It is sad to hear the demise of Ajit Wadekar. Old-timers will recall the immense contribution Wadekar made to the fortunes of Indian cricket.
At a time when India was languishing, he was appointed as the captain of Indian cricket team to tour West Indies. Sunil Gavaskar, another stalwart made his Test debut in that series in 1971 February - March. West Indies had that indomitable Gary Sobers. To be frank, the West Indies had no fiery fast bowler at that time. Haals and Griffith had called it a day and Andy Roberts had not yet arrived at the scene.
Therefore, West Indies had to depend on its medium pace bowlers Keith Boyce and Van Burn Holder apart from Sobers. But another spinner Jack Noreiga contributed well by taking nine wickets in an innings - still a record for West Indies. But it was to India's credit and more precisely Ajit Wadekar's credit that India won a test series against West Indies in West Indies. Sunil Gavaskar's batting achievements are legendary in that series. Sardesai added to the strength.
Wadekar had the fortune of using the great spinners India produced namely EAS Prasanna, Bishen Singh Bedi, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and B S Chandrasekhar.
Winning abroad is by no means a mean achievement. India first did this against New Zealand in 1968 under the captaincy of Pataudi. Now Wadekar achieved this feat three years later. But even greater achievement was to come to Wadekar and India in four months time. In July 1971, India toured England and played against Ray Illingworth's side.
The Yorkshire player had captained England team and won the Ashes in Australia just a few months back against Bill Lawrie's side. Having bagged this greatest achievement which any England captain would love to, Illingworth was not bothered about the Indian challenge and that too on the home soil. With bowlers like John Snow, Price, Underwood, and others in England squad, India was simply no match for them. But still, the impossible happened. Wadekar led India to a series victory in a three-match series.
The final Test at Oval will always be remembered by the fans. Earlier Chandrasekhar bowled India to a winning position by skittling out England for 101 by taking six wickets. Eknath Solkar's catches, standing at forward-short-leg (it was called suicide point) was breath-taking. His catch to dismiss wicket-keeper Alan Knott was simply unbelievable.
The match was poised for an interesting finish on the fourth day with India needing less than 200 runs for victory but having lost the vital wickets of Farokh Engineer and Dilip Sardesai, the openers. G.R. Viswanath and Ajit Wadekar were at the crease. The Indians eagerly switched on their radios (in those days there was no TV in India) and tuned to the BBC commentary at 3.30 p.m. If India had to win, it was imperative that these two batsmen had to stay put at the crease for a longer time. But alas, all hopes were crashed. Ajit Wadekar was run out in the very first over of the match. It was later on revealed that he was wearing a rubber shoe, which made him slip on the ground while running for a single. Nevertheless, Viswanath steered the team to a victory.
He was out with a few runs needed for the win. The honour fell on the shoulders of Abid Ali to score the boundary - the winning shot for India. It was Ganesh Chaturthi festival in India. An elephant was brought to the Oval cricket ground in London to celebrate that victory. By the way, England had no elephants. So how could this elephant enter the stadium? It was thoughtfully brought to the ground by the fans from the zoo with permission.
Having achieved two victories and that too on foreign soil, Ajit Wadekar's stock was high. He was the most popular and most cherished captain of the Indian squad. He had to wait for his next challenge. That challenge came one year later when Mike Deness's England side toured India. Here also Ajit Wadekar showed his skills and gave a rousing victory for India. Who can forget the huge sixer G.R. Viswanath hit against Chris Old in the final test at Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai?
Now Wadekar was literally on top of the world. No other Indian captain had achieved this great feat of posting a hat-trick of victories. Two of them came on foreign soils. The next challenge to Wadekar came in 1974 when he led the Indian team to England. But this proved to be a disaster for Ajit Wadekar. Who would have thought that this series would seal the fate of Wadekar and end his glorious career? India lost all the three tests miserably. In one of the tests, they were bowled out for a meagre 42 runs. Some off the field incidents also contributed to the criticism levelled against Wadekar and the master quit the game after the tour was over.
But we also should take into consideration the fact that it is virtually a hard task to play against England in England in the months of May and June. In July and August, the conditions ease. In 1974 Wadekar had to play against England in May and June and lost. But in 1971 he played in July and won.
Had Wadekar continued, he would have led the Indian team during the first ever World Cup played in England in 1975. Though it is far-fetched to think that India could have won the World Cup under his captaincy, definitely India would have put up a better performance than it did under the captaincy of Venkataraghavan. Though Venkataraghavan was a very good off spinner in his time, he was no match to Ajit Wadekar as a captain.
It will not be proper to end this article without mentioning the batting skills of Ajit Wadekar. He was a good batsman in his times. To be frank, his 2113 runs out of 37 test matches with just one century looks nothing compared to many of the present day players. Wadekar took time to settle down. He would play defensively for most of the time till the time came for a straight drive past the bowler for a boundary hit. This was a signal that Wadekar had settled down and from now onwards it would be difficult to dismiss him.
But to be honest, Wadekar earned his fame and popularity not as a batsman but as an outstanding captain. In this, he resembles the legendary Mike Brearley, the England Captain. As long as Indian cricket is talked about, Ajit Wadekar's achievements as a captain will find a permanent place.