'Hey Garry, you have to follow on'
Ajit Wadekar captained India on the 1970-71 tour of West Indies and led them to a historic series victory that ranks as one of the highlights of Indian cricket history. He shares some memories of the tour with Cricinfo
My fear before the 1971 tour was that I might not be picked; I certainly hadn't thought I'd be the captain. I reckoned the captaincy race was between Tiger Pataudi and Chandu Borde. In fact, before the tour, I had gone up to Tiger and asked him to ensure that I was there in his team. Tiger replied that there were no doubts about my selection and instead asked me to ensure his place if I was asked to lead. His reply stunned me as I had never dreamt that I was in contention for the captaincy.
The day the captain was named, I had gone out with my wife Rekha to buy curtains for our new home in the State Bank of India officers' quarters. When I returned around 8pm, I saw a large crowd waiting outside our building with garlands. My first thought was that some guy in the building may have been promoted. Little did I realise that it was me!
The news was stunning: [chairman of selectors] Vijay Merchant's casting vote had unseated Tiger from the captaincy while Chandu Borde was not even in the team. One of the first things I did was to ring up Tiger in the hope that I would have his services on the tour. Tiger asked me for a day to think it over before eventually declining.
In the first Test of the series, at Kingston, I got involved in a nice little drama against my idol, (West Indies captain) Garry Sobers. The first day had been washed out by rains and the Test was reduced to a four-day affair. India had taken a lead of 170 which was good enough to enforce the follow-on. [In a four-day match, a lead of 150 is sufficient.] There was not much hope of forcing a result and most of the team members felt that we should use the rest of the Test for batting practice. I disagreed. I wanted to gain a psychological advantage by making the West Indies follow on - something unthinkable at that time. I strutted into the West Indies dressing-room and loudly proclaimed: "Hey Garry, West Indies have to follow on."
They were stunned into silence. Garry was unaware of the rules and said that India did not have a lead of 200 to enforce the follow-on. He asked me to check with the umpires. I replied that he could do that himself since it was his team which had to bat again. It was a huge blow to their pride.
It was Dilip Sardesai's partnerships with Ekki [Eknath Solkar] and Prassi [Erapalli Prasanna] in the Test which proved to be the turning point of the series. India were 75 for five and in deep trouble, but Dilip egged Ekki (61) on to add 137 for the sixth wicket and nurtured Prassi (25) to add 122 for the ninth wicket which helped India reach a respectable 387. Dilip ended with 212. Sardesai's consistent performances on the tour were personally very satisfying as it was on my recommendation that the selection committee had picked him. Vijaybhai [Merchant] asked me why I wanted Dilip in the team despite his poor form. I told him that I had full confidence in Dilip, just as Vijaybhai had full confidence in me. In came Dilip.
Dilip, however, was guilty of one thing on the tour: eating unwisely. During the tour he suffered a tummy upset and was asked to stay away from solid food for three days, and restrict himself to chicken soup. But that same evening we found him hogging a chicken away to glory. When questioned, he said: "What's the difference? After all chicken soup comes from chicken!" Coming back to cricket, our thinking was that the smart way to frustrate the West Indian strokemakers was to bowl tightly. Srinivas Venkataraghavan, the offspinner, was the key to my plans. Venky is a misunderstood person because of his short-tempered nature, but he is a 100% team man and a good thinker of the game. I also liked the fact that, unlike so many players, he never allowed his morale to drop when the opposition held the upper hand. Though our players are good players of spin, it was our strategy not to go after offspinner Jack Noreiga in the tour game in a bid to help him win a Test place in place of the more dangerous Lance Gibbs - and that was just what happened.
All the seniors in the side - like ML Jaisimha, Salim Durani and Sardesai - helped me a lot. In fact, when Jai was not getting runs and had to be dropped for the second Test, it fell upon me to break the news to him. But the sport that he was, he said: "In fact, I was going to tell you myself to drop me."
Salim was in charge of the team bar. I never found him a difficult guy to handle as many did. It was Salim's important wickets of Clive Lloyd and Garry Sobers which helped us win the second Test at Port-of-Spain. I thought Salim would be more effective in taking advantage of the rough created by the bowlers outside the left-hander's off stump than Bishan Bedi, who was a flighter of the ball. My hunch was rewarded as the ball that bowled Garry for a duck turned almost 90 degrees.
I never dreamt before we left India we would come back victorious, though an astrologer had predicted it after reading my horoscope and taking into account the timing of the team's departure. I had good reasons for my lack of optimism: Sunny Gavaskar was a newcomer, Dilip was on a comeback, we had no good fast bowlers, and the team itself did not have the right balance. I would have loved to have Tiger, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar and Farokh Engineer in the side. Merchant tried to get Engineer picked, but the board would not relent on the rules that made it mandatory for players to play domestic cricket to be eligible for selection.
But one of the satisfying aspects of the tour was the emergence of Sunil Gavaskar as a world-class player for Indian cricket. He braved the pain of a whitlow in the finger three days before departure. It got so painful that manager Keki Tarapore had to enquire if there was any doctor on board the plane. At the New York hospital, Sunny was told if he had delayed seeking medical help by 24 hours, gangrene would have set in and the finger - the middle one on the left hand - would have to be amputated. Later, in the fifth Test of the series at Port-of-Spain, he played with a painful toothache to score 124 and 220. He was brilliant.
Ajit Wadekar was talking to H Natarajan. This article first appeared on wisden.com in 2002.