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Monday, August 03, 2020

When Ajit Agarkar turned Lion at Lord’s in 2002

Undaunted by the Bombay Duck nickname, Ajit Agarkar went onto play a blithe innings to roar his way to the Lord's Honours Board in one of the most entertaining hundreds by an Indian tailender.

Written by Devendra Pandey | Mumbai | Updated: July 30, 2020 8:02:20 am
Ajit Agarkar scored an unbeaten 109 from 190 balls against England at Lord’s in 2002. (Source: File)

It was like water off the duck’s back – those taunts of ‘Bombay Duck’ that came Ajit Agarkar’s way after 7 straight zeroes against the Australians, across two continents and three seasons. There’s something fundamental about the Bombay duck – it isn’t actually a duck. It’s a rather scrumptious fish.

Likewise, there was something fundamental about how the Mumbaikar viewed his stints with the bat — he didn’t really fret much at all about the disastrous streak that spanned Adelaide, MCG, SCG and Wankhede. In his mind, he was a bowler. Middling pace most times, aspiring to be tearaway. Never really a batsman, under scrutiny. His batting to him was a non sequitur.

What’d it got to do with the price of the fish – the bombil, really?

“It didn’t bother me then and neither does it today,” Agarkar says of the nickname that stuck. “I never read what was written, because my main role was as a bowler and not as a batsman. I would have been more worried if I was not getting wickets!”

Coming in at a dawdling No 8 mostly as a comet’s tail in the star-studded line-up that boasted Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and even Mumbai titan Wasim Jaffer meant Agarkar wasn’t losing sleep over the comings and goings of Daddles, the yellow duck that sauntered on TV screens – including twice when he got a pair. “Nobody ever discussed my batting nor (not) getting off the mark. It was the press who started it and I didn’t mind it,” Agarkar recalls.

What it massively contributed to was a dozen innings of mostly undazzling 127 runs and a toy-Boeing average of 7.47, despite a highest score of 41, when Agarkar fetched up to bat at Lord’s on 29 July of 2002.

The Bombay duck might carry its characteristic whiff but is quite irresistible when batter fried in rawa. It was at Lord’s finally that ‘Agaaa-rkar’ as the commentators called him, “averaging less than 8” till then, found his golden, crispy chunk of succulent, fleshy form with the bat.

In what is peak fishing season (April through August for the bombil), Ajit Agarkar netted the biggie of batsmanship – a century at the hallowed Lord’s – which catapulted him straight to the highly envied honours board. It was a sizzling century, with a plop of spicy sass on the side.

The king pairs against Australia – he says – never bothered him much cause his batting was not up for judgment. But when the world got down to talking about his batting finally, there was much glee in the stands and back at home, even enough to take the sting out of India’s 170-run loss to go 0-1 down in the series. Many reckon the rearguard innings on the fifth day built the momentum for India to push to level the series score at 1-1 in the next Test.

But as standalone fritters go, the unheralded batter going about nonchalantly whacking the English bowlers was as crunchy as a counterstrike could be. Captain Sourav Ganguly had kept his shirt on this time, on the balcony (after losing it earlier in the summer), and spent a lot of subdued time jutting his chin out on the railing as the balusters of Indian batting came undone. He would join the rest of the team as well as the English opponents, as they applauded this most unlikely Test hundred from an Indian. The fish came good when the chips were down.

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It shouldn’t have surprised the world really. Back in the city of bombils when Agarkar was still a school-boy at Sharadashram, a murmur had once taken off of the “next Sachin Tendulkar” – a boy who could bat. Like a collapsing Mexican wave, it died out limply even as Agarkar focused on bowling.

Cricketcouch.com quotes Agarkar as recalling that playing for CCI in a Kanga league once – where Tendulkar had turned up to play ahead of a series – the maestro saw him bowl and said: “I know you bat more than you bowl, but I think you should start focusing on your bowling a bit more as well.” His captain would hand the nippy pacer the new ball thereafter as he picked a bunch of wickets and would debut for Mumbai soon enough.

John Wright in his Indian Summer memoirs recalls the first training session he supervised as India coach. “A youngster started with four magnificent shots, timed to perfection. Christ, I thought, this boy can bat; he must be the opening batsman, Shiv Sunder Das. When I sought confirmation I was told, no, that’s Ajit Agarkar, our opening bowler.”

Astride the carousel of Indian cricket that moved from ‘next Sachin’ to the ‘next Kapil Dev’ as India intermittently pined after an all-rounder, Agarkar had raced to quickest 50 wickets in ODIs and was keeping the bowling part of the bargain. But the batting credo had suffered through the Australian nightmare. Yet, when the first Test of the 2002 England series arrived, Agarkar had been picked ahead of Harbhajan Singh – the usual bowlers’ tussle for spots, a decision that seemed to raise eyebrows in retrospect after the Lord’s pitch unexpectedly turned and Kumble snared six.

READ | Against South Africa in 2006, Sreesanth had his coming of age Test

It was with the bat though that Agarkar would set himself free of the scrutinising glare. This was soon after the NatWest win, and the rejuvenated Indian team under Sourav Ganguly was trying to leave its mark overseas. India were never considered great travellers. The home team dominated in the game for four days leaving India a mammoth 568 to chase in five sessions.

On fourth day at stumps, India’s top order once again failed to get going after Wasim Jaffer and Rahul struck fifties. Agarkar and VVS Laxman were on crease on 28 and 38 not out respectively with six wickets down.

The prod seemed to have come from Tendulkar again.

“The thing I remember about that (final day) morning was, Sachin (Tendulkar) actually gave me throwdowns next to the pitch. I was walking through the long room when the late Raj bhai (Rajsingh Dungarpur), who used to talk in Marathi since my CCI (Cricket Club of India) days told me, “Get a hundred today and become a batsman,” Agarkar recalls, 18 years after the incident. “I said ok, Raj bhai, I will try.”

