'We did not drop a single catch in 1971'
Subash Jayaraman: There is a fantastic story of how you got into cricket, during a bus ride to Elphinstone College with Baloo Gupte.
Ajit Wadekar: That's right. We were in the same college. He was two years senior to me. He was in arts and I was in science. Basically, I didn't play any cricket till then. I was concentrating on my engineering degree. As far as I was concerned, I was thinking of finishing inter-science at Elphinstone and then going to engineering college. Baloo Gupte was my neighbour and we would travel in the same bus. One day, he just mentioned, "Ajit, would you want to be a 12th man for our college team?" They had a wonderful XI but didn't have anyone to get water onto the field. He said, "You will get some match fee too, Rs 3 a day." That was way back in 1957 and Rs 3 was quite a lot then. So I jumped at it.
This is how I started playing cricket in college. Then there was Madhav Mantri, who was absolutely a stickler for discipline. He happened to be Sunil Gavaskar's uncle. After my practicals, I used to go to practice a little late and then play around a bit longer. He would ask me to bat in the nets. And then he said to the captain: "This chap is really good and he could continue in the team." That is how I started playing cricket.
SJ: What were your thoughts when you took over the captaincy from MAK Pataudi? What were your expectations?
AW: He was my first captain, when I started playing for the country. We got very close. I replaced him on the casting vote of the selection committee. Before that, we were practising in Bombay. After practice, over a glass of beer, we just talked about cricket. I told Tiger - I used to call him that - "Tiger, I am not getting any runs, I am not in good nick. See that I am in the team." He answered, "Ajit, are you joking? You are going to be the captain. You better see that I am in the team!" I was not expecting it.
It was between Chandu Borde, who was a damn good batsman, and Tiger, and I said, "I think you should continue."
But both of them were out and I came in and I rang up Pataudi and said, "Tiger, remember our conversation?"
He said, "Of course."
"I hope you are available for the tour to West Indies."
"Yes, I am definitely coming."
The next morning, he rang me up and said, "Sorry Ajit, I am going into politics and so I will not be available."
To replace Tiger was a bit difficult. He had all the charisma and the touch of royalty. I had, of course, the experience of captaincy - captaining Bombay and winning three years in a row. But I was new to the captaincy of the Indian team. What I had observed as a player was that we were too aggressive - we would love to please the crowd and get out in the 50s and 60s without realising that it is a five-day game. Coming from Bombay, we had a habit of winning. I thought Indians would love to see India winning, that too abroad. That started in the West Indies.
I noticed that our fielding in the outfield was very good, but our catching was pretty bad. We had four spinners, the best of their kind. So I concentrated on catching and slip fielding and we hardly dropped any catches in the West Indies and in England. I thought, if I am going to prove to the selectors that they have a proper replacement for Pataudi, the only way is to start winning, and outside the country. I had to communicate that to the players and they took it very seriously. That is how all these good results came.
SJ: What are your memories from that series in the West Indies, especially that win in Port-of-Spain?
AW: In the first Test in Jamaica I chose to bat but the wicket was slightly wet and we were five down for 70-odd runs. Dilip Sardesai came in and got a brilliant double-hundred. We managed to get them out, with that kind of batting line-up consisting of Garry [Sobers], Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd and all those guys. The difference was more than 150 runs.
Then I thought, "Let's have psychological pressure on them and, enforce the follow on." It was a four-days game [the first day was washed out], and instead of being 200-odd ahead to enforce the follow-on, the rule's just 150 runs for a four-day game. I checked with the players and they said, "Ajit, there is only one day left, why do you want to do that? It is a good batting track and we will get a little bit of practice." I said, "Nothing doing! This is a psychological game." Instead of informing the umpires that I was enforcing the follow-on, I went straight to the dressing room and said it a bit loudly, "Garry, I think you are batting. I am enforcing the follow-on."
That was the first time, I think, India had ever enforced the follow-on on the West Indies. They were taken aback. They started getting slightly defensive. That is exactly what happened at Port-of-Spain. Thankfully they had this guy called Jack Noreiga, an offspinner and they didn't pick [Lance] Gibbs. We managed to give a lot of wickets to Jack Noreiga in the earlier match against the President's XI. So they had to pick Noreiga and he was nowhere near Lance Gibbs.
