Those tons proved so elusive

Aug 23, 2018, 07:30 IST | Clayton Murzello

Wadekar, who passed away last week, was not only a fine captain but batsman as well, who was unlucky at times in his 80s and 90s

Those tons proved so elusive
India captain Ajit Wadekar hooks England's Richard Hutton for a boundary en route his 85 at the Lord's Cricket Ground in London in 1971. Pic/Getty Images

Clayton MurzelloAjit Wadekar, who passed away last week, was paid rich tributes from all those who played with, against and under him. They all spoke about the captaincy qualities that came to the fore when Wadekar led India to their maiden triumphs in the West Indies and England in 1971.

The record books show that he scored only one Test century — at the Basin Reserve in Wellington – where India beat New Zealand to take a 2-1 lead in the 1967-68 series with one Test to go. But he had seven 80-plus scores in his 37-Test career and that included four 90s.

In my conversations with him, I regret not asking him about how it felt to walk off the Melbourne Cricket Ground after missing out on a century by one run. His 99 against Bob Simpson's Australians at cricket's coliseum in the 1967-68 series was India's second best batting effort after his skipper MAK Pataudi's innings of 75 and 85, played, as the media often emphasise, "on one leg and one eye."

Wadekar played a big role in India ending Day Three on a satisfactory note at 190 for three, with him being unbeaten on 97. Australian skipper Bobby Simpson brought himself on to start Day Four proceedings with his leg-spin. He could have called on his pacers — the wily Graham McKenzie, big David Renneberg or the cunning Alan Connolly — but Simpson was probably being generous. Wadekar took a couple of singles off Simpson, but on 99, he went down the track and hit one in the air and Paul Sheahan caught him at point. This was totally against the Mumbai school of batting. In the end, India suffered an innings defeat before Pataudi's majestic 85 moved Sir Donald Bradman to say to him, "I'd be proud to play an innings like that."

Six months prior to the Melbourne Test, Wadekar worked his way to 91 as India served up a surprising performance in their second innings against England at Leeds. They reached 510 while following on before Brian Close's team won by six wickets. At one stage, the hosts looked confident of not having to bat again, but they were thwarted by centurion Pataudi before the 168-run stand for the second wicket between Wadekar and Farokh Engineer, who fell 13 short of a century. In Tiger's Tales, Pataudi felt it was a, "display of belligerence in a tight corner which seldom if ever, have been excelled in Indian Test cricket." Wadekar, however, enjoyed three lives in that 91 before being caught at leg slip by Close off Illingworth.

Wadekar's next substantial score was 91 not out against Bill Lawry's Australians at Delhi where India made a comeback in the series. Australia were bowled out for 107 in the second innings and India were set 181 to win. Some of the Australians believed that the track was far benign than the one they batted on and they let India win by seven wickets with Wadekar and rookie Gundappa Viswanath getting the runs. Viswanath told me that the track was a, "typical Delhi wicket – low and slow – and you had to earn your runs. It was not conducive to strokeplay and Ajit played really well."

The pair got together at 61 for three when nightwatchman Bishan Singh Bedi was dismissed and they took India to victory through their 120-run partnership amidst fire crackers. "I don't think Ajit was disappointed at missing a hundred. We wanted a win badly after the big defeat in Mumbai and the draw in Kanpur." Unfortunately for India, they went on to lose the next two Tests. He got a fine 62 in the second innings of the Kolkata Test where he watched seven batsmen depart from the other end.

His grit prompted Ray Robinson, the doyen of Australian cricket journalists, to write: "Ever since his Melbourne 99 I have been unable to guess why the bats Ajit Wadekar handles with natural ease did not stack up more than 2113 runs in his 37 Tests. This time, the quick-sighted Bombay left-hander so curbed his strokes in a dutiful attempt to give the innings backbone that 32 of his 62 runs came in singles."

A disappointing tour with the bat on the victorious 1971 tour of the West Indies was followed by a better show in England. In his very first innings of the Test series, Wadekar struck 85 at Lord's. He blasted 40 of India's first 50 of the Test and by the time he reached his half century, the India score was just 66 with a cautious Dilip Sardesai at the other end. He decided that attack was the best weapon on a dark day and John Snow's first ball to Wadekar was hooked to the midwicket boundary. The Lord's Test ended in a draw. India could have won had it not been for the weather.

At the Oval where India claimed the series, Wadekar's contribution was 48 and 45. It is reported that Wadekar fell asleep in the dressing room after his run out dismissal and had to be woken up by England manager Ken Barrington as the winning runs were being hit. Wadekar sleeps forever now, but his batting deeds need to be kept alive.

mid-day's group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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