Windies, Wadekar and Sourav

RAJU BHARATAN

TO quote Emerson, "All mankind love a lover". So too a winner. This was the Naghmanly discovery that Sourav Ganguly (not so good at dancing to the Hrithik tune) made as his India halted Steve Waugh's Australia in its King Kangaroo Qantas flight, halfway through Eden, in a dogfight of a series. Now, when the boot is on the other foot (as that "Paragon" spot on the small screen belongs to Naghma's nubile superstar-sister, Jothika) comes Sourav's supreme test. The Test series in the West Indies (extending to the best of five) that either sees Sourav "doing a Wadekar" or going the lustreless 1975 way of Pataudi. Gary Sobers' West Indies was still dominant in the game when Ajit Wadekar wrought the 1-0 miracle of 1971. After Sourav wrested that March 2001 Test rubber (2-1) from World Champions Australia, India's 2-3 seesaw loss, in the ODI series following, hurt so much and no more. Likewise has Sourav now to clinch the five-Test series decisively enough, in the Caribbean, to be on Calypsong during the five-match ODI play-off.

This then is the pay-off face-off - Sachin vs Lara: "The Power of One" or the other. A duel in the Caribbean sun "rapier-thrusty" enough for a commentator of Tony Cozier's Windies fixation to sum up as: "To my left, Brian Lara, to my right Sachin Tendulkar - centrestage: the greatest cricket show on earth!" It would be in the fitness of stings if Brian Lara now carried on from where he so "dashingly" left off in Sri Lanka - 178 & 40; 74 & 45; 221 & 130 in those three Tests. The litmus Lara test it thus is for Sachin. A prizefight witnessing Brian endeavouring to land his left in a Golden Eyeball-to-Golden Eyeball TV confrontation calculated to uphold Barry Richards' challenging appraisal: "Tendulkar has to perform more consistently on bouncy wickets" abroad "to lay claim to be the best batsman of the world along with Lara".

Sachin and Sourav, Rahul and Laxman, Virender to see India's tail Sehwag - the batting looks "depthy" enough to make a million. But then India, abroad, traditionally performs by fits and starts. Recall how Sourav's India let a similarly supine West Indies steal the Coca-Cola Cup from under its Harare nose (by 16 runs) as recently as on the Saturday of July 7, 2001? That is "one-day" frozen in our telemindset, so let me sketch out, for Sourav's five-day edification here, the lay of the Wadekar land in the Bacardi Caribbean. As a bolt from the Blue Mountains came the tidings of India's Port-of-Spain second Test win at the break of dawn on the Thursday of March 11, 1971. There was then no AIR commentary relay, no sense of expectation whatsoever, as I tuned in to the 5.30 a.m. BBC news bulletin. To be enlightened that India had won the second Test by 7 wickets!

But how? For, at the end of the third day's play in that Port-of-Spain Test, had Gary Sobers & Co (after finishing 138 behind) not been 150 for the loss of only Rohan Kanhai (27) - Roy Fredericks (on 80) and Charlie Davis (on 33) blazing away for all that the West Indies was worth? How now to envision India as bowling out the West Indies for anything like the 214 it had on the very first day of that second Test? If anything, we had reconciled to its being a re-run of the first Test at Sabina Park where, after our spinners had shot out the West Indies for 217 in reply to India's 387, we squandered the advantage of asking such an internationally self-proud team to bat again, 170 behind. "There was a stunned silence in the West Indies dressing-room when I asked them to follow on," notes Ajit Wadekar in My Cricketing Years. "Sobers was blissfully unaware that rain had reduced that first Test to a four-day match! Consequently the follow-on margin fell from 200 to 150. Umpire Sang-Hue confirmed that the decision was in order."

From that traumatised turning-point, Sobers was keenly aware of the neo-Indian threat building up in the Isles. Gary Sobers (93) and Rohan Kanhai (158 not out), to this end, had held firm to frustrate India on the final day of that first "follow-on" Test. Yet the same India had now worked the oracle in the second Test at Port-of Spain. Knowing Chairman of Selectors Vijay Merchant to be an early riser for his yoga, instinctively I rang him to shell-shock him with the tidings that "Casting Vote-Catcher" Wadekar had turned up trumps. "What are you saying?" came back Merchant, stupefied. "Just what I'm saying," I bore in, "India's won! Not by runs but by wickets - seven of them!" Merchant's startled response: "My God, what a day for Indian cricket, what a great day for Ajit and his men!" Vindicated Vijay felt. Merchant had pinned his faith in Ajit (at the seasoned expense of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi) when Wadekar looked a security risk. Now dark horse Ajit had come in at the nourishing odds of "7 to 1"!

