Transcript: Couch Talk with Ajit Wadekar

Couch Talk 147 (Play)

Guest: Ajit Wadekar

Host: Subash Jayaraman

Subscribe to Couch Talk podcast on iTunes and Sound Cloud.

Also available on TuneIn Radio and Stitcher Radio

Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hi, Mr. Wadekar! Thank you for being on the show, and welcome.

You debuted for India in 1966 but there is a fantastic back-story of how you even got into cricket, regarding your bus ride with Baloo Gupte on the way to your Elphinstone College…

Ajit Wadekar (AW)– That’s right. We were in the same college. Of course, he was two years senior. He was in Arts and I was in Science. Basically, I wasn’t playing any cricket till then, not in the schools at all. I was concentrating on my engineering degree. As far as I was concerned, I was thinking of finishing inter-Science at Elphinstone and then go to engineering college. It so happened that Baloo Gupte was my neighbour and he would travel in the same bus. Of course, we used to talk about college and other things. one day he just mentioned, “Ajit, would you want to be a 12th man for our college team?” They had a wonderful XI but didn’t have anyone to get water onto the field. They need a good friend travelling together, and so he asked me casually. He said, “You will get some match fee too, Rs 3.00 a day.” That was way back in 1957 and Rs 3.00 was quite a lot for a day. So, I jumped at it. This is how I started playing cricket in college.

Then there was a chap called Madhav Mantri, who was absolutely a stickler for discipline. He happened to be the uncle of Sunil Gavaskar. After my practicals, I used to go to the practice little late and then play around a bit longer. He would ask me to bat in the nets. And then of course, he asked the captain saying, “this chap is really good and he could continue in the team.” That is how I started playing cricket.

SJ– When you were made the captain of the Indian team in 1971 and you were taking over from (Mansoor Ali Khan) ‘Tiger’ Pataudi, and he was known as having commanding presence and being leader of men, what were your thoughts when you were taking over the captaincy from someone of that stature? What were your expectations of your own self as he captain of the team?

AW– He was my first captain, when I started playing for the country. We got very close. I replaced him on the casting vote of Chairman of the selection committee. Before that, we were practicing in Mumbai, Bombay then. After the practice, just over a glass of beer, we just talked on cricket. I told Tiger, I used to call him Tiger, “Tiger, I am not getting any runs,  I am not in a good nick. See that I am there in the team.” He answered, “Ajit, are you joking? You are going to be the captain. You better see that I am in the team!” I laughed and laughed. “I am nowhere near that”, because I was never expecting it. It was between Chandu Borde, who was a damn good batsman also, and him, and said “I think you should continue.” But, both of them got out and I came in and I rang up Pataudi and said, “Tiger, remember our conversation?” He said, “Of Course.” “I hope you are available for the tour to West Indies.” “Yes, I am definitely coming.” The next day morning, he rang me up and said, “Sorry Ajit, I am going into the politics and so I will not be available.”

To replace Tiger was a bit difficult. He had all the charisma and had the royalty touch. I had of course the experience of captaincy, captaining Bombay team and winning three years in a row. But, I was quite new to captaincy of the Indian team. What I was observing as a player was that we were too aggressive, we would love to please the crowd and get out in the 50s and 60s without realising that it is a 5-day game.

Coming from Bombay, we had a habit of winning, actually. Perhaps, I thought Indians would love to see that India wins, that too abroad. That started at West Indies. I noticed that our fielding on the outfield very good, but our catching was pretty bad. We had four spinners, best of their kind. So, I concentrated on catching and slip fielding and we hardly dropped any catch in the West Indies and the England tour. I thought, if I am going to show that to the selectors they have got a proper replacement to Pataudi, the only way to start is to start winning, that too outside the country. I had to communicate that to the players and they also took it very seriously. That is how all these good results came.

SJ– Before that tour to WI, I don’t think India had beaten WI in a Test match. You played a 5-Test series and you drew 4 of them and won at Port-of-Spain, and it was also the debut series of Sunil Gavaskar. What are your memories from that series, especially that win from Port-of-Spain?

