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The year 1971 holds a special place in the history of Indian cricket. It was the year when Ajit Wadekar and his team conquered two of the toughest frontiers – the West Indies and England. With victories at Port of Spain and the Oval, India registered their first Test series triumphs on these lands.
In a chat filled with delightful anecdotes, Mr. Wadekar took BCCI.TV back in time and relived the most glorious year of his cricketing career.
You created history in 1971 with the twin series wins in West Indies and England. Can you recall the events that led you to becoming the captain?
Oh, very much. I cannot forget it, mainly because I wasn’t expecting to be made the captain, and replace Tiger Pataudi. He was always nice to me and we were very close. I told him one day, ‘Tiger, I am not getting many runs of late. Please make sure that I am in the team’. He said, ‘Okay, Ajit. But when you become the captain, you ensure that I am in the team’. I replied, ‘There is no chance of that happening, but if it does, you will be in the team’. When I came to know that I was appointed the captain, it came as a shock. It suddenly hit me what great responsibilities came with becoming the captain of the Indian cricket team, especially since I was taking over from Tiger – a man who had such charisma. It was going to be very difficult for me to lead the players who had played under Pataudi for so long, and to think how they would adjust and react to my captaincy. What worked in my favour was that coming from Bombay, I played a lot of cricket and interacted a lot with some of the senior players in the team, like Polly Umrigar, Ramakant Desai and Dilip Sardesai, and had a good idea about how to get the team together and win. My first series as the captain was against the mighty West Indies. Gary Sobers was my idol, and it was going to be tough to lead the team against his side.
Another thing we focused a lot was on our catching and fielding. We lacked in that aspect and I really wanted to change that. I gathered a few good close-in fielders in Srinivas Venkataraghavan, Sunil Gavaskar, Abid Ali, Eknath Solkar and myself. Our spinners needed the support of good close-in catching to be effective. We knew we were facing tough opponents but we didn’t want to bow down to them. This belief was instilled in the team by Tiger Pataudi, along with the fact that he stressed on the importance of fielding – he was an excellent fielder in the cover region himself. So, that came from him as well.
You enforced a follow-on in the first Test in WI, in Jamaica. Indian captains were not known to be so aggressive. Did your team protest much against that decision?
You’re right in saying that the Indian captains were not known to enforce the follow-on in those times, let alone going for a win over West Indies. The match was curtailed to four days and so the deficit of follow-on was reduced to 150 from 200. There was no way we could win because the wicket was rolled out extremely well. When I told my team-mates, most of them said, ‘No, no. We will have some batting practice’. But I was convinced that this was our chance to tell them that we are at par with them. I should have told the umpires that I am enforcing the follow-on, but instead I went straight to the West Indies dressing room, called Gary out and told him, ‘Looks like you are batting again’. He and his entire team were shocked, and there was silence in their dressing room. They were taken aback and that, I think, gave us some psychological edge going forward in the series.
You said you gave away a lot of wickets to Jack Noriega in the tour match before the second Test in Port of Spain, and he was picked for that Test ahead of Lance Gibbs.
It was a tactic. Sometimes such ploys fail, but in this case, it clicked perfectly. Jack Noriega was already getting a lot of wickets in domestic cricket. Had Lance Gibbs played against us on the turning pitch of Port of Spain, the picture would have been very different. We had faced him earlier and we knew how effective he would be on that pitch. So, we wanted to get Noriega in for the Test. But we also wanted to ensure that we didn’t lose the match since it was the President XI’s game. So, when we were absolutely sure that the match was going to be a draw, we said in the second innings, ‘Okay, let Jack have some wickets’. That swayed the selectors’ preference in Jack’s favour, and it made our jobs easier in the second Test.
In the Jamaica Test, you got hit by Uton Dowe and tore a blood vessel in hand. Yet you went on to score 70. Was it another statement from you to your team as the captain?
That was the important factor. We had fear of fast bowling because we were not used to facing such bowlers. As the captain I had to show to my batsmen that it is not a big deal. We can face them and score off them. When I was hit, I knew it was bleeding a bit, but I was sure it wasn’t a fracture. I didn’t take my gloves off because if I had seen the blood, it would have weakened me. I was generally a good hooker of the ball, but after that hit, I refrained from playing that shot.