Do not forget, Wadekar's Windies failure would have been Merchant's failure. Had Wadekar not held on for dear life to that second Test lead (to seal the rubber 1-0), Merchant could well have lost his international standing in the game. No one then would have remembered that Vijay Merchant (his first-class average 71.64) ranked second only in the world - still does - to Sir Donald Bradman (95.14). The world then would have only zeroed in on the fact that Vijay Merchant put all his eggs in one Wadekar basket. "Bold imaginative methods are needed to work a change," Merchant had argued before me - after sensationally "casting" his lot with Ajit Wadekar. "We veterans had our day. We put up tall scores. To what purpose? It is not personalities but results that matter in this game. The world judges you, in this game, by the results you achieve."

The world still judges Sourav Ganguly by the results he achieved against Australia. At least Sourav had regained his batting touch before venturing to take India to the West Indies. Plus Sourav has toured the Caribbean before. Ajit Wadekar, for his captaincy part, had never been to the West Indies! Plus it turned out to be a tour on which Ajit was in woeful batting form all through. Just take a peek at Wadekar's scores in the five Tests of that pathbreaking series and you really wonder how Ajit got his men to so believe in him as to hold out right up to the fifth and final Test (again at Port-of-Spain) even after India had lost its Atlas in Sunil Gavaskar (220). Wadekar's series contribution - 8 in the Sabina Park Test; 0 in the second Port-of-Spain Test; 16 in the Georgetown Test; 28 & 17 in the Bridgetown Test; 28 & 54 in the fifth Port-of-Spain Test. Aggregate 151: average 21.57. Some striker, some skipper!

Yet it is my submission that - like in the Test-case of Sourav against Australia a year ago - it was Wadekar's total lack of individual success with the bat that impelled him to weld India into a match-winning team in the West Indies. After the casting-vote bombshell that saw the star-prince of Indian captains deposed, Wadekar had displayed the gumption to ask Vijay Merchant for certain Windies-seasoned players to be integrated into the touring party. Vijay Merchant - in a timely reversal of his youth-accented policy during the twin series at home against Graham Dowling's New Zealand and Bill Lawry's Australia (1969-70) - shrewdly went along with Ajit Wadekar in opting for the leavening of experience personified by M.L. Jaisimha, Salim Durrani and Dilip Sardesai (16th choice for the tour). How Dilip Sardesai (against Sunil Gavaskar's Bradmanful 774 from 8 innings in 4 Tests - ave. 154.80) went on to smash 642 from 8 innings in 5 Tests (ave. 80.25) is part of Indian cricket lore.

Dilip Sardesai, in truth, it was who set the tone for "the renaissance of Indian cricket" (as later publicly acknowledged by Vijay Merchant) with that Windies series scoreline of 212; 112 & 3; 45 (run out); 150 & 24; 75 & 21. Yet the key figure in Wadekar's action plan was, not Bombay's Dilip Narayan Sardesai, but Hyderabad's Motganhalli Lakshminarasu Jaisimha - Tiger Pataudi's state captain! Sardesai's emergence as the linchpin of India's batting (even before Sunil Gavaskar could make his Test debut at Port-of-Spain) should have put Dilip in a vantage position. It should have but it didn't. Not that Wadekar consulted with Sardesai less. Only that he turned to Jaisimha more! There was thus a healthy counselling competition between West Zone's Sardesai and South Zone's Jaisimha. And the two had, in Ajit Wadekar, a captain of India humble enough to listen. How much Pataudi's "Jitya" banked on Jaisimha may be gauged from the My Cricketing Years Wadekar extract: "I must confess that there were occasions in England when I missed Jaisimha's reassuring presence. His experiences at home and on a previous tour of the West Indies were ever at my disposal."

Thus, picking the brains of now Jaisimha, now Sardesai, Wadekar forged a habitually self-defeating side into a team of world-baiters. A lesson to absorb for Sourav on the way to the West Indies, remembering how such "live" all-round feedback it was that helped Ganguly Zimbabweigh things afresh and roll back the Mohali ODI in India's favour. Such spot encouragement of collective team-thinking, by which even Ajay Ratra felt free to reveal his mind to Sourav, was, in sum, the Wadekar style of captaincy in the West Indies - on dress-rehearsal view at Mohali. Actually, it would not be a bad gambit for Board President Jagmohan Dalmiya to organise a brainstorming session for our Windies touring team with Ajit Wadekar - here and now. For who should be knowing the pitfalls of touring the "far-flung" Caribbean better than Ajit Wadekar as the first Indian captain to win, by sheer staying power, a Test series, abroad, against one of the Big Three in the game - Gary Sobers' West Indies? Is Sunil Gavaskar not on record as noting that it was the highly inspirational talk that Vijay Merchant delivered (inside closed CCI doors) to our 1971 team set to tour the West Indies that galvanised him into making the stupendous entry he did into world cricket?