The king who never lost his cool

There was an assurance in the way Ajit Wadekar told his players what he expected. Not once did we get the feeling of fear or a sense of insecurity.

Ajit Wadekar, published in Sport and Pastime magazine, on January 7, 1967.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

As the news came in of our captain Ajit Wadekar passing away, it numbed my generation. We’d spent so much of our careers playing under him and for him. The Bombay and Mumbai teams have boasted of some great leaders, but to pick Ajit as the best would only be fair, for my generation was baptised in first-class cricket under his care and leadership.

To appear closed, uncommunicative or even reticent may have its own advantages, if one looks at the space it gives you to think for yourself and get guidance when you need it. Ajit had that quality to step in when you needed his helping hand as a captain. Managing people is an art, and doing so without saying too much can be comforting yet strategic. My skipper had that quality to speak little, but when he did speak, it was like pearls of wisdom in an otherwise understated conversation.

Ajit’s body language – be it his languid walk to the centre with bat in hand or leading a team out – made a strong statement. It was one of complete control and understanding of the situation.

Never the demonstrative type, Ajit once put his arms around Karsan Ghavri and me during a Ranji Trophy quarterfinal game when we were trailing by 100 runs and had lost five wickets with just about wiping off the deficit. Ajit said, “Fight it out and save us.”

The look in his eyes was more like that of an elder brother telling his siblings to help out in a family crisis. There was confidence, hope and assurance in the way he communicated what he expected. Not once did we get the feeling of fear or failure or a sense of insecurity in his words. As a team member, you felt like performing for the man as much as the team you played for. Such was the mesmerising impact he had.

Skipper Ajit Wadekar and his men received a grand welcome on their return after winning the away series against England in 1971, the nation’s first in English isles.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

Ajit was a very highly respected man. Respected because he was humble, loving and very protective of his team and those around him. His stature as a player and a captain commanded an aura.

When I made my debut for Bombay, I was 18 and Eknath Solkar, my bowling partner, was 19. It was a big Irani Trophy match for us, but Ajit handled us with care and great skill against the likes of Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi, Chandu Borde, Hanumant Singh, Budhi Kunderan and many other great cricketers.

He taught us to never be cowed down by any opposition however strong it might be. The spirit of Bombay was upheld in its “khadoos” way. We just loved the fight; it taught us to face great Indian players who we had watched from the stands and idolised growing up. Our skipper helped us shed any complex we may have nursed while playing the stalwarts.

Many have talked about Ajit being a “lucky” captain. I just fail to understand what it means. I am willing to take on such people and challenge this myth created without substantial justification. Just because a man is not vociferous doesn’t mean he has less skills than those who show flamboyance.

In Bombay’s tough cricket environment, Ajit was a Dada (boss), as we Mumbaikars would say. His legend is being sung even today, by people who never saw him play. He was the king of our times, a player the opposition feared as much as revered. Starting his journey in the game only after entering college, he learnt fast and developed his own style. It speaks a lot of his cricketing acumen.

Those like Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli and so many more, who never saw him play, always imagined how destructive a player he was. Many emulated his swagger, his careless walk to the wicket, his rasping cover drive and square cut and his stance in the slip cordon. There is not enough footage to see all this, but the ballad of Wadekar is sung so far and wide in our maidans that it will reverberate for years to come.

Ajit Wadekar was as passionate about banking as he was about cricket. An employee of State Bank of India, Wadekar said he was “married to the SBI.”   -  The Hindu Photo Library

 

I will never the forget the innings he played against Mysore. The two greatest spinners of our time — E. A. S. Prasanna and B. S. Chandrasekhar — were taken to the cleaners as he scored a massive triple century at the Brabourne Stadium. Such class, such confidence, such flamboyance, a destructive attitude and tremendous concentration all rolled into one for the greatest innings I have seen in a Ranji Trophy match.

Ajit Wadekar had a huge impact on the lives of my generation of players and fans alike, in an era where the game was coming out of its cocoon after being dominated by the elite and the privileged.

My captain endorsed the middle-class and wooden-spoon cricketers’ right to play the game with dignity and equal authority. His statistics will never reflect his impact on cricket.

But Indian cricket and 1971 will always ring a loud bell for lovers of the game, and the name captain Ajit Laxman Wadekar will be heard loud and clear!

Milind Rege played for Bombay under Ajit Wadekar between 1968 and 1974.