Indian captains fall into two categories - great and significant. Ajit Wadekar was one of the latter, giving the final touches to the team built by MAK Pataudi by leading India to series victories in the West Indies and England. In 1971, India had pretensions to being the No. 1 team, with the brilliant South Africa barred for the country's apartheid policy. Indians didn't mind how it came and what calculations were used. Wadekar went from being a quiet, soft-spoken left-hander to a captain celebrated across India.
In 1992 he returned as the national coach, and while watching Pravin Amre score a century on debut in Durban at 24, recalled his own late entry into international cricket. It is an interesting story. Wadekar played no cricket at school and expressed a desire to be an airline pilot before deciding on a career in banking. He had to wait about a decade after making his first-class debut to play international cricket, but in four years was leading India.
He was that rare creature, a left-hander at No. 3 in the years when India's openers were often mere guest artistes sent out to smile at the fast bowlers and put them in good humour. It wasn't until the arrival of Sunil Gavaskar - a key figure in the renaissance of Indian cricket - that Wadekar had regular respite from an early arrival at the crease, but even so there usually was a problem with the other opening slot. He was unusual in another area too - a brilliant catcher at slip with great powers of recovery when those around him sometimes went for the edge and then withdrew.
"Wadekar also nurtured the batting genius of Gavaskar, whose "See you, skipper" when going out to bat was met with "Not for a long time"
After a home win against England in 1972-73, he was the captain who could do no wrong. Till the tour of England in 1974. That series was marred by infighting (sometimes physical), and a 0-3 loss that included a low of 42 all out at Lord's. On return to India, knowing his days were numbered, Wadekar took a deal with the cricket board, who gave him a benefit match in the West Indies series that followed in return for his announcing his retirement. He was only 34.
Wadekar was both a lucky captain - for being in the right place at the right time - and an unlucky one. Had Vijay Merchant not exercised his casting vote as chairman when a selector couldn't make it to the meeting, Wadekar might never have led India, since the man he unseated, Pataudi, was younger than him. In fact, Wadekar had asked Pataudi to put in a good word for him to be a member of the team bound for the West Indies - the captaincy battle was between Pataudi and Chandu Borde. When he was named captain, Wadekar reached out to Pataudi, expressing the hope that he would agree to remain in the team as player. But the Nawab was hurt and stayed out, although he returned to play under Wadekar in the home series against England before taking over as captain once again when Clive Lloyd's West Indies arrived in India.
A small island of Wadekar surrounded by a sea of Pataudi in the captaincy story has meant that the man from Mumbai never received his due for what he accomplished. When he took over, it was Pataudi's team; when he quit it was left to Pataudi to rebuild (India lost a wonderful series 2-3 to West Indies, then emerging as a world power).
Yet it was Wadekar who insisted on Dilip Sardesai accompanying the team to the West Indies in 1971, against the wishes of Merchant. Sardesai made 642 runs and was the rock on which Gavaskar (774) and, by extension, India's batting built itself. Wadekar understood the importance of mixing experience with youth. ML Jaisimha and Salim Durani were on the first tour, and Abbas Ali Baig and Farokh Engineer went to England. Durani's dismissal of Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd in the Trinidad Test that India won, and Engineer's batting at The Oval were key factors in India's wins. In those early days Wadekar also nurtured the batting genius of Gavaskar, whose "See you, skipper" when going out to bat was met with "Not for a long time".
It was also Wadekar who chose the team on balance, not standard practice then. His best batsmen were Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath, but it was the spin bowling that required intelligent selection. He didn't play Erapalli Prasanna in England in '71, leading to much criticism and heartbreak for Prasanna, who till then had been the spearhead of the attack and its most successful bowler, with 100 wickets in his first 20 Tests.
Wadekar's kingpin in England was Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, with Prasanna's rival Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishan Bedi alternating as the support cast. It was sound in theory for a team that lacked a meaningful opening attack. It was decades, however, before anyone acknowledged that, initially putting it down to the defensive "Mumbai" streak in the captain whose first instinct was to eliminate defeat before thinking of victory.
Wadekar's batting record (37 Tests, average of 31, one century) meant that he underachieved in a period when his talent suggested he might finish as a top batsman. His triple-century against Prasanna and Chandrasekhar in the Ranji Trophy is spoken of with awe. The former Karnataka coach Keki Tarapore often described that innings as the closest to perfection he had seen.
Wadekar the successful captain turned successful coach (14 undefeated home Tests) was also India's first ODI captain, in 1974, admitting frankly some years later that he and his team "had no clue" about playing the format then.
There was much to admire about him. His simplicity, his pragmatism, his loyalty, his diplomacy, his empathy for the less gifted, and his sense of humour. He delighted at after-dinner speeches in South Africa on India's first tour of that country, speaking not fluently or in a practised manner but deadpan and with a lot of heart.
He oversaw Indian cricket's transition from an also-ran to a world power. He wore that achievement lightly, responding with a lopsided grin when anyone spoke about it. The surface softness hid a certain determination and awareness. That sometimes made opponents take him lightly; they usually paid for it.
Suresh Menon is the editor of the Wisden India Almanack