Not naming a viewing area at Wankhede Stadium after the former India captain is a miss, but it’s never too late to make amends
Ajit Wadekar arrives at London airport for the start of the England tour in 1971, when he led Team India to victory. Pic/Getty Images
Vinoo Mankad Gate, Polly Umrigar Gate, Vijay Manjrekar Dressing Rooms, Vijay Merchant Stand, Sunil Gavaskar Stand, Sachin Tendulkar Stand… the Mumbai Cricket Association has honoured their great torchbearers. Why not Ajit Wadekar?
To some, it may have looked a touch odd to name a stand after him when he was still part of the MCA, but it’s been more than 15 years since Wadekar was the association’s vice-president and Sharad Pawar took over as MCA chief, which the former India captain aspired to be before he was defeated in the 2001 elections.
Sudhir Naik, who led Bombay to a Ranji Trophy triumph when Wadekar and four other stalwarts (Dilip Sardesai, Ashok Mankad, Eknath Solkar and Gavaskar) were in the West Indies in 1971, has no doubts whatsoever that Wadekar deserves an honour at Wankhede Stadium. “Ajit’s contribution has been tremendous – as batsman and captain. They (MCA) should have honoured him,” Naik told me, indicating that group politics may have had a role to play.
Wadekar’s claim to fame is leading India to wins in the West Indies and England in 1971. Had he not impressed upon chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant to include Dilip Sardesai for the West Indies tour, India may have not won in the Caribbean, where Sardesai amassed 642 runs. Wadekar’s contribution stretches beyond those epoch-making wins. To win three series in a row (he led India to victory in the 1972-73 home series against England following his 1971 heroics) against tough opposition is rare, and the only Test series he lost as captain was the last one he figured in — on the disastrous England tour of 1974.
Some of India’s biggest cricketing heroes in the first part of the 1970s played under Wadekar. Ditto the Bombay team of the 1960s and 1970s.
He was picked at a time — in February 1959 — when Bombay boasted of the biggest names in Indian cricket. He got drafted in due to an injury to skipper Polly Umrigar and the Indian Cricket Field Annual reported, “the brilliant young left-hander from University acquitted himself creditably by making 30.”
He took pride in his innings of 235 for Bombay against Rajasthan in the 1961-62 Ranji Trophy final at Brabourne Stadium, where the hosts were reeling at 31 for two on the first morning. In My Cricketing Years, Wadekar revealed that the first ball he faced “grazed my bails.” That ball was delivered by Raj Singh Dungarpur, the man who made him the Indian team’s cricket manager in 1992. Another innings for Bombay that he was proud of was his 151 in a total of 303 on a matting track at Rajkot in 1962.
Wadekar held his own in the Bombay batting order and a few years later, emerged a premier batsman to play a big part in the city’s 15-year grip on the Ranji Trophy from 1958-59 to 1972-73.
In the opinion of several pundits, he didn’t do justice to his batting skills at the international level. The records show that he scored only one Test hundred — on a bitterly cold day at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, on India’s victorious 1967-68 tour of New Zealand. But he had a few 90-plus scores as well in his 37-Test career; most excruciating was his 99 against Australia in the 1967-68 Melbourne Test. He was unbeaten on 97 at the end of the fourth day but could add only two runs the following morning when captain Bob Simpson claimed the first of three wickets to help Australia win by an innings and four runs. What a great disappointment it would have been to walk back to the dressing room in the vast expanse of the Melbourne Cricket Ground having missed your maiden Test hundred by one run.
Ray Robinson, the doyen of Australian cricket writers, couldn’t fathom why Wadekar wasn’t more of a batting force. “Ever since his Melbourne 99, I have been unable to guess why the bats Ajit Wadekar handles with natural ease have not stacked more runs on to his Test total,” wrote Robinson in The Wildest Tests.
Wadekar was never accused of not doing justice to his batting potential under the lion-crested Bombay cap. Those who watched him hook, cut and drive with élan are convinced he was more than just an enduring performer, who led Bombay to seven domestic titles.
It’s time the MCA takes a stand on his honour. If Indore’s Holkar Stadium can have a stand named after Wadekar, his home association must have a very good reason to deny him a similar honour.
mid-day’s group sports editor Clayton Murzello is a purist with an open stance. He tweets @ClaytonMurzello. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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