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From CK To VK. Indian Skippers In England- Part 7

We are back after a small break. From Mansoor Ali Khan (Tiger) Pataudi in From CK To VK. Indian Skippers In England- Part 6, we move on to the next captain- Ajit Wadekar a god’s gift to Indian Cricket. Wadekar was the precious possession Indian cricket chucked away with its brash arrogance. Sad that his story is all but summed up in these two sentences.

The Indian Cricket team left for England in 1971 with the most upbeat mindset, as compared to the Indian teams that had toured United Kingdom previously. Fresh from a series win over Gary Sobers’ mighty West Indians (albeit against a depleted bowling attack), India had batsmen who could score big and bat long periods overseas in Gavaskar and Sardesai, the artistry of Vishwanath was at their disposal, and with a string of bits and pieces allrounders in Abid Ali and Solkar, quality spinners in Chandrashekhar, Bedi, Prasanna and Venkatraghavan, an express bowler Govindraj and a Farrokh Engineer who can be called an ancestor to dashing wicketkeeper batsmen like Kaluwitharana, Adam Gilchrist, Brendon Mc Cullum and our own Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Ajit Wadekar
Ajit Wadekar
Engineer, Bedi and Venkat had been playing county cricket regularly for 3 seasons from 1968, when the English board allowed overseas players to play for counties. More importantly, the squad never appeared to be complacent, because the English team had Boycott, Fletcher, Edrich, who were supreme batsmen, a world class all-rounder in Basil D’ Olivera, the world’s greatest wicketkeeper in the eccentric Alan Knott, who was no mean batsman, and a fierce bowling attack comprising of John Snow, Peter Lever, Norman Gifford, Dereck Underwood, and the captain Raymond Illingworth, a shrewd bowler, useful batsman, and the best cricket brain in business. It was going to be a closely fought series, and so it turned out to beThe background of Wadekar’s appointment is curious too. He was a moderately successful batsman before the 1971 tour of the West Indies with many other players in the team faring better than him, yet Vijay Merchant, the Chairman of the Selection Committee had vetoed his name in place of the charismatic MAK Pataudi. It was a bold decision and Merchant was criticized of favoring the fellow Bombayite Ajit Wadekar. However, the uproar had died down after the team recorded India’s first series victory in the West Indies. The unassuming “khadoos” attitude of Wadekar was needed to marshal the resources the team had, and Wadekar showed that he fit the job like a hand in the glove.

Wadekar grew up in the Mumbai maidans where even tennis ball cricket is played with only one motive. To win. He was aspiring to be an engineer, and a chance meeting in a BEST bus with Baloo Gupte made him into a cricketer. A languid graceful left-handed stroke-maker, Wadekar could stonewall equally effectively. He was a part of the Mumbai Squad who won the Ranji trophy 15 times on the trot from 1958 to 1971. He had played a pivotal role in India’s first overseas test win against New Zealand scoring 80 and 71 in the test. He captained India to their first overseas series win. Wadekar certainly knew how to win.

Out of the first eight matches against the county teams, India had won 5 out of which four were successive wins. The Morale was certainly puffed up, and the England team felt the heat in the first test at Lords. England’s first essay counted for 304 runs, the top scorer strangely, being their premier bowler John Snow (73). Bedi was the pick of the bowlers with four wickets. India fared only slightly better, mustering up 313 in their first Innings. The captain top-scored with 85, Vishwanath made a sparkling 68 and Solkar a dogged 67. England fared even worse in the second innings, and on a deteriorating pitch, they crumbled to 191 against Bedi, Venkat and Chandra. Only Edrich batted well for 62.

India were to chase 183 to win, which could have been their first test match win at the Lords. But the occasion had to wait for another fifteen years. Apart from a fighting 53 by the prodigal Sunil Gavaskar, there was no substantial resistance shown, and in the end Solkar and Venkatraghavan had to hang on by the skin of their teeth to ensure that the match was not lost. Rain came to the rescue too. When we think of this innings, it is a case of “what might have been…” Both Solkar and Venkatraghavan were no mugs with the bat and who knows, they might as well have scored the required 38 runs for the win. But the elusive win had to wait for a few more days. This was the first occasion where India had not lost the first test of a series in England against England.