The wicket was absolutely responsive to spin. There were no problems in getting them out in the second innings. Luckily Garry wasn't in good form. It went on till we went to Barbados. We didn't drop a catch. That was the match Sunny [Gavaskar] made his debut. Traditionally, whoever gets a hundred on debut doesn't play too long for India. We were praying that Sunny doesn't get a hundred! He got out for 65 runs, and again for 67 runs in the second innings. That is how it all worked out. Having put a little bit of psychological pressure on them, they went defensive, and that is where we won the battle.
In the later matches, they prepared quite quick wickets. We saw to it that we didn't lose. Perhaps we could have won the last Test. We came close, but Clive Lloyd was going great guns till he got out in the last innings. The tailenders hung in there for a while. Else, we would have won. Barbados, we could have lost, but our tailenders lasted long. The basic idea was to hang on to our 1-0 lead, and if we get an opportunity, then be a little aggressive. That was the idea on the tour.
SJ: What is it like to captain spinners like Bedi, Prasanna, Venkat and Chandrasekhar?
AW: I had no choice but to have spinners in the team, because we didn't have medium-pacers or fast bowlers. We opened the bowling with Abid Ali and he got some wickets at Port-of-Spain. Of course Eknath Solkar was there, with some movement in the air.
My only weapon was spin and I had to get the best out of them. To do that, I have to help them with close-in fielding. If they don't give them encouragement, if you drop catches, they won't be bowling the same way. We had three spinners on the West Indies tour and Chandrasekhar came in the English tour. The three spinners did extremely well. From one end we would block with S Venkataraghavan, and from the other end we would go for wickets with [Erapalli] Prasanna and Bishan [Bedi]. They are very attacking and in the process they might give away runs, because they tried to buy their wickets. In buying wickets, you give runs as well. That wasn't good for us. Except Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip [Sardesai], we were not in good nick. We wanted to restrict the score from one end and try to get wickets from the other. What they needed badly was support from the fielding side. If we dropped a catch off Sobers or Clive Lloyd, they would keep hammering you for 200 or 300 runs, which we couldn't afford.
SJ: A question from a listener, Venkateshwaran: "Your team, under you, had the best slip cordon as well as the best close-in fielders in the world - arguably India's best ever. Was it consciously that you worked towards getting them all together or was it that serendipitously you had gifted fielders like yourself, Solkar, Venkat come into the side as one team?
AW: I noticed who could specialise in close-in fielding. That is when I picked Solkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Venkat. If the spinners are in a position to attack, they may require about five fielders in the ring around the bat, close-in. I would place the specialist fielders there. At no stage did I place the bowler at slip after bowling an over. At any stage, if you miss a catch, you lose a match. I saw to it that the specialist fielders trained properly. I was a good slip fielder and I knew exactly the kind of anticipation and reflexes you require. That is what I wanted from them. Eknath Solkar did a great job standing very close at forward short leg.
SJ: What does it take to be a good fielder in the slips?
AW: I suppose you have to look at the ball and should know in which direction the ball is coming, and then switch over to the batsman and see if he is going to play a shot or if he is going to be defensive and possibly nick it. For that you need tremendous reflexes. It is about anticipation. Perhaps you have to wait for a catch each ball. That is very important. But a catch might come at any time and that is when you have to be attentive, all the time.
Of course, practice makes you perfect. After batting in the nets, I used to get fielding and catching done for one or two hours. This is how we didn't drop a catch on both the tours. It is surprising, actually, that there is no emphasis on close-in fielding now with so many catches being dropped [in the recent Brisbane Test]. It was heartbreaking.
SJ: What are your memories from the 1971 series in England, which India won under your captaincy?
AW: When we came back from the West Indies, everybody thought it was just a flash in the pan. To win against England in England is difficult. The conditions are entirely foreign to us. England had just beaten Australia in the Ashes, in Australia. Their captain was a crazy chap, [Ray] Illingworth. He would get the best out of his players, and theirs was supposed to be the best team.
When we landed in England, it was the second half of the summer. We played against the counties - ten in all - and so we managed to get good batting practice, good knowhow of the weather, the wickets, and also the kind of bowlers we would play in the Test series. The wickets were really wearing down and that was good for my choice of bowlers. We had four spinners, including Chandra.
I had to make a choice. You can't pick four spinners in the side - you will have a lengthy tail. So there was a fight between Pras [Prasanna], perhaps our best offspinner, but the utility parts of Venky [Venkataraghavan] were really good. And Chandra… if we had to win, Chandra had to bowl well.
