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Ajit Wadekar

Serenity at its cold-blooded best

Gideon Haigh

August 15, 2006

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Odd Men In - a title shamelessly borrowed from AA Thomson's fantastic book - concerns cricketers who have caught my attention over the years in different ways - personally, historically, technically, stylistically - and about whom I have never previously found a pretext to write

Wadekar: a gentle persuader and conciliator, with the detached and philosophical air bred in the bone © Getty Images

The formidable Indian team of the early 1970s is one whose stature has been significantly enriched by hindsight. Looking at the side now, the names have a magic aura. But even with Jaisimha, Vishwanath, Bedi, Prasanna, Chandrashekar, Venkataraghavan, Abid Ali, they had almost succumbed to New Zealand and then been soundly defeated by Australia at home in the second half of 1969.

The touring party that left for the West Indies on February 1, 1971, moreover, was noteworthy mainly for its exclusions: the captain 'Tiger' Pataudi, his deputy Chandu Borde, and wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer, the last in gratuitous retaliation for putting county before zonal cricket. History tells that the failure to attend the critical meeting of Bengal's Datta Ray was crucial, leaving chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant to choose with a free hand: choices vindicated when the rehabilitated Dilip Sardesai and the ripening Sunil Gavaskar dominated India's unexpected victory with 1416 runs between them.

Perhaps, though, Merchant's most perceptive pick, using his casting vote, was the captain. It was not, Merchant explained later, because he had seen any particular genius about Ajit Wadekar's prior leadership of Bombay; nor was it because Wadekar showed an avidity for honours, even in batting. The great man noted disapprovingly: "Unfortunately he is not very ambitious - ambitious for runs." The quality Merchant detected instead was serenity. Wadekar was never flustered or fretful; his bearing was unaltered by success or failure; he described himself as "pretty cold-blooded". After the humours of the mercurial Pataudi, with his royal blood and the looks of a Fellini male lead, Wadekar was a gentle persuader and conciliator.

The circumstances of his appointment set the tone for his reign. On the day the party was chosen, Wadekar was out with his wife shopping for curtains, returning to find his modest State Bank of India home surrounded by reporters and well-wishers. His first gesture was to solicit the involvement of his predecessor. Pataudi thought on it, and declined; some of his anger, further inflamed by the Congress Party's recent abolition of princely entitlements, leaked out in published criticisms of Wadekar. Wadekar said nothing, dismissing the remarks as understandable disappointment, and would studiously avoid the regional feuds and petty jealousies to which every Indian captain seems heir. He took Pataudi's great friend Jaisimha as his vice-captain; he championed the debonair Durrani and the poor but pawky Solkar alike. Only under his captaincy was it possible to fantasise, Chandra would observe, that "there was no politics in Indian cricket".

Tall, lean, feet wide apart in an open stance, gripping the bat high and swinging it freely, one of that exceedingly rare genus, the Indian left-hander, Wadekar looked as he was, a homespun stylist

The detached and philosophical air was bred in the bone. Though Wadekar grew up amid the maidans of Bombay's Shivaji Park - the locus classicus of Indian cricket from which have sprung Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Kambli, Agarkar, Patil, Amre and others - he played no cricket at school. His father, intent that he should hone innate talents as a mathematician in order to become an engineer, expressly forbade it. Even after Wadekar senior relented slightly, rewarding his son with a Stuart Surridge bat for securing a perfect grade in an important algebra examination, the dutiful son fitted cricket into his life rather than his life into cricket. At college, science practicals overlapped with net practice - but, though it meant he hardly ever had the opportunity do more than field, he never failed to finish his experiments. The training, he reasoned, could do no harm - and rightly so: Wadekar became a sure-handed slip, and it was his direct hit from cover to catch John Jameson napping at the Oval in August 1971 that began England's subsidence.

The Indian selectors also forced him to wait. Tall, lean, feet wide apart in an open stance, gripping the bat high and swinging it freely, one of that exceedingly rare genus, the Indian left-hander, Wadekar looked as he was, a homespun stylist. He was twenty-five and in his sixth first-class season when finally trusted with his first Test cap, failed at his first three attempts. But here were first seen the lineaments of that unflappable temperament, coming in on a pair for his fourth innings, at Chepauk, against an attack of Hall, Griffith, Sobers and Gibbs with India one for nought. He drove Hall for four then hooked him for six and proceeded to top score in a near-victory.