That’s what I did at the Lord’s as well, when we toured England later that year. John Snow had just returned from Australia with the highest number of wickets. I could see that he was really fast. But I believed it was just a matter of adjusting to his pace. I walked in at one down and he naturally started bouncing me. I hooked his first four bouncers for fours, and he stopped bowling me bouncers. That’s what made everyone realise, ‘Okay, even John Snow, on his home-grown green wicket can also be played’.
Did Dilip Sardesai’s 212 in the first Test set the tone for the series?
Absolutely! It is very difficult to express in words how brilliant that innings was, given the circumstances, conditions and the opposition. It was one of the best innings I have seen. There’s no denying the fact that Dilip’s knock gave us tremendous confidence for the whole series. It told us that we could play and score against any bowler on even the fastest of wickets. It was a superlative effort from him.
Sunil Gavaskar made his debut in the second Test. What prompted the decision to play him?
From the day he started playing cricket, I knew it in my heart that he would play for India one day. He was a prolific batsman right from his school days and continued to score tons of runs in the Ranji Trophy for Mumbai, when I was the captain. He had everything – talent, concentration, and he wasn’t daunted by any bowler or the big names. It was rather sad that I had to drop Jayantilal for the second Test despite the fact that we all failed as batsmen in the first Test except Sardesai. But I knew Sunil had to make his Test debut and decided it was time.
We, as Indians, are superstitious. It was in my mind that whenever someone scored a century for India on debut, he failed miserably later on. So, I actually asked everyone in the change room to pray that Sunil doesn’t get a century, in both innings. He scored 65 and 67 in that match and then went on to pile on the runs.
He scored runs in abundance on that tour. But which one of his innings is your favourite and why?
His 220 in our second innings of the last Test was very crucial. West Indies were one down in the series and they wanted to win this Test by hook or by crook. So, without informing the Indian team, they got the Test extended by a day. I was batting with Sunil and I told him, ‘Whatever happens, you have to stay at the wicket. We don’t want to give the West Indies batsmen a chance to chase down a total’. And Sunny kept on batting even as wickets fell around him. We got 427, and West Indies managed to draw the match by two wickets.
The Port of Spain victory was India’s first in West Indies. Did it take time for the team to realise what they had just achieved?
We knew we had beaten this mighty team for the first time. It was personally very special for me to win against my idol, Gary Sobers. But we had three more matches to go. We knew we could not relax because guys like Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kalicharan – they could very well turn the tables on us. We were very determined to maintain our lead; if not win, at least draw the rest of the games. We knew if we let them sneak in with a win, they will gain in confidence and sit on us.
So, how were the celebrations at the end of the series?
The West Indies guys joined us in our dressing room with champagne bottles. They were very sporty; Rohan Kanhai (we used to call him Lali) was in our dressing room most of the times and then scored runs against us. We all had a ball. There were bands, calypsos and both the teams enjoyed together.
How did you utilise the three spinners on fast pitches? What made them succeed?
They were each one of their kind; much more superior to the other spinners in the world at that time. They could bowl well on any kind of wicket. Even on a fast pitch, there would be wear and tear, it would get slower in the second innings, and spots and roughs would be formed. To be able to exploit that was very important, and all our spinners were brilliant in that regards. In fact, in the second innings of the Port of Spain Test, I also brought on Salim Durani, who got the crucial wickets of Sobers and Lloyd.
Was Eknath Solkar the best close-in fielder you have seen in your life?
I would put him at the very top of the list of close-in fielders, especially at forward short leg. In order to field in those positions, you don’t only require quick reflexes and the skill of anticipation, but you also have to be fearless. In those days there were no helmets or any other protective gears. Any blow you take could be fatal. Fearless was what Solkar was. The instinct for anyone when the ball comes to you at that pace is to turn around. But Solkar never turned around. He waited for the batsman to miss it and then pounce on it.
