Hardik Worah
22 Jan 2023 | 11:58 AM

Vidarbha’s BJ Watling, Akshay ‘clutch’ Wadkar continues to go unrewarded

The wicketkeeper-batter averages close to 53 in first-class cricket but hasn't even been considered for India A yet

Akshay Wadkar and BJ Watling have never appeared on a scoresheet together or come face to face off the field but there are a lot of similarities between these two cricketers. Yes, both are wicketkeeper-batters, one for Vidarbha and the other retired after featuring in 75 Tests for New Zealand. On top of that, both were born on the 9th of July and are mostly known for their red-ball credentials. The resemblances don’t end there, as their batting style is also a lot alike. 

Watling scored 3790 runs at an average of 37.52 and most of those were tough runs, something that Wadkar has been doing for Vidarbha since his debut in November 2017. Just like Watling, Wadkar too is very underappreciated. The 28-year-old has slammed 2435 runs in 40 first-class encounters at a stunning average of 52.93, decorated with eight centuries and nine fifties. Those numbers are surely enough to get you a spot in the India A set-up, right? Well, not in Wadkar’s case. 

The right-hander made his first-class debut during the 2017-18 Ranji Trophy and went on to win back-to-back titles in his first two years. His journey started with a crucial half-century in the quarter-final against Kerala before smashing his maiden ton in the final against Delhi. Since then, Wadkar has become Vidarbha’s clutch player. The moment you see Vidarbha in trouble, you would see Wadkar in the middle trying to rescue his team. 

No other Indian wicketkeeper-batter has scored more first-class runs than Wadkar since his debut. In fact, he has the best average among keepers from the Elite groups in this time frame (minimum 500 runs). Hence, it’s surprising that he is yet to get an India A call-up. Rishabh Pant has rightly been India’s go-to wicketkeeper in red-ball cricket, while KS Bharat and Upendra Yadav have been waiting in the wings for a while. Then you have someone like Ishan Kishan who is part of the Indian squad for the first two Tests against Australia, making it extremely difficult for Wadkar to get a look-in despite being so consistent.

He might be far from the India and India A set-ups but Wadkar is an indispensable figure in the Vidarbha side. He is now also their captain in three formats. Having led Vidarbha to consecutive semi-finals in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, Wadkar has now also been appointed as Vidarbha’s skipper in the red-ball format and had an unbelievable start to his captaincy tenure. Vidarbha defended a target of 73 against Gujarat - the lowest in the history of the Ranji Trophy - and have somehow managed to keep themselves alive in the knockout race.

Prior to their all-important clash against Punjab, which they need to win by a bonus point, Wadkar spoke to about his stellar first-class record, what makes him a clutch player, captaincy, not getting picked for India A, and more. 

That was some start to your red-ball captaincy, must have been fun being part of such a win.

You could call it a miracle. I have played a lot of age-group cricket for Vidarbha - Under-19, Under-23 and CK Nayudu Trophy. I have captained in those tournaments as well and the players who played with me at those levels, some of them are with me right now in the senior team. I have got five-six players whom I have known for a long while, so I know how to react to certain situations. I know their strengths and weaknesses. 

I have been playing as a vice-captain, so I was only giving suggestions but didn’t have the authority to make decisions. I already knew my players quite well, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to tell them to do certain things. They understand me very well and I understand them too. We hit it off instantly.

All Gujarat needed was 67 runs and had nine wickets remaining. What was the conversation you had with the team before the start of day three?

We had a good discussion after day two got over and also spoke at length before the start of day three. I know we didn’t have enough runs but I told them not to try anything extra. The key was to use the moisture in the first hour and stick to one line and length. We know this pitch, we knew it will turn from day three. We experienced something similar against Jammu and Kashmir, so if something like this could happen to us, it could happen to any team. 

