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21-year-old Pataudi takes over as India captain under tragic circumstances

21-year-old Pataudi takes over as India captain under tragic circumstances

Tiger Pataudi was all of 21 years and 77 days old with the experience of just three Test matches when he had to take over as India captain following the unfortunate head injury to Nari Contractor, the original captain © Getty Images

March 23, 1962. The 21-year -old Nawab of Pataudi Jr was asked to lead India in just his fourth Test match. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the Test match at Barbados which witnessed the then youngest-ever Test captain and ended with Lance Gibbs producing one of the greatest ever spells by an off-spinner.
Sea, sun and sand — the wondrous islands of the Caribbean had seemed to carry a dreaded curse for the touring Indians of 1961-62.

The visitors had been plainly out of their depth taking on the versatile might of the hosts. Frank Worrell, Conrad Hunte, Garry Sobers, Rohan Kanhai were more than a handful with their flourishing bats. And then there were Wes Hall and Charlie Stayers with the new ball, fast, furious and hostile. Finally, Lance Gibbs and Alf Valentine were to follow if by some form and fortune the initial onslaught had been withstood.

The Indians had been trounced in Port of Spain by 10 wickets, hammered at Kingston by an innings.

And if that was not enough, tragedy had struck during the tour match against Barbados. Captain Nari Contractor was felled by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith, a near fatal blow to the skull, that saw him engaged in a prolonged tussle with death and ended his international career forever.
The new captain
The Indian team was full of seasoned campaigners, men who had been proven stalwarts for a long, long time.

Polly Umrigar had led the country earlier, had been around for 14 years and had played 56 Tests. Vijay Manjrekar had represented the nation for over 11 years, with 44 Tests under his belt. Chandu Borde had turned out in 26 matches in his four years.

Reportedly, there was some reluctance among the seniors to assume the role of the stand-in captain. The appointed vice-captain of the team was all of 21 years and 77 days old, with the experience of just three Test matches. In the team only Dilip Sardesai had played fewer matches. And now, Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi Junior, was given the reins of the Indian side.

Life had come full circle for the young man. It had been hardly eight months since the tragic car accident at Hove which had cost him his right eye. The schoolboy prodigy of Winchester had painstakingly learned how to bat with one eye.

The cap pulled down over his damaged right eye, he had made his debut four months earlier. In his third Test, against England at Chennai, he had scored 103 — helping India to secure their first series win against the former colonial overlords. He had not played the first two Tests in West Indies due to injury, and now all of a sudden he found himself in the hot seat.

Pataudi settled into the role as if he had been born to lead India — indeed, many felt he did. The transition from the skipper of Oxford University to the captain of India was almost seamless. He was the youngest-ever to lead his country — a record that stood for four decades before some serious political upheaval catapulted Tatendra Taibu to the helm of the Zimbabwe side.

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi strutted in to toss as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Walking beside him that day in Bridgetown, Barbados, was the calm composed figure of Frank Worrell, one of the senior statesmen of the game, a legend in the islands and the world. Pataudi fell in step beside the great man, and walked with jaunty strides, dapper and dashing in his blazer. Nari Contractor had seen little of his successor. Many years later he said that he had not been surprised that the selectors had chosen the young man first as the vice-captain and then as his replacement: “He was a natural leader.”

The spin of the coin went against the new captain. The older man opted to field on a bouncy track, eager to let Hall and Stayers loose on the Indian batsmen.
The struggle continues
The story of the Indian struggle, however, remained predictably unchanged. The difference at the helm did not herald miracles.

The young openers, Sardesai and ML Jaisimha, started off confidently enough, but Wes Hall picked up the latter, followed by the vital wickets of Manjrekar and Umrigar. Worrell, Gibbs, Valentine, Sobers and Stayers all chipped in. The young captain resisted with an attractive 48, the highest score of the innings, before hitting one back to Valentine. The Indian total amounted to an unimpressive 258.