Solkar was also a very street smart cricketer. In the Oval Test (third Test against England) later that year, it was crucial for us to get Alan Knott out early. When Knott walked in to bat, Ekkie came up to me and asked, ‘Captain, is it okay if I took the bails and put them in my pocket when Knott takes guard’? I told him it wasn’t against the law but asked him why he wanted to do that. He said, ‘I have noticed that whenever Knott takes his guard, he has a habit of marking it with a bail. I just want to see if not having a bail would affect him psychologically’. Knott looked behind for the bails and they weren’t there. He had no choice but to mark his guard with his shoe. And it played on his mind. He gave a bat-pad catch to Ekkie, who dived and plucked it, and Knott was out for 1. That, I thought was the turning point for us, which led to our win at the Oval.
I would have loved to play all four – Venky, Bishan, Prasanna and Chandra— but having four spinners elongates the tail a bit too much. So, I had to drop Pras. It wasn’t easy, but I knew that Chandra had to play. There are wicket-takers and then there are match-winners. Chandra was a match-winner. That spell that he bowled (6 for 38 at the Oval), was superb. It was outstanding. I got plenty of runs against him in domestic cricket. But if I were to face him on that day, on that wicket, I would have got out on a duck. He was simply unplayable. He was also supported by some brilliant catching. I remember the catch that Venky took off him in the slips to get Brian Luckhurst (England’s opening batsman). It was Chandra’s faster ball – his faster ball was faster than some of our medium pacers’ – and Luckhurst trying to square cut, ended up edging it. Venky swooped in and took an outstanding catch with ease.
The win at the Oval gave India back-to-back overseas series victories. That was unheard of in those days.
That is right. Most people back home dismissed the win in West Indies as a ‘flash in the pan’. The Indian team was not supposed to be consistent. But we wanted to prove to everyone that we can be. That was imbibed within the players in all our team meetings in England. We wanted to show the world that the Caribbean win was not a fluke. The difference between the two victories was that the one in WI came mainly on the back of Sardesai and Gavaskar’s batting, whereas in England, everyone contributed. We were all so possessed.
In that Oval Test, there is a story where your batsmen told you, they will score the runs and you took a nap. As a captain were you that relaxed and confident?
I was run-out off the first ball on the last day and we still needed 97 to win. I crossed GR Viswanath, who was walking in to bat. He said to me, ‘Relax, captain. Go and take a nap. We will get the runs’. I went back, watched for a while, but then Vishy and Farokh Engineer got a little tied down with runs. The superstition kicked in and I thought, ‘Let me go inside and see if they start scoring fluently’. The moment I went in, I heard some noise and it was a four. So, I decided to remain in. I lied down and fell asleep. Their manager, Ken Barrington, came and woke me up. He said, ‘Hey, Ajit, wake up. You know, you have won’? I said, ‘You don’t have to tell me. I knew we would win’.
What according to you was your biggest strength as captain?
The job of an Indian captain is much more difficult than say that of England, Australia or any other country. That is because we have people coming from all different backgrounds and cultures, speaking various languages. It is natural that guys speaking the same language will hang out together and although unconsciously, cliques could be formed. Then it becomes difficult to get together as a team because you don’t know what the other guy is talking about. The biggest challenge was to keep the whole team together. So, we had a system where all of us would meet at the bar every evening. Whether you have a beer or lemonade, doesn’t matter, but the relaxed atmosphere of a bar is a good place to just talk and mingle. Then someone would say, ‘Let’s go and have idli dosa’. The guy who is not from South India would also say, ‘Yes, it is a good change’. And he would join too. That would bind the team together.
Another important factor is to make every player feel wanted. Earlier, we had a system where we put the team sheet of the playing XI on the notice board in the dressing room before every game. I stopped that. For instance, when I had to drop ML Jaisimha, I went up to him and told him, ‘Jai, you are not scoring runs right now and I will have to drop you for this game’. He said, ‘I know I am not doing well, and I was going to ask you to rest me for a while’. That made him free and confident in the dressing room in sharing his tremendous experience and knowledge. He was a tremendous morale booster for the guys who were playing.