Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, born January 5, 1941, was a prodigiously brilliant batsman in his early days, before a car accident claimed one eye. He still went on to captain India, but throughout his career rang out one solitary question – what might have been. But, at Oxford, English writer Jeffrey Archer saw him in his prime and had no doubt about the man’s greatness. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the short story Archer penned based on the young Nawab of Pataudi.
What might have been?
Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, MAK Pataudi. He is the only man to have played Test cricket under three different names.
Perhaps with each subsequent name, the cricket loving public of India hoped for a change of fortune, the atonement of destiny. Because, Pataudi as we all know, was struck cruelly by the hand of fate. The brilliant career about to take off was reduced to a tale of one constant recurring unanswered question: “What might have been?”
Captain in his final year at Winchester in 1959, he scored 1,068 runs – thereby surpassing the record set 40 years earlier by Douglas Jardine. At Oxford, he scored a century in his very first varsity match. In 1961, as captain of the University, he was on course to break his father’s record of 1,307 runs in a season. He had just scored centuries in each innings against a Yorkshire attack led by Fred Trueman. By the end of June he had amassed 1,216 runs at 55.27.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Indian cricket needed a hero. The team fluctuated between litany of losses and honourable draws. And as news from distant England had filtered in – about a young Indian man from the royal family displaying prodigious talent on the cricket field – the country had started to dream. They dreamed in lines of KS Ranjitsinhji, KS Duleepsinhji and also Nawab of Pataudi Sr. The princes of the past who had set the English grounds afire with their willows. However, this young man was going to be an Indian hero.
And then they heard the tragic news.
On July 1, 1961, Pataudi was seated in a car driven by his friend, Robin Waters. They were on their way to some curry after the first day of their match against Sussex at Hove, the county and ground graced by the genius of Ranjitsinhji. And a Humber Super Snipe crashed into the passenger side of their Mini Minor. A shard of broken glass entered his right eye, destroying it forever.
Contrary to the widely held belief that he would never play cricket again, Pataudi was back in his cricketing whites within a few months, turning out for India the very next season. As the years followed, his batting was sometimes brilliant, sometimes erratic. His captaincy sometimes sublime, sometimes eccentric. His fielding remained uniformly superb. The other aspects that remained constant were his charm, charisma and sense of humour.
His batting career was not spectacular, but considering the loss of vision in one eye, it was one of the most remarkable. After World War One, Ranjitsinhji had tried to bat with one eye and failed dismally. Pataudi succeeded often enough.
Yet, the question remained. Along with the charm, charisma, sense of humour and fantastic fielding at cover – the one other constant of his career. “What might have been …?“
The glimpse of the peak
Not many of his countrymen saw him at his best – when he had set the grounds of England on fire for Winchester and Oxford. They were struck by the wonder brought about by the anecdotes of his brilliance.
However, there was one man who did see him at the peak of his powers, before his vision was compromised. And he was won over by the bristling talent and the charm of the young man.
Novelist and Member of the Parliament Jeffrey Archer was never really registered as an under graduate at Oxford. He studied there for three years, gaining an academic qualification in teaching awarded by the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education. The course was based at Brasenose College.
At Oxford, Archer was a successful sprinter and hurdler, and also went on to represent both England and Great Britain in athletics. Indeed, Archer was always keen on sports, and had been a Physical Education teacher at Vicar’s Hill, a Prep School in Hampshire, where he taught fencing among other sports. And he also followed cricket.
At Oxford, their paths crossed. And the Indian prince immediately impressed the writer. In Archer’s own words in an article for Indian Express,“I first met him through some common friends at Oxford, and the first thing that struck me about him was the God-given gift he possessed to treat all men as equals. He was an amateur back then, a man of singular talent. Of course he was a dashing young fellow with an exquisite cover drive, but what stood out were the qualities of an old- fashioned gentleman in him, even as a young man. He stood apart for his kind nature and a heart of gold. I followed his cricket closely during his varsity days and went on to become a great fan of his captaincy when he plied his trade for India. But the Nawab I know, adore and remember is the man himself, the brilliant nature possessed within his shy being.”
Hence, when he wrote his first collection of short stories Quiver Full of Arrows, published in 1980, there was one tale in which his old friend appeared in a thinly disguised persona.
The sixth story of this twelve-tale collection is titled The Century. The protagonist is an unnamed Oxonian who desperately wants to make it as a cricketer for the University in the footsteps of his famous father. In fact, his father is an ex-captain of India.
The description of the main character leaves no doubt about the man Archer had in mind. He writes: “My story concerns a delightful character … he came from that part of the world that we still dared to describe in those days (without a great deal of thought) as the colonies. He was an Indian by birth, and the son of a man whose name in England was a household word, if not a legend, for he had captained Oxford and India at cricket …The young man’s father had added to his fame by scoring a century at Lord’s when captaining the University against Cambridge. [Pataudi Sr. had scored 106 and 84 against Cambridge in 1931]. In fact, when he went on to captain India against England, he used to take pride in wearing his cream sweater with the wide blue band around the neck and waist. The son, the experts predicted, would carry on in the family tradition. He was in much the same mould as his father, tall and rangy with jet-black hair, and as a cricketer, a fine right-handed batsman …”
The youth is also endowed with a sense of humour very much in the wry Pataudi style. In fact, he misses the first Oxford-Cambridge match as a comical consequence of a wisecrack he makes on the eve of the match.
There are only a few changes to the real life Pataudi that Archer introduces. Apart from being a fantastic batsman, the student is also a left-arm spin bowler. In real life Pataudi occasionally bowled medium pace, and right handed.
The other big change was that of the cricketer’s father flying in for the Oxford-Cambridge matches. Unfortunately, Pataudi lost his father when he was just 11.
The third difference is perhaps unintentional. Against Somerset, the man in the story scores a hundred full of drives and cuts that reminds the aficionados of the father. In reality, Pataudi’s game was very different from the old Nawab’s. The former was an accumulator, the latter a more adventurous, dashing and attractive stroke-player.
Apart from the brilliance of his batting, the story also celebrates the spirit with which the young hero played the game. In a typical Archer twist, the story has an unusual end, but the message rings out loud and clear. The author and Member of Parliament had been bedazzled by the Pataudi magic, his glamour, grace and personal magnetism.
With the flashes of brilliance that graced his game occasionally as Pataudi went about playing with his handicap, the world might have wondered what might have been. But, for Jeffrey Archer, there remained no such question. He had seen the man at the height of his powers, and his had witnessed greatness. His heart had been won.
(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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