AW– We started getting confidence in that series. The first Test, we played at Jamaica. That match was 4-days, with the first day getting washed out. It so happened that I won the toss and chose to bat but the wicket was slightly wet and we were reeling, 6 down for 70 odd runs. Dilip Sardesai came in and got a brilliant 200 odd runs and we scored around 476 or something. For me, we could manage to get them out, the WI, with that kind of batting line up consisting of Garry [Sobers], Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd and (Alvin) Kallicharan and all those guys. The difference was more than 150 runs. Then, I thought, “Let’s have psychological pressure on them and, enforce the follow on.”

It was a 4-days game, and instead of being 200 odd ahead to enforce follow-on, it’s just 150 runs for a 4-day game for enforcing  follow on. That is the rule. I checked with the players and they said, “Ajit, there is only one day left and why do you want to do that? it is a good batting track and we will get a little bit of practice.” I said, “Nothing doing! This is a psychological game.” instead of telling the umpires taht I am putting in the follow on, I went straight to the dressing room and said it a bit loudly, “Garry, I think you are batting. I am enforcing the follow on.” That is the first time, I think, India ever had enforced a follow on the WI. They were taken aback because this would never happen. They started getting slightly defensive.

That is exactly what happened at Port-of-Spain. Thankfully, they had this guy called Jack Noriega, an off spinner and they didn’t pick (Lance) Gibbs. I managed to give a lot of wickets to Jack Noriega in the earlier match against President’s XI. So, they had to pick Noriega and he was nowhere near Lance Gibbs, and we could really hammer him. The wicket was absolutely responsive to spin. There were no problems in getting them out in the second innings. Luckily, Garry wasn’t in good form. It went on till we went to Barbados, but otherwise, we had it planned properly. We didn’t drop a catch. That was the match Sunny made his debut. We were praying because, traditionally, whoever gets a hundred on debut, he doesn’t continue for long playing for India. We were praying that Sunny doesn’t get a hundred, he could get out for a 80 or 90. He got out for 64 runs, and again for 63 runs in the second innings. That is how it all worked out. Having a little bit of psychological pressure on them, they went defensive, and that is where we won the battle.

In the later matches, they kept quite quick wickets. We saw to it that we didn’t lose, actually. Perhaps in the last Test match we could have won. We came close, but Clive Lloyd was going great guns when he got out in the last innings. But, the tail-enders hung in there for a while, or else, we would have won. Barbados, we would have lost, but our tail enders lasted long. The basic idea was to hang on to our 1-0 lead, and if we get an opportunity, a chance, then go a little bit positive and aggressive. That was the idea on the tour. The planning and strategy went of very well.

SJ– I want to talk about the catching – slip and close-in catching. I want to first talk about the spinners that you had at your disposal – you had (Bishan Singh) Bedi, (Erapalli) Prasanna, And Venkat(araghavan S.) in WI and of course, you had Chandra(shekhar B.S.) in England as well. What is it like to captain spinners like that? in modern days, captains are not sure on how to handle spinners. They are either too impatient or too defensive. What was your thinking? “I have 4 different types of spinners and this is how I am going to handle them.”

AW– That was more important basically because you have played with them and know that they are really good, know their qualities and their bowling styles. I had no choice but to have spinners in the team, because we didn’t have medium pacers or fast-medium pacers. We opened the bowling with Abid Ali, he would bowl the first ball all along the ground and that is how he got some wickets at Port-of-Spain. It would go as far as that when it comes to medium fast bowlers. Of course, Eknath Solkar was there, with some movement in the air.

My only weapon was spin and I had to get the best out of them. To do that, I have to help them with close-in fielding. If they don’t get encouragement, if you drop catches, they won’t be bowling the same way. We had three spinners on the WI tour and Chandrashekhar came in the English tour. The three spinners in WI did extremely well. From one end we would block with Venkataraghavan, and from the other end we would go for the wickets with Erapalli and Bishan. They are very attacking and in the process they might give the runs away also, because they try to buy the wicket. In buying wickets, you give runs also. That wasn’t good for us. Except Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip, and myself with a little bit of scores, but we were not in a good batting nick. That would not help. What we wanted to see that we restricted the score from one end and try to get the wickets from the other. What they needed badly was the support from the fielding side. that is exactly what we provided. If we drop a catch of Sobers or Clive Lloyd, they will keep hammering you for 200 and 300 runs, which we couldn’t have afforded.

