To say that it is difficult to process the passing of a man who was your captain is an understatement. I came to know of Ajit’s death on Thursday morning and am still struggling to make sense of it. I met him through cricket but our friendship went way beyond the boundary.
My first interaction with him was when I played against Mumbai in the mid or early 1960s. What struck me was Ajit’s class at a time when domestic cricket had more than capable left-handers in Ambar Roy and Milkha Singh.
I had had the privilege of playing against a great such as Nari Contractor but Ajit had a unique style of batting. Against spinners, Ajit had the capability of allowing the ball to come to him and then find a way to place it between the fielders. It came to him naturally.
I think Ajit was one of the most elegant left-handers I have been lucky to play with. I have played under him and also bowled against him. And I cannot still forget the 323 he scored against Mysore in 1967. It was unbelievable then and even after all these years, I can’t fathom how he was so comfortable against our bowling when most of his teammates were struggling.
Ajit was also one of the most unassuming cricketers I have come across. He was calm, composed and seldom would he speak out and I suppose that is one of the great qualities required of a captain. He was the least expressive captain I have played under.
Ajit was a man of seriously few words but he knew how to get the job done. I think his background of being a bank executive helped him. He was well-versed in the art of man management and I think it was his job that taught him that. Ajit was a good SWOT analyst.
He had none of the exhibitionism associated with cricket these days but then we all played in an era where a captain would amble up to you and say ‘well done’ after you took a wicket. And you reciprocated with a ‘thank you’ and went on with your job.
As a captain, Ajit would express his views but he would also listen to you when you said something contradictory. In the 1973 Test against England in Madras (now Chennai), he told me bowl tight in England’s second innings but I said I would attack because there was a lot of time left in Test. He let me do that and I took four wickets in that spell and India won. So, as long as the end result was what he wanted, Ajit was alright with the means adopted even if it was the opposite of how he wanted to get there.
It isn’t as if we didn’t have our disagreements though over time they began to seem more like misunderstandings. I would sometimes feel that even when I was very successful, I wasn’t sure of my place in the side. But I realised that Ajit had to act as a captain — and it couldn’t have been easy dealing with four quality spinners knowing you would always have to leave one, usually one of the two off-spinners, out — and he did what the team needed.
When he took over the captaincy in 1971, Ajit was a little apprehensive that many players wouldn’t give him their whole-hearted support because they were pro-Pataudi. We told him then that we are playing for India and it didn’t matter who was the captain. After Pataudi, he was the second-best captain I played under. Pataudi didn’t mind losing while chasing a win; Ajit did, maybe because he was bred in the playing grounds of Bombay (now Mumbai).
Maybe it was because of that apprehension that Ajit didn’t want to ask the West Indies to follow-on in the first Test of the 1971 tour. We convinced him to change his mind and almost won the Test. That gave us the confidence to think we could win the series. Ajit’s leadership, the extraordinary Sardesai and the super extra-ordinary Gavaskar helped us achieve history.
It was also under Ajit that India were dismissed for 42 in England. Again there was a lot of speculation that the batsmen didn’t do their best but the unfortunate thing for India was that England bowled extremely well and we could not cope up. It was an accident.
My mind’s now a jumble of memories; of evenings spent in Mumbai, of conversations, of the time we shared a dressing room for India and when we played against each other. Ajit was my captain for sometime but he was my friend of a lifetime and it is the friend that I will miss the most.