We always had that belief and I just told them to keep things simple. That’s Aditya Sarwate and Harsh Dubey’s main strength, they can bowl on that one particular area for the entire day. Both of them are very accurate and we had an in-out field. We had fielders close to the batters but also had enough guys saving the boundaries. The idea was to make sure they don’t hit fours. They can take ones and twos but we were not going to give them boundaries. The shoulders start dropping in the camp if the opposition starts scoring boundaries at regular intervals and it gives them the confidence to do anything. These are the things we spoke about.

We need to talk about Aditya Sarwate! 11 wickets in the match and is someone who always chips in with the bat. He is a captain’s dream, isn’t he?

I will be honest, Sarwate is Vidarbha’s biggest asset. No matter what the format is, how the conditions are, what the situation is, or whether he is batting or bowling, Sarwate is one of those utility players who will win you games from anywhere. It could be a green surface or a spinning track, he will get the job done for you.

Now you have a slight chance, need a bonus point win against Punjab who themselves are placed second. How’s the mood in the dressing room? This win must have given you the belief that anything could be achieved. 

I think you can say that. Now we know we at least have a one percent chance of making it through to the knockouts. A lot of teams are generally out of the race by the time you play the last round of the league stage but we have that motivation that we can still progress further, even if it’s only one percent. 

My team knows that we are at a spot where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s going to be extremely difficult to get seven points against Punjab who themselves are in very good form. Yes, it looks impossible, but if we give our best in all three departments, we know we can make things possible. We don’t need eight points, that’s something you would call impossible. We need seven and that can be done. No matter what, we will give our best.

You captained Vidarbha in VHT and SMAT but this change came during the mid-season with just two games to go. Why the sudden change?

I don’t know what’s going on inside Vidarbha Cricket Association but I think the management wants to groom a new captain while Faiz bhai is on the field. The changes they have made for the last two games and the players they have picked, I think they want to groom me under Faiz bhai. If he is there with me, he could always chip in and suggest what I can do and that helps. When he decides to retire or goes on to play for some other state, we won’t have anyone with that amount of experience to help us. The selectors must want me to learn as much as possible and be ready for the future.

Faiz Fazal is Vidarbha’s most successful skipper of all time. Did you speak to him before making your captaincy debut?

The one thing he always says is that if you keep things simple, you will get more success. The moment you try to complicate things, like coming up with an extraordinary field or playing the game in an unorthodox way or needlessly rotating bowlers, you won’t often get desired results. We all want quick results but this is red-ball cricket and this game is all about patience. He told me to stay patient and not start changing the field or bowlers if we don’t get wickets for five-six overs. This might work at the junior level but won’t help at the senior level.     

You also captained Vidarbha at the junior level, is this something that comes naturally to you? Are you someone who likes to be aggressive or do you come more from the MSD and Rohit Sharma-school of captaincy?

If you are talking about my behavior, I think I am a bit like MS Dhoni. I am very quiet and I am not someone who is very aggressive. At the same time, if you are talking about my batting, I have always tried to learn by watching Virat Kohli bat. The way he carries himself… I love his attitude while batting. But I have always loved how MS Dhoni captained. He would set an unorthodox field every now and then or get anyone to bowl if things aren’t going in his favour. I am also someone who believes such things work.

How would you reflect on your performance this season? You started the tournament with 130* against Railways and then scores of 43 and 88 against Tripura. You got starts in the second innings against J&K, MP and Gujarat but couldn't go big.

True, if you take out the first two games, or just the first game where I got a century, I had a chance to get another one in the second match as well but got out in the 80s. I was quite disappointed with that. I have got starts but haven’t been able to convert them into at least 70s or 80s. There is no point talking about knocks where I got out very early, such things happen, and you can’t think too much about those innings. However, I am disappointed with the fact that I haven’t been able to convert these starts into something big this season. 

