Ajit Wadekar lived the stories as he told them – one could see his face light up as he would recount a particular deed. As he would approach the punchline, he always had a laugh ready. It wasn’t a deep throaty laugh that would envelop the room, rather it was a chuckle… a mischievous one at that. If one sat with him long enough, he would almost always transport you back to the era where cricket was played just for the love of the game.

A left-handed batsman, he made his debut for Bombay in the 1958-’59 season but had to fight to retain his place in a side bristling with talent. It was a side that did not know how to lose… Mumbai won consecutive titles from 1955-’56 to 1972-’73. It is said that Polly Umrigar – the undisputed leader of Bombay and Indian cricket at the time – did not think very highly of him. The story goes that once when he scored 151, he was criticised for giving his wicket away too easily. He ended up waiting till 1966-’67 to make his India debut despite averaging about 50 in domestic cricket.

The first two Tests of the series against the West Indies didn’t go too well for him but in the third Test in Madras, he finally made an impression… hooking Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith on his way to a spirited 67. That was the beginning of a wonderful run for him. In an ever-changing India side, he was the permanent fixture for three years. He wouldn’t have realised it then but those three years changed the course of Indian cricket in more ways than one can imagine.

Vijay Merchant, then the chairman of selectors, did not like the way MAK Pataudi was handling things and it wasn’t getting India the results needed to move ahead as a Test nation. He felt a change at the helm would help things. Now, most people including Wadekar thought that the fight for captaincy was between Pataudi and Chandu Borde. In fact, Wadekar wasn’t even sure he would be picked for the squad as he had not done very well in domestic cricket that season. So in an attempt to pre-empt the decision, he called Pataudi, a good friend, and jocularly asked him to save a spot for him in the team.

“Tiger, you are going to be the captain; see that I am in the team,” Wadekar had then said.

Tiger laughed and said, “Not to worry, Ajit. If I am the captain, you will be certainly there in the team. But, there is one condition: if you become the captain, you see that I am in the team.”

Surprise call

As things turned out, Merchant’s casting vote as chairman of selectors made Wadekar the captain of the Indian team, ending Pataudi’s record run of 36 Tests as skipper. Merchant had been a long-time admirer of Wadekar’s leadership skills and and while the latter was still in college, the former India great had predicted that he would captain India one day. That day had arrived.

Wadekar was out buying curtains with his wife when the news was announced and his first point of action was to immediately call Pataudi and tell him that there was a place for him in the squad. Pataudi asked for a day to consider his options and eventually declined the offer.

That was how the reign of Wadekar, the man who taught India how to win overseas, began.

His first assignment was not an easy one. India were going to the West Indies and Garry Sobers was their talisman. India had failed to win a single Test against the West Indies in the Caribbean and Wadekar had identified the reason behind that. According to him, India liked to play attractive strokes and entertaining cricket… and that didn’t always lead to victory. He wanted to change that. With that goal in mind, he fought for and got Dilip Sardesai picked for the tour. It proved to be his trump card over and over again.

Mind-game expert

But Wadekar was also a master of mind games. Some of the stories are pretty astounding. None more so than the tale of Jack Noreiga, an off-spinner, whose Test careers lasted just four matches – all against India. During at interview, Wadekar recounted his trick:

“The West Indies brought in Jack Noreiga, an off-spinner. He was quite good, could turn the ball and was getting a lot of wickets in domestic cricket. But their best off-spinner was Lance Gibbs, who had a lot of wickets to his credit and could have been really dangerous. So in the match against the Board President’s XI, we gave him as many wickets as possible, all the while ensuring that we do not lose the match. So in the first innings he got six wickets, and in the second innings, he got seven or eight. And the selectors were in a fix. They had to pick him for the Tests.”

But that was just the beginning. In the rain-affected first Test, Wadekar enforced the follow-on. The first day was rained off and that meant the deficit needed to be just 150 runs and not the 200 runs it usually is.

“There was no chance to win as such but I wanted to put some psychological pressure on them. So I asked the team whether we should enforce the follow-on? Most of the boys replied in the negative and wanted to have some batting practice in the middle. But I insisted that we must put some pressure on them and we can always have batting practice in the nets. This would be the first time that India would be enforcing a follow-on on the West Indies.”

The conversation as a chuckling Wadekar remembered it, went like this :

“So I went straight to the West Indies dressing room, instead of sending the message to the umpires, and asked him, “Mr Sobers would you like to bat?” He looked surprised and asked me whether I was enforcing the follow-on, and did I know the rules. There should be at least a 200-run deficit. I said, “Perhaps you forgot to read further. It also says that in a match, which has been curtailed by a day, the deficit has to be a hundred and fifty runs.” Sobers still sat there in a state of shock and asked again: ‘Are you sure?’

I said, ‘I am,’ and he could clarify with the umpires, ‘but you are going to bat.’”

That moment was a huge boost for the Indian team from a psychological point of view. That and how Sunil Gavaskar came to the party. Gavaskar’s arrival meant that India had a batsman they could count on. It was perhaps another sign of luck favouring Wadekar.

Triumph in England

A famous triumph was arrived at but an even more famous one was going to happen during the 1971 tour of England. A superstitious man at the best of times, Wadekar would put on the left pad before the right pad and always be the last man to board the team bus. But he was told by an astrologer that if they left for the tour on June 17, they would be assured of victory. So that is exactly what they did. But just because he was superstitious, it didn’t mean he was blinded by it. He still knew that they needed to produce the goods in the middle.

India started the tour of England well, winning tour game after tour game. They were winning so many matches that Wadekar became worried about the mental state of his side. They were becoming overconfident, he thought. So, he started praying for a defeat!

“And it happened, we kept on winning, until I realised we were actually becoming over-confident, which happens with Indian teams all the time. So I was actually hoping that we should lose one tour match, to bring the team back to earth, and against Essex we lost. The conditions were bad and though we did lose, I frankly wasn’t that serious about the game. Of course, I didn’t tell the boys that, though,” said Wadekar in an interview.

Still, it is the little things that make captains great. And Wadekar did all of that. His use of Chandrashekhar during the famous win at Oval is the stuff of legend, as is the 6/38 spell. England didn’t know what hit them and you have to remember that this was an era where world cricket revolved around England. This defeat, in the eyes of many, was inconceivable.

Wadekar, however, kept up the mind games right till the end. Even as India won the match, Wadekar had fallen asleep on the massage table. He only woke up when England’s manager, Ken Barrington, came and told him that India had won. “I looked up at him and asked, ‘Who asked you to wake me up? I knew we were going to win.’”

It didn’t always go as well and India being bowled out for 42 during the 1974 tour of England was the death knell for his captaincy. But he left his mark on Indian cricket in more ways than one. His batting numbers are perhaps not that great – an average of 31.07, one century and 14 fifties were not exceptional even for that era but perhaps, like Mike Brearley, he knew how to get the best out of his team.

He went on to serve as India’s manager in the 1990s, helping Mohammed Azharuddin make the most of the spinners he had at his disposal. During this era, India became almost unbeatable at home. He later went on to become chairman of the selectors as well.

Still, I will remember him most for that delightful chuckle. One that perhaps belonged to a much more innocent age. Rest in peace, Wadekar Sir, you will be missed.