SJ– There is a question form a listener, Venkateshwaran, and he says – “Your team, under you, had the best slip cordon as well as the best close-in fielders in the world – arguably India’s best ever. Was it consciously that you worked towards getting them all together or was it that serendipitously you had gifted fielders like yourself, Solkar, Venkat come into the side as one team?

AW– I could notice who could be specialised in close-in fielding. That is when I picked up Solkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Venkat. If the spinners are in a position to attack, they may require about 5 fielders in the ring around the bat, close-in. those were the only specialised fielders and I would put them there. At no stage was I putting the bowler after bowling the over at the slip, sometimes to relax they would stay in the slip for a while. At any stage, if you lose a catch, you lose a match. The specialised fielders I saw to it that they would train properly. I myself, was a good slip fielder and I would know exactly what kind of anticipation and reflexes you require. That is what I wanted from them. I got confident of them, especially Eknath Solkar, standing very close at forward short leg. He did a great job.

SJ– In the recent Test match, at Brisbane, there were crucial catches being dropped in the slips. As you said, you were a terrific slips fielder. What is it that it takes to be a great fielder in the slips?

AW– I suppose you have to look at the ball and should know in what direction the ball is coming and then switch over to the batsman and see if he is going to play a shot or if he is going to be defensive and possibly nick it. That was more important. For that, you need tremendous reflexes. It is anticipation. Perhaps, each ball you have to wait for a catch. That is very important. You might not get a catch every ball, everyone knows it. But it might come any time and that is when you have to be attentive, all the time. He has to keep on concentrating. But then, of course, practice makes you perfect. After batting in the nets, I used to get fielding and catching done for one or two hours. That was more important. Practice makes you perfect. This is how we didn’t drop a catch at all on both the tours. It is surprising, actually, there is no emphasis on the close in fielding now and so many catches getting dropped [in Brisbane], it was like a heartbreak.

SJ– I want to talk about the England series in 1971 that India won under your captaincy – the first time India won in England, the first time India won a Test series there…. What are your memories from that series?

AW– When we came back from West Indies, everybody thought it was just a flash in the pan. To win against England in England is an absilutely difficult job. The conditions are entirely foreign to us and different from what we have back home. England had just beaten Australia in the Ashes, in Australia, and they had brought back the Ashes. Their captain was a crazy chap, [Ray] Illingworth. He would get the best out of his players and theirs was supposed to be the best team. When we landed in England, it was the second half of the summer. It so happened that, that summer turned out to be really good. We could play all the matches against the counties – ten in all – and so we managed to get good batting practice, good knowhow of the climate and weather, and of course, the wickets, and also the kind of bowling we will play in the Test series. The wickets were really wearing down, and that was good to my choice of bowlers. Now, our spinners would come in to the game.

We had four spinners including Chandra. Now, I had to make choice. You can’t pick four spinners in the side, you will have a lengthy tail. So there was a fight between Pras, perhaps our best off spinner but the utility parts of Venky was really good. And Chandra…if we have to win, Chandra has to bowl well. That means, Chandra has to be handled well. In domestic cricket, I had played against Chandra and got a lot of runs – 300 or so. I knew what kind of bowler he was. If he doesn’t a wicket in the first two overs, he starts experimenting and that’s where he goes haywire. If you handle him properly, and he gets a wicket in the first two overs, he becomes unplayable to the best of the batsmen in the world. He came off very well, I think, in the Oval Test. That’s where I think we held the best of our catches. Venky in the slips off Luckhurst. And Eknath Solkar, just off the pad, he caught Alan Knott. We used to get the first five batsmen quickly but Knott used to be really a thorn. He would just stick around and get 70-80 runs. So, we had to get his wicket. Ekki took a brilliant catch, almost underground he went, I would say, off Knott’s pad, off Venky’s bowling. That’s how we could manage to keep their score to 101 runs.