I am not someone who throws away his wicket after getting a start but there are three-four knocks this season where I could have gone big. I have got out in the 30s (28 vs J&K, 38 vs MP and 34 vs Gujarat), I should have definitely converted those knocks. Koi na, jo ho gaya usse sikhne mein hi samjhdaari hai, na toh uspe rone bethne se ki nahi hua nahi hua (I can’t dwell on the past, I would rather learn from my mistakes than cry about things that have already happened). I am focusing more on the remaining innings where I can do well.

Let’s go back a bit, let’s talk about your maiden first-class season. In fact, the first two. Back-to-back Ranji and Irani Trophy titles, couldn’t have asked for a better start?

It’s a dream for any player to feature in the Ranji Trophy and I never dreamed about getting my maiden first-class hundred in the final. I never thought that we would win and I would be able to consistently perform for Vidarbha. I didn’t really think too much but one thing that I kept in my mind was to replicate whatever I did at the age-group level, I have been doing the same in Ranji Trophy. 

The idea was to keep doing things that have worked for me in the past rather than doing something extra. It’s an all-or-nothing approach, you would do extremely well in one season, than struggle in the next. You won’t have that consistency which I would rather prefer over being extra creative. I think because I have stuck to my basics, my success ratio is better.

You got 67 in the second innings in the quarter-final against Kerala, but surely you would be more proud of what you did in the first innings, right? A knock of 53 after your team were 95/6, that must have given you the confidence that you belong at this level. And, then that century in the final against Delhi.

That is still my favourite knock! That innings gave me the confidence that I belong at this level. Since then, I have always tried to remember that it’s important to play the situation and that’s what I have been doing. I have always batted in the middle-order, even at the junior level, so I didn’t feel like I was doing anything new. I have always batted with the lower-order. 

The platform was different, it wasn’t some local match, it was the Ranji Trophy quarter-final. The bowling quality was different but the situation wasn’t. It was important for me to make sure I don’t play the name, no matter who the bowler was, and instead tackle one delivery at a time, something that has stayed with me forever. I didn’t have any experience and that knock gave me a lot of satisfaction. I knew if I got out, my team might get into a lot of trouble and we could get up getting knocked out. We weren’t in a great position and from there I got them into a steady position and that was really satisfying. 

I know I got my maiden hundred in the grand finale but those big knocks are not the only ones you celebrate, there are these 30s and 40s or even knocks of 50s and 60s that could be very satisfying. It’s all about winning the game for your team. That innings of 53 is my best knock so far. When I got that hundred against Delhi, I had the experience of two-three games and was a lot more confident. That knock taught me a lot of things. 

That knock gave us a glimpse of what you are made of. This is something that you do a lot, that is perform under pressure. Do you look forward to such days? Do you think you are one of those batters who excels under pressure?

I actually want to bat in those pressure situations, I look forward to batting under pressure. When I go out to bat and the team is in trouble, lagta hai woh apna chance hai (I feel that’s my chance to do well). If the team is doing well, I get a bit more relaxed. Not that I want that all the time but I enjoy doing well when the team is in trouble. When we are stuck in a difficult situation, I stop thinking about my runs and start thinking about how I can win the game for my team and that brings the best out of me. I start analysing, how many runs I need per over, when should I defend and when should I go and look for a boundary. Do I need to defend 100 deliveries or score 120 off 100, I like playing the situation and that helps my game as well.

Is this more of a mental thing? Say your team is 50/4 and you are walking out to bat, what are the thoughts going inside your head?

Yes, it’s more of a mental thing, these situations always hype me up. I think it’s in-built. There are players who want to do well and do well in easy situations but I don’t think I am like that. Give me difficult or worst conditions, that’s where I want to do well. I like performing in those conditions. I am more focused and I know what needs to be done to get my team out of trouble. The goal for me is to get my team in a better position.

To be honest, I think I bat better in the second innings. If I get out early in the first innings, I take the second one as a challenge that I have to perform. Of course, I am not saying the first innings are not important but I bat in the middle-order and most of the time what I do in the second innings impacts the game more. Those knocks in the second innings could change the complexion of the match. It could win or lose you a game. As a batsman, I have stopped looking at a challenge as a challenge, I look at it now as an opportunity and that keeps me focused.

