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The best of Ajit Wadekar

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Ajit_Wadekar_India_CricketAjit Wadekar, who passed away on August 15, will be forever remembered as one of India’s finest captains. Under him, India beat the West Indies (1970-71) and England (1971) away from home for the first time, in a span of four months. While he is best known for overseeing these twin triumphs, Wadekar was also a stylish left-handed batsman who was instrumental in some of India’s most significant victories. Here is a look back, in tribute, at his best batting performances.

91 v England, First Test, Headingley, 1967

This was Wadekar’s first overseas Test, after having played two matches in his debut series at home against the West Indies a few months earlier. Batting at the crucial number three position, the then 26-year-old Mumbai batsman had a forgettable outing in the first innings, as he was run out without opening his account. India folded for just 164 in reply to England’s mammoth 550/4, and were asked to follow on. In the second innings, Wadekar came in to bat with the score at 5/1.

Wadekar joined Farokh Engineer, and the duo stitched together a stand of 168, then India’s highest for the second wicket against England. He handled the pace of John Snow and the off-spin of Ray Illingworth with equal adeptness, and struck 16 glorious fours before falling for 91 early on the fourth day. Captain Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi built on this platform, scoring 148 to take the total to 510, which gave the Indians something to cheer about in a six-wicket defeat.

80 and 71 v New Zealand, First Test, Dunedin, 1967-68

Wadekar played a pivotal role in India’s first ever overseas Test win, with Carisbrook in Dunedin being the scene of the historic occasion. After the Indian bowlers reduced New Zealand from 200/1 to 350 all out, Wadekar held the top order together with a fluent 80, on the way sharing in vital partnerships worth 79 with Engineer (63) and 74 with Rusi Surti for the second and third wickets respectively. This effort enabled India to take a narrow lead of nine runs.

India were duly set a target of 200 - only once before had India chased down more to win. Syed Abid Ali and Engineer were dismissed with 49 on the board, but Wadekar was in his element, and again found support from Surti. They added 103 for the third wicket, and by the end of the fourth day, India were 161/3, with Wadekar on 71*. Though he could not add to his overnight score, Wadekar had done enough to secure a five-wicket win for his team on the final day.

143 v New Zealand, Third Test, Wellington, 1967-68

New Zealand levelled the series with a six-wicket win at Christchurch, making this encounter at the Basin Reserve extremely important in the context of the four-match series. New Zealand succumbed to the wiles of off-spinner Erapalli Prasanna (5/32) to be bundled out for 186, giving India a great opportunity to dictate terms. Wadekar walked to the middle at the fall of the first wicket, that of Abid Ali with the score at 18, and embarked upon a series-changing innings.

Wadekar made it a point to share in meaty partnerships from time to time. He added 60 with Engineer for the second wicket, 66 with Pataudi for the fourth, and 70 with Motganhalli Jaisimha for the sixth, before being the eighth man out for a brilliant 143 - his only Test century - that took six and a quarter hours and featured 12 fours. After two dismissals in the nineties, including a 99 against Australia at Melbourne two months earlier, Wadekar had breached the three-figure mark.

India ultimately gained a sizeable first-innings lead of 141, and thanks to a haul of 6/43 from left-arm spinner Bapu Nadkarni, were left with a target of just 59, which they overhauled for the loss of two wickets. A memorable 3-1 series victory was completed with a comprehensive 272-run win in the final Test at Auckland. Wadekar’s contribution was certainly one of the catalysts for this success - he finished as India’s highest run-getter, with 328 runs at an average of 46.85.

91* v Australia, Third Test, Delhi, 1969-70

India’s only win in this five-Test series, which they would go on to lose 3-1, came at the Feroz Shah Kotla. After India conceded a lead of 73 on a grassless pitch, left-arm spinner Bishan Singh Bedi (5/37) and Prasanna (5/42) turned the tables by demolishing Australia for 107. India’s chase of 181 began poorly, as off-spinner Ashley Mallett removed both the openers, Engineer and Ashok Mankad, to reduce the score to 18/2. Mankad’s dismissal brought Wadekar to the crease.

India further wobbled to 61/3 with the wicket of nightwatchman Bedi, but Wadekar and Gundappa Viswanath determinedly kept Mallett at bay. Gradually, Wadekar grew in confidence, and started to unleash his strokeplay on the Australians. He stayed unbeaten on 91, with 15 fours, while Viswanath played his part with 44*, which included the winning run. Their unbroken stand of 120 spurred India to a seven-wicket win, only their third against Australia.

48 and 45 v England, Third Test, The Oval, 1971

Following draws at Lord’s and Old Trafford, it all boiled down to the decider. Having already emerged victorious in the Caribbean, Wadekar’s Indians were now on the verge of a remarkable double. Prior to this Test, India had failed to win in England in 21 attempts (15 defeats and six draws). England recovered from 175/6 to post a sturdy 355 before taking a lead of 71. Wadekar scored a doughty 48, complementing half-centuries from Dilip Sardesai (54) and Engineer (59).

It was leg-spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar who swung the game India’s way, bamboozling the English batsmen en route to 6/38. Yet, the job was not done, as India, in pursuit of 173, lost Sunil Gavaskar for a duck with only two runs on the board. Wadekar stood up to the task, and made 45, the top score of the innings, before getting run out. His effort did not go in vain, as equally impactful knocks from Sardesai, Viswanath and Engineer steered India to a four-wicket win.

67 v England, First ODI, Headingley, 1974

In stark contrast to 1971, Wadekar’s second tour of England as captain ended in disappointment, what with India getting whitewashed in the three-Test series. The tour also saw India’s inaugural ODI, the first of a two-match series. Wadekar became the first Indian to score an ODI fifty, due to a well-paced 67 off 82 balls that drove his side to 265. However, England won by four wickets and also went on to take the series 2-0. Wadekar retired from international cricket after the tour.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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