To get 173 runs (in the 4th innings) wasn’t that difficult. Everyone was confident. In fact, the first ball I played on the last day of the Test, I was run out. My partner Dilip Sardesai is terrible at running between the wickets. Yes, and No, and I got run out. All the other batsman – Farookh Engineer, Vishwanath and Eknath – told me, “Captain, Don’t worry. You just take a nap. Sleep, and we will get the runs”, and that’s what happened.

SJ– Almost 20 years after your retirement, you came back as coach of the Indian team. What do you see as the role of the coach, for an international team?

AW– I think, what you require (from a coach) is planning and strategy. During our time, there was no coach. Our manager would only look after the accommodation and tickets. He won’t help us in our fielding sessions, or planning or strategy. The captain had to do everything. So, as a coach, if the players don’t have any thinking power, the coach has to think (for them) and plan accordingly, and get things done from the players. Whatever he has in mind, he has to communicate that and let it percolate down to the players exactly: What he thinks of the position, what kind of planning he has to get the opposition out as early as possible, what kind of batting he expects from the players, etc.

To be a coach of the Indian team is a bit difficult because here in India, in those days, we had 13 official languages and 707 dialects. Culturally we are all different. Religion-wise also we are different. To get them to play as a one single unit is a problem. It’s not that difficult for Australia or England. Subconsciously or unconsciously, the player sub-groups start forming, and that one has to avoid. You have to tell them, “Let the inferiority complex pass by. Don’t worry about that. You are as good as everyone else.” Guys of Sunil Gavaskar’s calibre would know these things but the other players may not know exactly. So you have to tell them, “You have got the same talent.” And of course, concentrate on fielding and catching. All these things a coach expects.

When I took over as Coach-cum-Manager, then, the practice was they would have a different coach for every series. That’s pretty bad because if you are in for only a short time, you wouldn’t know exactly the players, and you can’t do the SWOT analysis of the players and the oppositions. You require some time to get to know your players, and later on, think about the opposition. My first assignment, to South Africa, was terrible, but I noticed there that the players were losing a little bit of their focus. May be because, (some of them thought) they hardly played anything, so they will go out in the evening for dinner or something, and they would lose their concentration or focus in the game. So, I brought in a code of conduct. I wanted to bring in some discipline. Of course, some of the players revolted against that. After we started winning against England, the same players came back to me, because I thought I would relax some of the restrictions, and said, “Don’t do that. Let it be same. We are doing extremely well.” That was important because other players realizing that discipline has to go with the talent. If you lose your focus, you lose your discipline.

SJ– Last question, and this is from listener Nilotpal: You were part of a successful run for the Indian team, especially at home with Kumble and other spinners under Azharuddin’s captaincy. But, are you convinced one way or the other about Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja’s involvement in corruption, and if so, do you find it easy or hard to look them in the eye and have a conversation now?

AW– When some things start going a little bit wrong, and rumours start, you know, and it takes a wider magnitude, because the media is there and there are people to talk about these things. Knowing exactly what the truth in all of this, [is difficult]. As long as I was the coach, I could never notice that. They would really concentrate and they would really listen to me, and I never thought there was something wrong. Because, we were from the old cricket group, and never thought this would happen. I never suspected these players. There was no change in their behavioural patterns and I didn’t notice anything. I always thought that whatever rumours that are being spread was because people were may be getting slightly envious of the things we were doing as a team. As long I was there, I never noticed that. They always would listen to me – my panning, my strategy and my orders. I still believe it is difficult for anybody to prove [any wrongdoing]. It should be on the basis of reporting by somebody else. Because, to do such a thing [as match fixing], one player cannot do it himself. You have got to have bowlers bowling badly, or batsmen [playing badly], and you have to get to some players together, and then, the word spreads ultimately. One has to talk to somebody, somewhere and spill it, but that didn’t happen. Later on, when I resigned from the job because I was promoted by State Bank of India as Chief General Manager, and what happened that I would not be knowing. It is based on some wrong reporting or something, these players were penalized.

SJ– Okay, on that note Mr. Wadekar, thank you so much for being on the show and it was a privilege having you on. Thank you.

AW– Okay, no worries. Thanks.


Episode transcribed by Kathleen Galligan and Subash Jayaraman