But any pretense of complacency which might have creeped in due to the performance at Lords was quickly wiped out in the second test at Manchester. England were rocked by Abid Ali’s opening spell and stuttered at 4 for 25 yet posted 386 in the first innings riding on a captain’s knock of107 by Ray Illingworth and 78 by debutante John Jameson. With the Manchester pitch and weather known to have mood swings comparable to any self-obsessed film star, this was a mammoth total. India could make only 212 in reply and suffered a deficit of 174 runs. Gavaskar scored 57, which the little master himself rates as his best knock. Solkar made 50. No other batsman resisted the English attack. Peter Lever on his home ground broke the backbone of the Indian batting taking 5 wickets. In the second innings England rattled 245 for 3, Lackhurst making 101 and John Edrich 59. India were given a target of 420 runs to win. India batted for 27 overs scoring 65 for the loss of 3 wickets on the fourth day. The fifth day was washed out, and the match ended in a draw.

With two tests played in the series and each of the team having dominated one, Wadekar now started feeling the pressure of the over-expectant Indian public. His decisions of not including seamer Govindraj and Erapalli Prasanna (Whom Gary Sobers had rated to be the best off-spinner in the game) in the playing eleven was criticised. Wadekar had opted for Abid Ali owing to his ability to swing the cricket ball, and the portly Prasanna’s claims were outweighed by Venkat being better with the bat, a much fit and agile fielder and familiar with the English conditions.

Wadekar and India had much to prove in the final test at the Oval.The team had to utilize their vast reservoirs of resilience and be aggressive when the opportunity would present itself to grab it. And they did just that. Illingworth won the toss, England batted first and scored 355. Knott made 90, Jameson made 82, and Richard Hutton, justifying being the son of papa Len, made 81. Solkar’s medium pace brought 3 wickets and the rest were shared by Chandra, Bedi and Venkat. India replied with 284, Wadekar and Solkar making useful forties, and Sardesai and Engineer making 50s. India trailed by 71 runs.

England begin their second innings, and Jameson was run out with a freak throw from Chandra when the score was at 21. Wadekar called in Chandra to bowl. The medium pace of Abid and Solkar was largely proving ineffective, yet the ball was new, and hence Wadekar may have preferred Chandra’s fastish leg breaks (like Anil Kumble’s) over the finger spin of Bedi and Venkat. Chandra immediately obliged by castling the stumps of John Edrich and having Fletcher caught by Solkar, both not allowed to score. The wickets of D’Olivera, Knott, Hutton and Illingworth fell around Lackhurst, and eventually he too fell to Chandra scoring 33. Hutton and Snow threw their bats around and England barely managed to get to three figures, folding up for 101. Chandra’s 6 for 38 would be written in letters of gold in the history of Indian cricket, Venkat took two wickets, and Bedi had one.

India needed 173 to win. Doable, yet easier said than done. The ruthless professional Englishmen won’t give up easily. Snow bowled Gavaskar for a duck and fellow opener Mankad’s wicket followed quickly. Then the two Senior Pros, the “khadoosest” of Mumbai batsmen Sardesai and Captain Wadekar got together and took the score to 76, when Wadakar was run out for 45.

Jitters !!!

Then came the tiny Vishwanath to join the Burly Sardesai (Rajdeep’s papa) and the two added another 48 runs before Sardesai fell with the score at 124. India yet had to get 49 more, but Eknath Solkar, who had inevitably scored useful runs when the batting seemed wobbling on the tour, chose the most wrong moment to fail. He scratched around for 16 balls, scored a solitary run and was snared in the standard Underwood’s trap. Caught and bowled Underwood. In walked the Brylcream boy of Indian cricket, the debonair Farrokh Engineer. Along with Vishwanath, he took the score within 3 runs of victory, and Vishy fell for 33. In came Abid Ali, played 3 balls watchfully, smashed the fourth one for four, and won India the match and the series.
Wadekar’s Indians had tamed the English lions right in their den. Things were changing. Having beaten the West Indies and England, the best teams of the time in two successive series, Wadekar had turned the often written off Indian Cricket team to a fighting unit. A famous Victory bat was erected in Indore by fans to commemorate this victory. Wadekar was to repeat the feat in the following home series in 1972-3, when India beat England 2-1 in a five-match series.