Day One had been cooler and seen the ball move about quite a bit. But as the game progressed the pitch became better for batsmen. The lulled Lord’s pitch and the warm weather helped batters. But Agarkar was aware it was a matter of one good ball and England would drive the knife in. England got Laxman after he made 74. And Agarkar was left with Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan, and Ashish Nehra.

Ajit Agarkar played 26 Tests for India, scoring 571 runs and scalping 58 wickets. (Source: File Photo)

“It was a hot day so we were trying to play out the day for a draw, because England bowlers had put in a lot in the last session on Day 4 so we knew we could hold them off,” Agarkar recalls.

England’s untiring warhorse Matthew Hoggard had sliced off India’s top order and had been hulking back to his run-up with those stomping steps, to run back in. But the Indians were in a mood to deny the hosts their win by delaying. “We were hopeful if we could hang around, it was a very good wicket to bat on actually. Normally there is a bit wear and tear, and they got Laxman and soon we had an attacking field,” Agarkar says.

Ashley Giles would crowd the close-in field, though Agarkar was getting stuck into the other pacer – Simon Jones.

His sassy yellow bat grip wielded like a golden mace, Agarkar was d isisplaying a devil may care attitude but backing that with his unhassled clean batting strokes. There were gentle glides to third man using nuance of geometry, he would drive casually through mid on and slash imperiously over covers – a short, wide one from Jones went aerial. Refusing to be cowered by Giles’ suffocating close cordon, he would break free with not a care in the world.

Thoughts of a century — usually the albatross around the top order’s neck — didn’t seem to weigh him down, and it was this utter lack of pressure, that would push him to 60 at a good clip. In the next six overs, India lost Kumble and Zaheer, when Agarkar was on some 60 odd. He had Nehra for company, who had been promoted as night watchman in first innings but never got a ball onto his bat. But an earnest tail-ender he was, no matter how lost the cause.

READ | Lord and Master: How Dilip Vengsarkar conquered Lord’s

“When I was on 60, I never thought I will get a hundred because one good ball could get me or him. And as the field that Nasser Hussain set was attacking, a ball going past the tight fielders always got some value. I scored some 16 boundaries,” he explains. Three slips or three hovering close-in was common, but there was runs to be had if you could unchain the menacing malady.

It was lunch time, and Agarkar hadn’t seen the scoreboard, he says. Living in the moment, playing the ball on merit — riffing off the obstinate Bombay batsmanship; his batting bloomed over the session.

Inching close to hundred, he reached the dressing room at lunch and no one was talking to him. Instead they gathered around Nehra dousing him in advice on how to stay put.

Agarkar now recalls with a laugh, “Everyone was talking to Ashu (Nehra) and putting pressure on him, ki tu out mat hona. He was saying that it was too much pressure for a bowler. He came and said, ‘arre yaar, tu hundred bana raha hai aur yeh log mujhe bol rahe hai.’ Fortunately he hung around long enough and I could reach there.”

He had spent the previous day’s last session similarly supporting Laxman and done the hard work to take the Test into the last day.

When the hundred happened, an emboldened Nehra walked upto his tail-end partner and announced now it was his turn to get his fifty. He had till that point negotiated 40 balls. He would even make room to thwack a six off Andrew Flintoff over the hospitality box. The last wicket added 63 runs before Nehra got out for 19. Agarkar remained unbeaten on 109 off 190, though India lost the first Test by a big margin.

“It was a special moment. Scoring hundred is always special and that too at number eight. Had we won, we would have been happier. We couldn’t save the test. But a lone Test hundred came at a special place for me. My wife was there to watch it too, I had just got married and we travelled to West Indies and then England,” the former Mumbai captain said.

READ | Four balls and a career: Chetan Sharma

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Growing up, Agarkar had wanted to be a batsman and like any kid wanted to score hundred at Lords. Actually making it happen though thrilled him to bits as he punched the air completing the run. The Lord’s crowd with plenty of Indians was on its feet, as the opponents good naturedly gave the doughty No 8 an ovation.

The honours board is naturally prized real estate space, and has Vinoo Mankad, Dilip Vengsarkar, Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly, Ravi Shastri, Gundappa Vishwanath and later Rahul Dravid and Ajinkya Rahane etched in matte gold lettering on the deep brown wooden Wall of fame. Agarkar later said he had ribbed Ricky Ponting about “how many hundreds at Lord’s?” but had said he was precisely aware of where his batting stood. The Ponting banter happened typically during the frivolity of an IPL, but even if he felt like a whale on that day in the seas at Lord’s, he had never pulled Sachin Tendulkar’s leg in similar jest.

The way his career panned out, Agarkar could have picked a Test hundred anywhere for he traversed many lands. But it had to be Lord’s. In later years, he played for Middlesex. And it was then that he revisited his innings. He says he was lucky that majority of innings Laxman was around to steer him patiently. The only time he says he saw the scoreboard was when he was on 99.

“I took my mom to Lord’s later. It was nice to show her the honours board. Because it’s a hundred at Lord’s and nobody expected that I will get a hundred, so everyone remembers that inning till date. It certainly stands out. There is something about that place,” he says.

He still has the bat he used to make the hundred in one corner of his house. He hasn’t framed it but it’s kept safe with him till date. The bottom of the bat got broken during the Pakistan tour of 2004.

Dungarpur would regally gloat later. “Apparently he came to the dressing room later in the day, and said, “I told him, I told him, he will get a hundred.” There were no Androids and emojis back then, but in his own goofy way, Ajit Agarkar had ordered Daddles the duck, to take a walk back home – alone, while he found his seat at Lord’s.

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