He had to be handled well. In domestic cricket, I had played against Chandra and got a lot of runs - 300 or so. I knew what kind of bowler he was. If he doesn't get a wicket in the first two overs, he starts experimenting, and that's where he goes haywire. If you handle him properly, and he gets a wicket in the first two overs, he becomes unplayable to the best batsmen in the world. He came off very well in the Oval Test. That's where I think we held the best of our catches. Venky in the slips off [Brian] Luckhurst. And Eknath Solkar, just off the pad, he caught Alan Knott. We used to get the first five batsmen out quickly but Knott used to be really a thorn. He would stick around and get 70-80 runs. So we had to get his wicket. Ekki took a brilliant catch, almost underground he went, I would say, off Knott's pad, off Venky's bowling. That's how we managed to keep their score to 101 runs.
To get 173 runs [in the fourth innings] wasn't that difficult. Everyone was confident. In fact, the first ball I played on the last day of the Test, I was run out. My partner Dilip Sardesai was terrible at running between the wickets. All the other batsmen - Farokh Engineer, Gundappa Viswanath and Eknath - told me, "Captain, don't worry. You just take a nap. We will get the runs." And that's what happened.
SJ: Almost 20 years after your retirement, you coached the Indian team. What do you see the role of the coach for an international team being?
AW: I think what you require is planning and strategy. During our time, there was no coach. Our manager would only look after the accommodation and tickets. He wouldn't help us in our fielding sessions, or planning or strategy. The captain had to do everything.
So, as a coach, if the players don't have any thinking power, the coach has to think [for them] and plan accordingly, and get things done. Whatever he has in mind, he has to communicate that and let it percolate down to the players: what he thinks of the position, the kind of planning needed to get the oppostion out as early as possible, the kind of batting he expects from the players, etc.
To be a coach of the Indian team is a bit difficult because here in India, in those days, we had 13 official languages and 707 dialects. Culturally we are all different. Religion-wise also we are different. To get them to play as a single unit is a problem. It's not that difficult for Australia or England. Subconsciously or unconsciously, player sub-groups start forming, and one has to avoid that. You have to tell them, "Let the inferiority complex pass by. Don't worry about that. You are as good as everyone else." Guys of Sunil Gavaskar's calibre would know these things, but the other players may not know exactly. So you have to tell them, "You have got the same talent."
And of course, concentrate on fielding and catching. When I took over as coach-cum-manager, the practice was to have a different coach for every series. That's pretty bad because if you are in for only a short time, you wouldn't get to know the players, and you can't do the SWOT analysis of the players and the opposition. You require some time to get to know your players, and later on, think about the opposition.
My first assignment, to South Africa, was terrible, but I noticed there that the players were losing a little bit of focus. Maybe because [some of them thought] they hardly played anything, so they would go out in the evening for dinner or something, and they would lose their concentration or focus in the game. So I brought in a code of conduct. I wanted to bring in some discipline. Of course, some of the players revolted against that. After we started winning against England [in 1993], the same players came back to me, because I thought I would relax some of the restrictions, and said, "Don't do that. Let it be same. We are doing extremely well." That was important - players realising that discipline has to go with the talent. If you lose your focus, you lose your discipline.
SJ: This is from a listener, Nilotpal: You were part of a successful run for the Indian team, especially at home with Anil Kumble and other spinners under Azharuddin's captaincy. Are you convinced one way or the other about Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja's involvement in corruption, and if so, do you find it easy or hard to look them in the eye and have a conversation now?
AW: When things start going a little wrong, and rumours start, the media is there and there are people to talk about these things. Knowing exactly what the truth in all of this [is difficult]. As long as I was the coach, I could never notice that. They would really concentrate and they would listen to me, and I never thought there was something wrong. Because we were from the old cricket group and never thought this would happen. I never suspected these players. There was no change in their behavioural patterns and I didn't notice anything. I always thought that the rumours were being spread because people may be getting slightly envious of the things we were doing as a team.
I still believe it is difficult for anybody to prove [any wrongdoing]. It should be on the basis of reporting by somebody else. Because to do such a thing [as match-fixing], one player cannot do it himself. You have to have bowlers bowling badly, or batsmen [playing badly], and you have to get some players together, and then the word spreads ultimately. One has to talk to somebody, somewhere and spill it, but that didn't happen.