In response, the West Indian innings was full of substantial scores from all the major batsmen. The Nawab carried himself on the field with charisma, marshalling his men with a maturity uncanny for one so tender of age. Perhaps he dug deep into the Sussex days under Ted Dexter, perhaps the regal association with the game for generations had its effect. But, on the field, Pataudi looked very much the man in charge.

Yet, the resources under his command were pitifully limited when it came to bowling on that Bajan strip. Hunte and Easton McMorris added 67 for the first wicket. Kanhai lit up the ground with some scintillating strokes, racing to 89 in a couple of hours with 13 fours and three sixes. Sobers dazzled the ground in his brief stay for 42. At the end of the second day the West Indians had taken the lead with just four wickets down.

They slowed down for no reason on the third day, resuming after Sunday’s rest. Inexplicably, only 164 were added for the loss of four wickets. The bowling was not particularly tight, neither the fielding — apart from Rusi Surti and the captain himself — anything out of ordinary. Yet, the batsmen laboured for 58 runs in the first session from as many as 45 overs, and managed 62 in the second off 42. The final session brought just 44 runs. Worrell batted well into the fourth day, spending nearly six hours for 77, during one period taking over one and a half hours for eight runs. Neither was Joe Solomon very enterprising in his 96. The final score of 475 ensured a huge lead, but precious time had been consumed by the batsmen and there was an outside chance that India would be able to save the match.

Jaisimha was trapped leg before for a duck by a shooter from Stayers, but some spirited batting by Sardesai and Surti followed by the calmness of Manjrekar did raise the Indian hopes. The visitors finished the fourth day on 104 for two.
The Gibbs magic
On the final morning, steady batting by Manjrekar and Saredesai took India to lunch without further loss. At 149 for two, things looked bright for the young captain. Two sessions remained and with eight wickets in hand there was more than decent chance for India to bat the day out.

But the pencil thin Lance Gibbs hastened the end, spinning them out in a mesmerising spell of spin bowling after the break.

On a wearing wicket, the tall off spinner pitched with uncanny accuracy, got turn and the occasional bounce. One after another, the batsmen perished. A battery of close in fielders, led by the acrobatic Sobers at backward short leg, waited for the snicks and the Indians obliged.

Sardesai was brilliantly taken by Sobers at leg slip. Manjrekar’s on drive was held by Worrell at silly mid-on. Pataudi himself lasted two balls, turning a disconcerting off-break into the hands of the backward short leg. Borde pulled fiercely, and it was plucked from the air by Worrell. Farokh Engineer stepped out, missed the line and was stumped.

The post-lunch session saw Gibbs bowl 15.3 overs, 14 of them maiden, and pick up eight wickets for six runs. His final figures were an unreal 53.3-37-38-8. Perhaps he was helped by the ultra-defensive approach of Manjrekar and Sardesai. With saving the match of supreme importance, even half volleys were patted back tamely. But, once the off-spinner got into his groove, there was no stopping him.

Borde, Nadkarni and Durani had toiled away on the same track without reward. With this performance, Gibbs peerlessly demonstrated why he was the best off-break bowler of the world.

The West Indians had triumphed by an innings and 30 runs.

Pataudi’s stint at the helm started with defeat. The next few Tests would follow in the same vein. In the early sixties, India was not the ideal team to lead.

Yet, the stamp of authority was there for all to see. India had stumbled on to someone who would lead them for long.

Indeed, Pataudi ended up leading 40 of the 46 Tests that he played in.

Brief scores: India 258 (ML Jaisimha 41, MAK Pataudi 48) and 187 (Dilip Sardesai 60, Vijay Manjrekar 51, Lance Gibbs 8 for 38) lost to West Indies 475 (Conrad Hunte 59, Rohan Kanhai 89, Garry Sobers 42, Joe Solomon 96, Frank Worrell 77, David Allan 40) by an innings and 30 runs.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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