A simple guy who loved playing cricket

It was impossible to get upset with Ajit Wadekar, he just had that knack of winning people over. He will be missed greatly for they don’t make people like him anymore.

Ajit Wadekar and Sunil Gavaskar during the England tour of 1971.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

To the internet generation the name Ajit Wadekar may not mean much, but to those especially from Mumbai who grew up in the 1960s and 70s he was one of the greats of Indian cricket. Sheer numbers don’t do him any justice for he didn’t have the 40-plus average which was seen as the gold standard in those days. But those who saw him bat will vouch for the fact that he was easily one of India’s best batsmen back then.

He was so consistent in the Ranji and Duleep Trophy matches when they were fiercely competitive and not the ‘help yourself to triple centuries’ as is the case now. The fact that triple centuries were so rare those days gives one an idea of how good the attacks were then. Not wanting to be one who thinks only his days were great, the fact remains that today’s domestic cricket does not have the participation of the current Indian internationals and so is not a real test of the domestic batsmen and bowlers. Even inter-university cricket had Ranji players playing in it then and so was pretty competitive.

Wadekar’s triple hundred against B. S. Chandrasekhar and Erapalli Prasanna was a masterpiece. He was driving the off-spin of Prasanna through the covers and playing the cut and pull off Chandra to keep scoring at a good pace. For the first time the legendary spin twins looked lost as they didn’t know where to bowl to him.

When he came back to the dressing room at the various intervals after his first century I would rush to him and take off his leg guards so he could get a few moments more of rest. I was in the Mumbai team reserves then and what an educative dressing room it was with Dilip Sardesai, Ramakant Desai, Baloo Gupte, Farokh Engineer to name a few who were part of that line-up. The great Vijay Manjrekar would drop in to watch and since most of the Mumbai players were from Shivaji Park Gymkhana they would sit and talk cricket even as they ribbed each other in good nature. Just to be around them was such fun and inspirational too.

When the legendary Vijay Merchant cast his vote to make Ajit Wadekar replace Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi as the India skipper there was a huge furore as Pataudi was till then the undisputed skipper of the Indian team. What Merchant thought was that a change in leadership would bring in more victories. Typically, various lobbies in India began their agendas and spread the vicious rumour that Merchant was having revenge for being denied the captaincy for the India tour of England in 1946 when the senior Nawab of Pataudi, Iftikar Ali Khan, made himself available for that tour. How sad that we in India are ready for these conspiracy theories and malign our legends with just guesswork and not an iota of proof.

Wadekar who had great respect for Pataudi tried to persuade Tiger to come on the tour to West Indies but by then Tiger had decided to contest the elections and so wasn't available. India won that series and the next one in England a couple of months later. Not one of those conspiracy theorists ever apologised to Merchant or Wadekar for the rubbish that had been written and spoken about them. Instead they called Ajit a lucky captain though what luck had to do with India’s wins was never really explained. Not that Wadekar ever took it to heart for he was a simple guy who loved playing cricket.

After his retirement he concentrated on his job at the State Bank of India and also became an administrator with the Mumbai Cricket Association. He became a selector and also a very successful manager of the Indian team. As was typical in those days he was removed when some administrators suggested that somebody else be given a chance to manage the team despite the excellent results under Wadekar.

He indulged Eknath Solkar and me quite a bit and we could pull his leg without offending him. We were also the instruments for him to send a message to the rest of the team and would be pulled up even without any fault of ours.

There are so many memories but two stand out. One was when he actually thought that Garry Sobers touching me for luck was actually working for the greatest cricketer ever. Sobers had started to do that after he dropped me twice and called me lucky and he was simply pulling my leg. So on the last day of the series when Wadekar heard that Sobers was coming to our dressing room for his customary morning visit he locked me in the toilet even though I was batting overnight and had to get padded up. As it transpired, Sobers was bowled first ball for a duck later in the day as West Indies tried to chase our total and failed to do so and India won the series.

Another superstition — Wadekar made me carry on with torn trousers when I tried to change into another pair at the interval.

The thing is it was impossible to get upset with him. He just had that knack of winning people over.

He will be missed greatly for they don’t make people like him anymore.