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RIP Wadekar, Renaissance Man of Indian cricket

But by far, Wadekar’s biggest achievement was in leading India to unexpected and spectacular victories over West Indies and England in 1971.

mumbai Updated: Aug 17, 2018 00:35 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
mumbai,ajit wadekar,Brabourne stadium
Ajit Wadekar(HT PHOTO)

My introduction to Ajit Wadekar came during the 1972-73 Test match against England at the Brabourne Stadium. He was dismissed for 87 by Jack Birkenshaw’s innocuous off-spin and was still shaking his head in regret at having missed a century when I grabbed his hand just short of the dressing room.

Whoa! Not yet in college, having appeared for Senior Cambridge exams a couple of months earlier, watching a Test match from the pavilion was turning out to be the highlight of my life till then. To get so close to an Indian cricketer had seemed unthinkable.

When I related this to him almost two decades later, after he had taken over as coach of the Indian team, Wadekar wrinkled his eyes as if recalling the event, and said with deadpan seriousness. “Oh, that was you? I wondered who was trying to snatch my favourite bat.’’

In the years that followed, I discovered Wadekar’s witticisms sometimes to be profound. One day I saw him walking his two dogs along Worli Sea Face, where he lived and got down from my car to say hello. “I didn’t know you were a dog person?’’ I said to start a conversation. “I love dogs,” he replied, “Because their love for you never changes, win or lose.’’

Wadekar was a man after my own heart. Not only was he a dog lover, he was a hugely successful cricketer and captain, and had a delightful sense of humour. However, this does not mitigate the astute, hardy cricketer and person that lay behind this. As a professional banker, he had trained himself to be analytical, adroit and take swift decisions when needed.

These attributes helped him promote Sportsfield, the iconic building on Worli Sea Face, where some of the greatest names in Indian sport got their residences in the mid-1980s. They will all aver readily that without Wadekar, the project was impossible.

His experience as banker also made him a pragmatic problem solver in a group situation, which helped him as captain and coach.

As a coach, he shielded young Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli as much from themselves as others. He allowed them to pull his leg but knew when to call a halt. He also-ring-fenced Azharuddin as captain against the growing ambitions of rivals in the dressing room.

But by far, Wadekar’s biggest achievement was in leading India to unexpected and spectacular victories over West Indies and England in 1971, the first time ever in these countries. He was made the captain controversially, with chief selector Vijay Merchant using his casting vote to oust charismatic Tiger Pataudi. Would he measure up? The number of sceptics was large, but here too, I believe, Wadekar’s analytical brain made the difference.

Whenever I asked him about this twin triumph that gave Indian cricket new direction, Wadekar would be self-deprecating. “It was easy for me. Sardesai, Gavaskar and Solkar made it possible in West Indies and in England, it was Chandrashekhar’s magical spell’’ he would say.

Records say otherwise. Against West Indies at Port of Spain, he surprisingly brought on Salim Durani with the match in the balance. Durani got Clive Lloyd and Gary Sobers in successive deliveries and turned the match irrevocably in India’s favour. Against England at The Oval a few weeks later, Wadekar bowled Bishen Bedi for just one over in the second innings, astonishingly removing him from the attack despite Bedi having taken a wicket.

Some critics called these decisions `lucky punts’. But that’s how history is often made: by someone daring to do the unexpected. Ajit Wadekar had the gall to do it his way and ushered in Indian cricket’s `Renaissance’. RIP.

First Published: Aug 17, 2018 00:35 IST