscing those triumphant tours of the West Indies and England in 1971 and how he and Sunil Gavaskar — callow newcomers then — benefitted from Wadekar’s captaincy. “Ajit made sure there was no division between the seniors and the juniors. He brought the whole team under one roof.” Gavaskar, too, paid a glowing and emotional tribute to his captain. “Ajit Wadekar was my captain when I made my debut for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy and he was my skipper when I got my India cap. So, for me, he was always ‘captain’,” the Little Master wrote.
Wadekar made a late entry into international cricket — after almost seven years of first-class cricket and a mountain of runs. He became the captain by chance. M Dutta Ray from East Zone couldn’t attend the meeting and in a reduced, four-man selection panel it was tied 2-2 between Wadekar and Tiger Pataudi. Dutta Ray’s presence would have clinched it for the latter, but then chairman of the selectors Vijay Merchant’s casting vote went in Wadekar’s favour. Pataudi was out as captain and also out of the team. The unthinkable had happened in the boardroom. A few months later, India achieved the unthinkable on the field under their new leader. Some cricket reporters of the 1970s used to swear by Pataudi — this correspondent had the ‘privilege’ of working with one of them when he was nearing the end of an illustrious career.
They didn’t take kindly to the Nawab’s ouster and the elevation of someone from the middle-class who learned his cricket at the Bombay maidans. The Pataudi loyalists wore a cynic’s hat. Make no mistake, this column in no way intends to denigrate the late Tiger Pataudi. He gave Indian cricket its self-respect. Also, Pataudi and Wadekar were always on good terms. But a section of the cricket press tried to create a chasm, albeit unsuccessfully. After India had won in the West Indies and England, cynics coined the phrase, ‘lucky captain’, for Wadekar. It was as unjust as it was disrespectful. They ‘rejoiced’ after the summer of ’74 in England, making Wadekar the scapegoat and almost forcing him into an early retirement.
Wadekar had been accused of having no stomach for a fight. Someone who had asked Garry Sobers to follow on in the first Test in the Caribbean in 1971 and then hooked the fearsome John Snow for four consecutive boundaries in the first Test in England a few months hence had been branded ‘defeatist’ after one bad series. Laughable! Wadekar, though, didn’t bear any grudge against anyone. How do you define good captaincy? This correspondent had once asked the late Raj Singh Dungarpur. Raj bhai’s reply was to the point: “It’s about how you handle your bowlers and pre-empt situations.” In 1971, at Port of Spain, with Sobers and Clive Lloyd at the crease, Wadekar had brought on Salim Durani, who accounted for the two batsmen in successive deliveries.
The skipper’s tactical masterstroke proved to be a game-changer. A few weeks later, at the Oval, Wadekar had unleashed BS Chandrasekhar against the mighty England batting in the second innings and the leg-spinner returned with six for 38 to set up India’s victory. Interestingly, Bishan Bedi was given only one over in that innings. Wadekar used Srinivas Venkataraghavan from the other end instead who kept things tight, conceding just 44 runs and taking two wickets in his 20 overs. Calling those moves lucky punts would border on the moronic. Wadekar had always been a shrewd captain. The summer of upheaval, the 1974 tour of England, was an accident waiting to happen. Nothing went right for India. Bedi reportedly refused to bowl to his captain’s instructions.
Two senior cricketers almost came to blows in the dressing room. Sudhir Naik had been accused of shoplifting. The then Indian high commissioner in the UK chastised the team for turning up a little late for an official dinner at the high commission. To make matters worse, India were 42 all-out in the second innings of the second Test at Lord’s. The Wadekar-bashers lapped up the opportunity. They managed to make enough impact, as the West Zone selection committee dropped the India captain from the Duleep Trophy squad. Wadekar’s response to the humiliation was a dignified retirement. PS: As the India coach in the early 1990s, not only did Wadekar help Mohammad Azharuddin settle into the captaincy groove and nurtured Sachin Tendulkar’s genius, he also created a template — spin-punch on rank turners on home soil. The template is still unabashedly followed when India play Test matches at home.