A seamer who was a surprise packet

Ajit Agarkar, who took 346 international wickets for India, has hung up his boots. He could have ended up with a more distinguished career had he wielded his bat with a little more purpose, writes G. Viswanath.

Ajit Agarkar was a supremely confident cricketer. He was a super fielder, skilful bowler and a smart batsman at the first-class level. He will be most remembered for a lively match-winning spell against Australia in the Adelaide Test of 2003. Even as the Yuletide spirit was being welcomed in the Antipodes some 10 years ago, the Mumbai seamer bent his back and brought Australia to its knees.

After the host and India engaged themselves in a tit-for-tat batting undertaking in which Ricky Ponting and Rahul Dravid called the shots scoring 242 and 233 respectively, and Venkatsai Laxman uncorked a beautiful 148, the match turned on its head with the lean and mean Agarkar snapping up six second innings wickets (Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Simon Katich, Andy Bichel, Jason Gillespie and Stuart MacGill) for a mere 41 runs in 16 overs and two deliveries.

As the leader of the pace pack, in which the other two were left-arm seamers Irfan Pathan and Ashish Nehra, the Mumbai right-hand seamer had dismissed Katich and Adam Gilchrist in the first innings. He does not hesitate to pick this splendid effort (6 for 41) as his best because India won the Test by four wickets to lead the series 1-0. The first Test at the ’Gabba, Brisbane had ended in a draw with Zaheer Khan bringing up five for 95 in the first innings. Zaheer did not play the Adelaide Test because of injury and his return for the third Test at the MCG did not really help matters; India lost it by nine wickets.

The 2003-04 tour was Agarkar’s second consecutive tour of Australia; he had taken 11 wickets during the 1999 tour that India lost 0-3. Anybody who ends up with the wickets of Steve Waugh, Gilchrist, Greg Blewett, Mark Waugh, Michael Slater and Langer would be delighted and Agarkar indeed was striking a purple patch in helpful conditions. He readily concedes that he was probably at his best during the first tour (although India was beaten) and that the victory at Adelaide four years later to draw the series 1-1 was even more sweet and satisfying.

One particular aspect that stands out in Agarkar’s display with the ball has been his success against Australia. Thirty of his 58 Test victims were those who wore the baggy green. He also took 36 Australian wickets in seven ODIs with a best of 6 for 42 that enabled India to win a match of the VB Tri-series by 18 runs. The Australian think-tank were quick to spot his skill and ability — especially speed, allied with swing and on occasions bounce — and gave him respect.

It may be one of the quixotic stories of Indian cricket that a callow youth who showed plenty of talent hitting the ball to distances at Shivaji Park, Mumbai under Ramakant Achrekar’s tutelage actually surprised and impressed the discerning when he turned out as a seamer in pursuit of wickets. He was far from being a tear-away; he could not have been one with his slim frame. Yet, his arm speed produced the pace. He had the ability to move the ball in the air and off the wicket that at times made him a dangerous proposition. He began with a 1 for 40 and then a 1 for 60 at Harare in his debut Test against Zimbabwe.

India used him more in the limited-over games and he did justice to a great extent taking 288 wickets. He says he could have done things differently referring to his limited success in the traditional format. Some old timers in Mumbai liken him to Ramakant Desai (28 Tests, 74 wickets) who arrived at the bowling crease on twinkling toes, bowled at good speed and got among the wickets.

When not in action for India, Agarkar augmented Mumbai’s resources. He took 175 first-class wickets for Mumbai and figured in seven Ranji Trophy title wins…against Delhi, Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Saurashtra. Not many Mumbai players have been as lucky. Last year he was the captain of the side that won the title for the 40th time.

He played for Kolkata Knight Riders and Delhi Daredevils in the IPL. After playing a Times Shield match for Tatas in early October he found it difficult to go through the grind and told the authorities that he was hanging up his boots. He could have ended up with a more distinguished career had he wielded his bat with a little more purpose.

He was in the Ganguly-led Indian team that reached the 2003 World Cup final in South Africa and the Dhoni-led team that won the ICC Twenty20 World Cup (2007) in South Africa.