A childhood friend pays tribute to one of Mumbai’s biggest cricketing heroes on his landmark birthday today
The moment I realised that Ajit Laxman Wadekar will complete 75 today, my memory raced back to the mid-1950’s. I know Ajit since our childhood. Both of us stayed at Shivaji Park and played tennis ball cricket together.
Ajit was the captain of our team when I joined Ruia College. He was also at the helm when I was selected to represent Bombay University. His statistics, particularly at the international level (2113 runs in 37 Tests), never did justice to the quality of his batting. He was a far superior batsman — very stylish and spectacular. His drives were sharp and he would rank very high among batsmen who played wristy shots.
He could destroy the length and rhythm of any bowler of international repute. Ajit played all the shots effortlessly. His on-drives, pulls, hooks and square-cuts were simply eye-catching. During 1962-63 inter-varsity tournament, he had three-figure scores in almost every match. He scored a lot of runs in the Ranji Trophy matches as well.
Captain Ajit Wadekar hits out in India's first innings during the third Test against England at the Oval in 1971. Pic/Getty Images
In those days, Mumbai’s batting line up was so strong that Ajit would normally bat at No 6. He would be promoted to No 3 if the match was played on matting or if it was a difficult pitch to bat on. Ajit never let the side down on such occasions and did full justice to the confidence reposed in him by his seniors. Incidentally, he is the only player who figured in all the 15 consecutive victorious Ranji Trophy seasons for Mumbai.
Among his many sterling batting performances, the ones that are worth mentioning are the triple century against Mysore and a double century against Rajasthan. The Mysore bowling attack included BS Chandrasekhar and EAS Prasanna whereas Rajasthan team had Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte, Salim Durrani and Chandu Joshi.
Ajit Wadekar at the mid-day office on February 15 when he was shown some old footage of his cricketing days. Pic/Shadab Khan
In one inter-collegiate match, Ajit was involved in a century partnership for the last wicket with Suresh Sabnis. Ajit’s contribution in this partnership was 99 runs. Another match that I vividly remember was between Shivaji Park Gymkhana and Dadar Union in the Matunga Invitation tournament played at Shivaji Park. These 75-overs- a- side matches commenced on Saturday afternoon. Shivaji Park batted first and scored 200 runs in 50 overs.
Ajit was not out on 90. The next day, in the remaining 25 overs, Ajit and Vishoo Bondre plundered 200 runs with Ajit completing his double century. Such was the mastery of Ajit’s strokes that the Dadar Union fielders were left with the job of only retrieving the ball from the boundary.
Ajit is one of the best close-in fielders that I have seen. Tall and slim, his hands were so big that in his palms, a cricket ball would look like a lemon. He had a royal, relaxed walk which appeared lethargic, but he could move at a lightning speed while fielding. He would mostly field at first slip. Being a left-hander, he could keep more than a normal gap between himself and the wicketkeeper. I have seen him taking some mind-boggling catches in the slips.
I remember the great catch that he took to get rid of Pandu Kotkar in the Ruia versus Siddharth College match. The ball from our medium-pace bowler, Vinod Karande, swung late and took the outer edge of Kotkar’s bat. Anticipating that the ball would land short and thus be out of the reach of Ajit at first slip, our wicketkeeper SB Dixit dived across, but the ball deflected off his outstretched glove towards the vacant second slip. By this time, Ajit had already moved to his left to take the catch.
As Dixit dived, Ajit lost the sight of the ball. He had barely a split second at his disposal as he saw the ball flying towards his right. He moved to his right in a flash and caught the ball inches off the ground. This catch is so fresh in my memory that I feel as if it happened only the other day.
Ajit’s leadership qualities were known to all since his college days itself. It was under his captaincy that India had series wins in West Indies and England in 1971. The entire cricket world was taken aback by India’s stupendous performance. Ajit was an intelligent captain. Even in the most difficult situations, he would remain calm and composed. He was a firm believer in preparing well.
He would hold a meeting of all the players and plan out the team’s strategy after taking into consideration their suggestions. The good part was that he always had a contingency plan in case the original plan misfired. And thus, one rarely found him caught in a helpless situation. It is no wonder that he did remarkably well even as a manager and coach of the Indian cricket team. Happy 75th, skipper!
Vilas Godbole is the author of My Innings in Mumbai Cricket