You have a first-class average of close to 53 and have been doing well for the last four-five years. Is it frustrating that you are yet to play even for India A?

Mein toh koshish kar raha hu (I have been trying). I have been trying to give my best in every game. I understand that I have been performing well but I also know that there’s no spot in the India and India A squads. If there’s no place, you can’t do anything about it. There are also times that you fail in a couple of games but still end up getting a call-up because there’s a vacancy in the senior team for whatever reason. 

Right now, I know it’s going to be tough for me to find a spot in the India A team as well. You look at Sarfaraz Khan, we all know what he has been doing at our level and still can’t find a place. All he can do is keep scoring runs and that’s what he has been doing and that’s what I want to keep doing. He can’t go and tell the selectors to pick him. Players ke haath mein perform karne ka alawa kya hi rehta hai (all players can do is perform). Just keep performing and wait for that one opportunity. The selectors are watching us, vacancy hui toh placement bhi ho jayega.

No other Indian wicketkeeper-batter has scored more FC runs than you since your debut. How do you keep yourself motivated despite being ignored?

When I started playing cricket, I never thought that I would play for Vidarbha. I started playing age-group cricket and even then I didn’t think I would play Ranji Trophy. I never thought I would score a fifty or a century in the Ranji Trophy. I never thought I would score a hundred in the final and win back-to-back titles. I never thought about any of these but everything kept happening. I don’t want to think too far ahead. I love cricket and I want to keep enjoying the game. If I keep doing well, I know I will eventually end up in the India set-up. Yes, you play domestic cricket because you want to play for India but that should be in the back of your mind, you can’t keep putting yourself under stress because that would affect your performance. 

Do you think not featuring in the IPL has hurt your chances in red-ball cricket because we have a history of mixing formats?

IPL is a platform that could not just get you into the T20I set-up but could also help you progress to the ODI side, even the Test side for that matter. If you can’t get an IPL gig, you have to keep doing well in domestic cricket. My final goal is to play for India and all I can do is perform in the tournaments I am playing. 

Tell us about your wicketkeeping, any particular wicketkeeper you have followed throughout your career? And, how difficult it is to keep on turning wickets?

I admire Wriddhiman Saha a lot. I love his glovework and the way he moves behind the stumps. His wicketkeeping is very attractive. If the ball is turning big, which it does in India, you need to be a skillful wicketkeeper to survive. You need to concentrate even more. You hardly have any time to react, be it while taking a catch or doing a stumping. When you are keeping to fast bowlers, you get ample time to react. On Indian surfaces, the spinners are always going to be more challenging. I have spoken to him (Saha) as well and he even shared a few things with me which has helped me a lot. I told him I want to be like him when it comes to wicketkeeping. 

Are you one of the quiet ones or enjoy chirping at the batters?

I have never sledged anyone in my life, I don’t think I like that. I am a very quiet person, so I don’t like getting into anyone’s space. If I sledge him, all he has to do is ignore me and keep batting, but if the ball comes to me and I drop a catch or something, gaaliyaan toh mujhe hi padegi mere teammates se (I will only get abused by my teammates). I just stick to my job but ha thoda bohot maahol bana kar rakh leta hu (I try to keep the environment light). Rather than going after the batter, I try to keep motivating my teammates and the bowler. 

You will now be leading Vidarbha in all three formats. There is still a game to go this season, but have you set some goals for yourself this year? 

As a captain, my goal next season is to win at least two out of three trophies. We have made it through to the semi-finals of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy for two consecutive years, the Vijay Hazare Trophy didn’t go too well but I will learn from the experience. The selectors have appointed me as the captain because they might have seen something in me and I want to repay the faith by winning as many trophies as possible for Vidarbha.

(Images credit - CricDomestic and Vidarbha Cricket Association)

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