In 1971, Ajit Wadekar led India to its historic first-ever series wins over the West Indies and England on their own grounds. Yet many of his teammates still believe that he was a defensive captain. Two of India’s greatest spinners—Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrashekhar—told Outlook as much (Magnetic Fields; July 11, 2011). When India lost 0-3 to England in 1974, rumour was rife that Wadekar’s team was beset with dissent. He quit the game and his predecessor M.A.K. Pataudi who, significantly, had twice declined to tour England under Wadekar, returned to lead the team. In this interview to Rohit Mahajan, Wadekar tries to set the record straight—that he wasn’t defensive, that support to him from the team was not absolute, quite obvious from the selective naming of those who cooperated with him, and that he was disappointed that Pataudi turned down his request to tour England in 1971 and 1974. Excerpts:
Four decades ago under your captaincy, India made history in West Indies and England. What positives do you remember of those tours?
We were not considered a strong team and I was a new captain. But the limitations of a team can be overcome with the desire to win and the best use of its strengths. Spin was our strength, and for it to be effective, we had to make adequate runs. We did well, and the sense of inferiority we had while playing formidable teams, that too on their own soil, vanished. Indians in general started thinking they can also make it to the top.
Since you unexpectedly replaced M.A.K. Pataudi as captain, how did you plan for the West Indies tour, as most of the players were considered Pataudi’s loyalists?
I got the captaincy with Vijay Merchant's casting vote, with a clear indication that he wanted positive results. Naturally, more responsibility was thrust on me, like being promoted to the post of a GM in the State Bank of India (where I worked), or to the India captaincy from Mumbai captaincy. In any sphere of life, when one gets promoted, all those who had worked under your predecessor now take orders from you. Fortunately, I had played with them for quite long under Tiger’s captaincy and I knew their strengths and weakness. So it was my responsibility to try to get the best from them. As an HRD expert, I know that all five fingers are not the same and each deserves different treatment within the overall framework of leadership values.
Were the seniors receptive to your strategies against the West Indies and England?
I tried to make use of their great experience and talent to guide the youngsters. Among them, M.L. Jaisimha, Salim Durrani and Abbas Ali Baig were really understanding and helped me in most of the decisions, on and off the field. When I decided to enforce the follow-on in the first Test at Jamaica for the first time just to apply psychological pressure on West Indies, I had the full support of Jai, Salim, Dilip Sardesai and a few others, including youngsters Sunny and Eknath Solkar.
The media and some of the players who went on that tour described you as a defensive captain. How do you respond to this charge?
Perhaps these guys failed to read my mindset then. I had a fairly new combination with me as a surprise captain. As against that, our opposition was as mighty as ever in WI, led by Sir Gary Sobers. I planned to curb their strokes and try their patience, how can anyone call it defensive tactics? Sobers and all others were known for going for their strokes all the time, but they got restless if they couldn’t get going. If I were a defensive captain, would I have enforced the follow-on in the first Test? Not only that, I even thought we just might win that Test in the available time. That was not to be. The wicket rolled out well, to the discomfort of our spin trio. Also, in the first Test at Lord’s against England, why did I ask my batsmen, while changing the batting order, to go for runs, even at the cost of nearly losing the Test? Even in the Oval Test, we won because we attacked mercilessly the moment I realised Chandrashekhar was bowling the best spell of his life. Yes, I am a pucca Mumbai-born khadoos player. I wouldn’t like to get the match over in three days while attacking—losing wickets and getting hammered for 600 or 700 runs—with India losing the Test. Even great commanders like Napoleon wouldn’t like to lose a battle for the sake of a worthless attack and get their soldiers massacred.
Replacing Bishan Bedi with Salim Durrani in the second innings of the Port-of-Spain Test proved a masterstroke as he took out Sobers and Lloyd, which led to victory. What made you replace Bedi?
At one stage they were 150/1 but we got the valuable wickets of Kanhai and Roy Fredericks while Davis was retired hurt. Bedi was bowling well but Gary faced his early deliveries comfortably. When I noticed that the good length spot was roughened by the fast bowlers, good enough for any left-handed bowler with a quicker and low trajectory, I summoned Salim and he responded. He pitched one on that rough which turned almost 90 degrees, knocking Gary’s off and middle stumps. Salim next got Lloyd. I’d moved to short midwicket from short leg and, as I expected, Lloyd obliged me with a catch straight into my hands.
Two Skippers Wadekar with Pataudi
Is it true that you were instrumental in the selection of Sardesai?
I knew him as another Mumbai khadoos and knew his capabilities well. I always thought that he wasn’t treated properly. Naturally, given a choice, I had him in my team and he did wonders for me in the West Indies.
In England, what was your logic of playing Venkat instead of Prasanna?
In all those county matches prior to the Test matches, it was Venkat who bowled well, fielded well and batted sensibly when required while Prasanna looked off-colour. Venky looked a better bet and it worked. One cannot afford to have the luxury of four spinners, however good they are.
What went wrong on the tour of England in 1974? Media reports say some bowlers refused to bowl to your plan, or that many seniors refused to cooperate with you.
In 1974, everything went wrong, right from the selection. We were there during the terrible wet first half of a typical English summer, with not many practice games. The weather was so bad that Chandra couldn’t grip the ball. We were bowled out for 42—the summer of 42, it’s called. In a team—or for that matter in a family—there are always differences of opinion and these get wider and broader when you don’t have a good start. Yes, there are quite a few wild stories, many untrue, floating around even now.
When Pataudi made himself unavailable for the tours in 1971, what did you feel? And when he returned to play against England under you in the 1972-73 series in India, did both of you feel comfortable?
I did feel bad when Tiger did not make it to the 1971 tours. In fact, there was almost an unwritten pact between us. If he was to continue, he’d ensure that I would be in the team and in case I took over from him—through a miracle, I thought—I’d ensure he made it to the WI. However, I was made captain, as he’d predicted. I called him immediately, telling him I needed him in the team, to which he agreed. But the next day he called back and said that he’d rather get into politics. But I felt really bad when he turned down my request to join the team for the tour of England in 1974. I needed him and his experience in England badly. Yes, we were always good friends and he always had confidence in me.
Corrected at 12:15 am on Sunday, July 10. Print edition had incorrectly mentioned the casting vote to be Vijay Manjrekar's.