With these two series wins under his belt, Wadekar again led the Indian team to England in 1974. However, things would be much different this time around. In order to accommodate two series in the season, against Pakistan and India, the English season was extended to August and India was to play it’s matches in one of the coldest and wettest English summer. Hardly cricketing conditions, yet the Englishmen were more adept at playing in these conditions. Old Pro Dilip Sardesai had retired. Wadekar had requested Tiger Pataudi to play, but he had declined.

England too were far from merry. They had been drubbed the previous summer by a resurgent West Indies and then outplayed in a return series in the Caribbean, from which they had emerged with an unlikely draw. What’s more, Mike Denness, appointed as England captain for that tour, was a far from unanimous choice and he had been under immense media pressure from day one.

The old custom of India losing first test on an England tour was restored as India lost to England by 113 runs. England batted first, made 328 for 9 (Fletcher 128) and declared their innings closed. In reply, India made 246, Gavaskar scoring a flawless 101 and Abid Ali made 71. England extended their 82 runs lead by a further 213 batting again( John Edrich 100), setting India 296 to win. Indian second innings was thrown into a disarray by England’s pace bowlers and they were all out for 182. Gavaskar made 58 and Vishwanath made 50, but it wasn’t enough.

Riding high, England scored 629 in the first innings of the second test at Lords. Dennis Amiss made 188, Captain Mike Denness made 118, Tony Greig 106 and John Edrich made 96. With Bedi tossing up the ball in a “no matter what” fashion, the English batsmen made merry. Bedi returned with 6 wickets, conceding a small matter of 226 runs. India replied with 302, Engineer making a swashbuckling 86, Vishwanath 52, and Gavaskar and Solkar getting useful 40s. India were asked to follow on and they followed on disastrously. They were shot out for 42 in 17 overs. Solkar (18 not out) was the top scorer. Wickets were shared by Chris Old (5) and Geoff Arnold (4). Bhagwat Chandrashekhar had injured his thumb and did not come in to bat in the second dig. Not that it would have made much of a difference.

Indian cricket had hit a new low. The summer of 1974 came to be known as the Summer of 42, a blot on the name of Indian Cricket. The team morale was shattered, and so was the unity. Defeats are orphans, Success has many fathers. The very people who had heaped praise on Wadekar, were now calling for his head. The Victory bat erected in Indore in 1971 was painted black and subsequently destroyed by angry fans. Wadekar was lonely. The footmarks of the earlier victories seemed to be washing away by waves of disaster. But he had to stand.

Off the field there was a lack of unity. The squad became involved in a public row when they were told they would not be admitted for arriving late at an Indian High Commission reception. Opener Sudhir Naik was arrested for shoplifting. The charge was then proved to be wrong. The team was in shambles, both on and off the field.

India began the third test at Birmingham on this background. They were put in to bat, and on the first ball of the match Gavaskar was removed by Geoff Arnold. India somehow tottered to 5 for 115, then Farrokh Engineer took over, scored 64 not out and India made 165 in the first innings. England replied with 459 for 2. Amiss made 79, Mike Denness helped himself to yet another 100, Fletcher made 51, and David (Bumble) Lloyd made 214. Bedi took 1 for 152 and Prasanna 1 for 101. India made 216 in the second innings. Sudhir Naik, putting the earlier humiliating incident behind him scored a valiant 77. Ashok Mankad made 43 and Engineer 33. India lost by an innings and 78 runs and took the series 3-0. The final nail was hammered into Wadekar’s coffin.

Wadekar was voraciously criticized by the Indian media, and promptly dumped by the selection committee headed by C D Gopinath. The most victorious captain of the Indian cricket team had no place in the Duleep and Irani trophy by the end of the season. The hurt Wadekar announced his retirement from all forms of cricket. He concentrated on his banking career and retired as a very high ranked officer from State bank of India. But he returned to his first love post retirement, and went on to coach the Indian team, and tried to instill discipline in the team successfully.

Despite the tragic end to his playing days, Wadekar will always be remembered as the Captain who taught Indian cricket team to win.

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