Wadekar joined India's line-up in the exposed promontory of number three, filled by six different batsmen in the six preceding Tests, and rendered almost uninhabitable by India's constant churning of openers. And while there was a good deal of pace bowling about - including the likes of Snow, McKenzie and Pollock as well as the aforementioned Hall and Griffith - India had none of it. At Edgbaston in July 1967, they notoriously delegated the new ball to their deputy 'keeper Budhi Kunderan, who when asked what he bowled replied gravely: "I'll have to bowl one to find out."

Wadekar thought that the impunity with which other teams could rotate their pace bowling was a damaging disadvantage to India: "In big cricket it is a real test to go out and face genuine fast bowlers who have tasted blood in the early overs. Without a fast bowler we have never been able to give visiting teams a taste of their own medicine." He often bore the brunt of it. When India toured Australia in 1967-68, they were scheduled to begin their tour at the WACA, world famous for its pace and carry, and as remote from their home conditions as mud from lava. Wadekar had a tooth knocked out by a bouncer and was yorked next ball in an overwhelming defeat.

"In big cricket it is a real test to go out and face genuine fast bowlers who have tasted blood in the early overs" © Getty Images

The lesson was not lost. As captain, Wadekar made it a point not to flinch. In his first match, at Sabina Park against Jamaica, he was hit on the hand by the West Indian tearaway Uton Dowe, and bled into his glove from a burst blood vessel in the finger rather than show discomfort, grinding out 70 in four hours. At Lord's in July 1971, India came face to face with Snow, who had recently humbled Australia. "I decided to get at him in my first encounter," Wadekar recalled. Coming in at one for one, Wadekar received a bouncer first ball and hooked it for four; three times the dose was repeated with the same result. He made 40 of the first 50 runs, and his priceless 85 out of 125.

One of the most telling tour incidents had actually occurred a day or two before the Test, when Wadekar's team had arrived in London from Bournemouth to find themselves booked into a charmless, shabby hotel of the type it was hard to imagine an Australian team being forced to tolerate. On their previous tour, the Indians had been humble, deferential; the manager, Kunderan recalled, was "always crawling to the English". Now Wadekar and his upstanding martial manager Lt Col Hemu Adhikari demanded, successfully, that the accommodations be upgraded. The cricket upheld this assertion that Indians would no longer be treated as second-class citizens: having held out for draws at Lord's and at Old Trafford, India was able to secure a fabled rubber at the Oval, Wadekar's 48 and 45 in a low-scoring game seeing to it that Chandra's prodigies were not wasted. Most famously, when Wadekar was run out first thing on the last morning leaving India 100 short of victory, with seven wickets remaining but perhaps experiencing a heart murmur if not a flutter, he conveyed his calm by creeping off for a snooze in the dressing room. "Like Montgomery before Alamein," wrote The Daily Mail's Alex Bannister, "he had laid his plans in advance and retired to confident sleep".

Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure, and Wadekar needed courage in plenty in years ahead. In short order in 1973-4, he lost the Irani, Ranji and Duleep Trophies. Expectations further raised by victory at home against England were dashed in the 1974 rematch when India were routed at Old Trafford, Lord's and Edgbaston; recriminations included Wadekar's sacking from the West Zone team, which forced him, hugger-mugger, into retirement. But his reign should not be recalled for its end. In December 1976, for example, he was also the first Indian cricketer to visit Pakistan in twenty years, a role to which his natural tact was well-suited. And he provided a lasting example for Indian captains, not always followed, by burnishing the reputations around him rather than tending chiefly to his personal advancement.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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Gideon Haigh Born in London of a Yorkshire father, raised in Australia by a Tasmanian mother, Gideon Haigh lives in Melbourne with a cat, Trumper. He has written 19 books and edited a further seven. He is also a life member and perennial vice-president of the South Yarra CC.
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