Where was Ajit Wadekar when India were scoring their famous victory against England in England in 1971? Well, he was supposedly sleeping in the dressing room seemingly oblivious to the pandemonium that was happening all around him. I asked him years later if this was true. “Well, yes and no,” he replied. “I tried to sleep but after a while just kept my eyes shut so that I didn’t get over-excited as we got close to the winning target.”
On that historic day at the Oval, Wadekar had been run out by my father, the late Dilip Sardesai in the first over as India chased a relatively small total. The two Mumbai batsmen had played with each other since their college days in 1958 and had put together massive partnerships as a classic left- and right-hand pair.
Wadekar, in fact, had insisted on taking my father on the West Indies tour as a final selection choice, keen to have at least someone he could trust after having had the captaincy almost thrust upon him with the sudden removal of the charismatic Nawab of Pataudi.
And yet, despite their personal bonding, my father and Wadekar didn’t have the best record of running between the wickets while playing together. “Who made the wrong call?” I asked Wadekar. “Well, if you ask me it was Dilipya’s call , but if you ask your dad, he will always tell you there was an easy single in it.”
Shrewd cricket brain
That tour was the high watermark of Wadekar’s career as a Test captain. In the space of six months, the Indian team had quite remarkably defeated the West Indies in the West Indies and then England in England, both landmark overseas wins that gave Indian cricket much needed self-confidence at a time when we lost more matches than we won.
When the team returned to India, the euphoric crowds that had lined up the streets of Mumbai confirmed that Indian cricket had found a new unlikely hero. Ironically, three years later in 1974, when India lost in England, Wadekar’s home was stoned, a reflection of the fickleness of Indian fan behaviour.
As captain, Wadekar was sometimes described as “lucky” but in cricket you often make your own luck. Wadekar had a shrewd cricket brain and a calming presence that was crucial in winning right games. Later, as manager and coach in the 1990s, he was just as effective, guiding a young Indian side led by Azharuddin and mentoring the prodigious talents of Sachin Tendulkar to several victories at home.
In both, the early 1970s and the early 1990s, Wadekar was able to unleash the strength of Indian spin upon his rivals: the turning ball, he believed, was always India’s best weapon against most overseas teams.
My own abiding memory of Mr Wadekar comes from a rather unusual circumstance when I was starting off as a journalist. He once invited me over to his house for dinner. I readily accepted, thinking it would be a night of exciting cricket talk. As it turned out, he had invited a young woman to the dinner and wanted to play matchmaker. “Good family, nice girl, you will like her.”
The idea of an arranged marriage wasn’t quite my cup of tea (or rather lager) and the evening didn’t quite go as planned. Not that Mr Wadekar held it against me. “You know, I have been a banker all my life, so I thought I should suggest a safe option for you,” he said, laughing, puffing away on his cigarette.
Amol Palekar of cricket
That was typical Mr Wadekar, a man with a dry sense of humour, who on and off the field seemed to play within his limitations. I once described him as the Amol Palekar of cricket in the 1970s, the quintessential Maharashtrian middle-class hero from Shivaji Park with a pencil moustache, white shirt and tight black trousers and Kolhapuri chappals.
With his slightly bent gait and slow drawl and slightly accented vocabulary, he might not have suited the media age of today but for a quieter gentler era, he was the perfect cricket ambassador – which is a role he played for Indian cricket and State Bank of India with distinction. As he once told me, “I am married to SBI.”
He was also married to Indian cricket: no one has been involved in more Ranji trophy victories than Wadekar (he even has a triple hundred to his credit) and he has the distinction of having been captain, coach and chairman of selectors for Team India. We will all miss Wadekar sir. RIP.
Post script: my father loved his prawn curry and beer, Wadekar his fish and drink too. Maybe over plenty of fish and drink, the champion Mumbai batting duo of the 1960s can finally settle the argument as to who ran out who that day when, as one British newspaper headlined, the elephant came to the Oval!