Calcutta, Sept. 6: Ajit Wadekar was shopping for curtains, back one January afternoon in 1971, when Vijay Merchant’s casting vote gave him the India captaincy for the West Indies tour.
That remains the most controversial act by any selection committee chairman in India. In fact, Merchant’s conduct had no precedent and nobody has attempted the same since.
Apparently, with East’s M.N. Dutta Roy mysteriously absent, the selectors were divided 2-2 on continuing with Mansur Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi. That’s when Merchant (representing West) chose to use the chairman’s trump card.
Incidentally, of that quintet, only South’s C.D. Gopinath is alive. Central’s M.M. Jagdale (father of current selector Sanjay) and North’s Bal Dani completed the selection committee.
Pataudi, one understands, had Jagdale and Gopinath’s support. Merchant and Dani wanted Wadekar. Had he been present, Dutta Roy would have voted for Pataudi, preventing the chairman from scripting a dubious chapter.
Wadekar, of course, had no inkling that he would be replacing Pataudi. That shopping exercise, therefore, continued for a couple of hours.
It’s when Wadekar returned home that he got the dramatic news from well-wishers waiting with laddoos and a hundred garlands.
“To say the least, I was taken aback… If somebody had to replace Pataudi, I’d assumed it would be Chandu Borde… Nobody had remotely suggested I was in the running,” Wadekar told The Telegraph this morning, shortly before returning to Mumbai.
[Wadekar was in the city as chief guest for yesterday’s prize distribution ceremony of the country’s premier schools’ chess tournament.]
Once through with being garlanded and stuffed with laddoos, Wadekar telephoned Pataudi for a candid one-on-one. That was the first call he made as India captain.
“Pataudi took the change in his stride and, when I asked if he was available to play under me, promptly said ‘yes.’ As for me, I assured Pataudi he would be in my side, which was to be picked the next day.
“In the morning, though, Pataudi called to say he was opting out for personal reasons… He wished me good luck and added I should convey his non-availability to the selectors… I was disappointed, but there was nothing I could do,” Wadekar recalled.
Indeed, Wadekar acknowledged he hadn’t been scoring in the Ranji Trophy in the lead-up to the selection — Team India, by the way, had no international commitments after the 1969-70 (home) series against Bill Lawry’s Australia — and had jokingly asked Pataudi to ensure he wasn’t dropped.
“That was when both of us happened to be together at the Brabourne nets… As it turned out, Pataudi got omitted and…” Wadekar pointed out, continuing: “Whatever anybody may say, Pataudi and I had a good understanding and it wasn’t uncommon to have a drink together… He would consult me and, when he played under my captaincy (1972-73, versus Tony Lewis’ England), I didn’t hesitate to seek his views… I regard Pataudi as one of the finest captains anywhere.”
Wadekar remains in the dark over why Merchant chose to sack Pataudi, but it has often been whispered that the chairman’s “strained” relationship with Pataudi’s father (Iftikhar Ali Khan, who played for England and India) influenced that move.
To settle an old score, it seems the son was made a victim.
As has been well documented, Wadekar authored history in the West Indies and, a few months later, also beat England in England. In 1974-75, however, Pataudi was back as captain — after Wadekar’s (premature) retirement.