It was a Monday at the Oval on a summer’s day in 1971, and the spectators turned up hoping that something dramatic would happen. India’s last three batsmen added another 50 runs but England led by 71 runs.
A draw seemed inevitable and India would once again remain winless in England. No-one reckoned that a man who suffered from polio in childhood would be the unexpected hero.
B S Chandrasekhar was a leg spinner who bowled at medium pace and hardly gave the batsman time to think. Like a man inspired, he tore through the England line-up, sending them reeling to 101 all out.
Chandrasekhar took 6 for 38 in 18.1 overs, leaving India to score 173 for their first win in England. They finished the day at 76 for 2, playing cautiously after the loss of two early wickets.
The last day started with England still the favourites. But India kept their cool and scrapped through by four wickets.
So where was the visiting captain Ajit Wadekar when all this excitement happened? Apparently, the man was dismissed early and had gone to sleep while his team won. He later claimed that he knew his team would win and he did not bother to watch, giving his sleep more priority.
That was Wadekar for you. Cool, calm and calculated. He had now won back-to-back tours, the earlier one in the West Indies, and India were unofficially ranked the best team in the world.
But the modest Wadekar took all this in his stride and further cemented India’s position as the best by beating England again on their return visit to India the next year.
This was India’s best period in their entire history until then. Beating England in England and West Indies on their turf was a supreme achievement.
Surprisingly, Wadekar was not India’s choice as captain in the first place.
That honour was with Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi. But the chairman of selectors, the crafty Vijay Merchant, out of the blue, cast the deciding vote in favour of Wadekar and Pataudi was out of the saddle and the tour to the West Indies.
Until then, Wadekar had done well as India’s No 3 batsman, often playing aggressively and bailing out the team during difficult times. He was stylish, like all lefthanders are wont to be, playing some lovely drives.
What made him more special was his slip fielding. He was a world-class performer in that position and complemented Eknath Solkar at forward short-leg as India’s close in trap for spinners.
The burden of captaincy did bog him down as a batsman but he still produced when needed. In the final count, it did affect his overall averages.
Things took its own time in Wadekar’s career. His first-class debut was in 1958-59. But he did not make his Test debut until 1966 when he was picked to play against the West Indies in Mumbai. He scored 8 and 4 batting lower down.
But he was persisted with and that paid dividends. His overall record as a batsman in 37 Tests was 2113 runs at an average of 31.07 with a highest score of 143 against New Zealand, his only century which was a match-winning effort.
These are not great figures but the way he played, particularly in a crisis, made him one of the best No 3 batsman India has ever produced.
But his end in international cricket was swift, an anti-climax which was undeserving of such a selfless player. India’s tour of England in 1974 was a nadir in the annals of the country’s cricket. India were soundly whitewashed 3-0 in the Test series, hitting many low points during the duration, with a low score of 42 at Lord’s.
Wadekar retired and an era came to an end as abruptly as it had started. He made a brief comeback as India’s head coach three decades later was successful in that position too.
It reaffirmed what Wadekar meant to Indian cricket. He was success personified.