A terrific sport, modest and author of a formula

AjitBhai , a highly-successful captain, who never really got his due

By LOKENDRA PRATAP SAHI in Calcutta
  • Published 17.08.18
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Some of the India players, including captain Virat Kohli, and members of the support staff observe two minute’s silence in memory of Ajit Wadekar, at Trent Bridge on Thursday. The third India-England Test of the five-match series begins on Saturday. India trail 0-2 after losing at Edgbaston and Lord’s. (AP)

Calcutta: Being an ardent Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi admirer, I was never quite wowed by Ajit Laxman Wadekar. Till, of course, I got to know him - initially purely casually and, then, rather closely after he became India's cricket manager/coach in the latter part of 1992.

From then on, Wadekar was 'Ajit Bhai'.

Wadekar featured in my two earliest memories of cricket. Both involved Pataudi too, which explains why the first India captain to win three Test series in-a-row (first two overseas) wasn't anywhere at the top of my favourites' list.

The first... Reading and hearing that Vijay Merchant, the selection committee chairman in 1970-1971, had used his casting vote to remove Pataudi from the captaincy. Wadekar, a fellow Mumbaikar who predominantly batted at No. 3, got the job.

As for the second memory... India's first-ever Test series victory in the West Indies, under Wadekar.

The first directly concerned Pataudi, the second indirectly.

It was Raj Singh Dungarpur, also no more, who introduced me to Wadekar at the Wankhede in the second half of the 1980s.

Impressions?

No.1 that Wadekar had no airs about him, smoked a lot, dressed simply (usually, in light grey trousers and white bush shirts) and walked at a pace which suggested he was reluctant to do so.

That last bit definitely came as a surprise, for Wadekar was such a smart runner between wickets and supremely agile standing close to the 'keeper.

Captain Ajit Wadekar with teammates Bhagwath Chandrasekhar and Dilip Sardesai acknowledge the cheers from the crowd at The Oval after India defeated England by four wickets, on August 24, 1971. It was not only India’s first Test victory in England, it also marked India’s first Test series win there. (Getty Images)

Getting back to the way Wadekar dressed... It was in more recent years that Wadekar took a liking for colourful shirts ("young at heart, you know," he'd quip).

That Wadekar could be so witty I learned after knowing him better.

Sunil Gavaskar, in his touching tribute, has talked about Wadekar and his famous " arre kay re." Another would be his signing-off "ciao, okay, ciao."

Late on Wednesday, when news of Wadekar's demise broke, there was immense sadness and then three recollections came to mind.

It was during the 1995 Asia Cup in Sharjah that my 'Bookies evicted from players' box' report appeared on the front page of The Telegraph.

I had taken no names, but Mohammed Azharuddin, the captain at that point in time, got very upset. The report had either been read out or faxed to him from India.

After the next match, Azharuddin refused to attend the Media conference if I was present. That, at least, is what was conveyed.

A senior journalist from Mumbai intervened on behalf of the Media and carried a message to Wadekar. Basically, that Azharuddin should spell out his problem.

Caught between his captain and the Media, Wadekar proposed a middle path: That he'd convince Azharuddin to take questions, but I must refrain from asking anything.

Azharuddin faced the Media, I kept quiet. The Wadekar Formula was respected.

The way Wadekar handled that episode showed (a) his man-management skills; (b) his respect for the Media.

Wadekar's lengthy tenure ended with India's exit in the semi-final of the 1996 World Cup.

In the lead-up, I'd written that Wadekar should have persuaded Kapil Dev not to retire in late 1994, but to make himself available as a batsman only till the premier tournament.

Wadekar perhaps took note and our relationship got strained somewhat. Later, there were one or two issues when he occupied the chief selector's position.

Despite that, however, Wadekar agreed to a request I made on behalf of this newspaper - to be the chief guest at the awards function of the 2003 schools' chess tournament.

By not turning down the request, Wadekar showed he bore no grudges and, in fact, was such a terrific sport.

That was recollection No.2.

A one-on-one with Wadekar over breakfast at his Sportsfield residence in Worli, ahead of India's 2006-2007 tour of South Africa, remains special.

Wadekar was relaxed, in white shorts and white Tee. An indulgent host, he allowed to be interviewed for over an hour.

Standing at a window of his living room (the Worli Sea Link was then a work in progress), Wadekar looked towards the Arabian Sea and almost whispered "beautiful, is it not?"

How could one disagree with an India captain who gave us so many beautiful moments? Yet, and believe me, he never spoke of his achievements.

According to an old-timer, Wadekar credited debutant Gavaskar, Dilip Sardesai and Eknath Solkar for the win in the West Indies and the magical Bhagwath Chandrasekhar for the victory in England.

It's sad that Wadekar, a product of the pre-TV era, never got the recognition he actually deserved. People often mentioned the disastrous tour of England in 1974 (his last series as captain), not always the momentous wins of 1971.

Did it affect Wadekar? Possibly, yes, but he never let any hurt show.