Pataudi was a tiger in the covers; the best in the world

Legendary India cricketer Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi

 

Text and illustration by Austin Coutinho

 

Circa: 1980. The umpires had called for early tea in the Kanga League game between Young Maharashtra-PJ Hindu Gymkhana at the former’s ground. Rain had interrupted play and both teams were huddled up in the hut, sipping hot cups of tea and devouring dunked ‘khara’ biscuits.

 

The great Eknath Solkar, who used to turn up for the Hindu Gymkhana, was reminiscing about the finest fielders he had seen in his career. Story-telling during lunch, tea or rain breaks was a tradition in those days and members of both teams, especially youngsters, would be keen to hear the seniors in either team discuss the game. Solkar spoke fondly of his Mafatlal teammate, Brijesh Patel and of Ramnath Parkar. He rated both in the category of brilliant cover fielders. Amongst the few foreigners he mentioned were Clive Lloyd — in his younger days — and Australian Paul Sheahan. “But In my opinion, Solkar added, “the finest cover fielder by a mile was Tiger Pataudi.”

 

Solkar would have known, for he was not only the finest forward short-leg fielder in the history of the game, but also an electric fielder around 30 yards from the bat. At a time when Indian fielders were known to have ‘escorted’ the ball to the boundary, Pataudi would set an example for his teammates by swooping on the ball from his position in the cover and hurl in one-handed, flat, fast and accurately, to the ‘keeper. He dived in the outfield like soccer players, something alien to cricket till the turn of the century.

 

Solkar, who came from a very humble background, felt that the ‘Nawab’, despite his royal upbringing, was very friendly, considerate towards his teammates and very, very popular amongst females.

 

“Pataudi also played pranks with such a straight face that the poor, unsuspecting teammate would hardly realise the trap being laid for him!” said Solkar.

 

One story goes that in the early ’70s, when he was captain of the Indian team, Pataudi invited his teammates to a hunting expedition in his estate in Bhopal. At one place, some of the younger members of the team were surrounded by dacoits, who threatened to kill them. One young newcomer to the team was even tied to a tree. Pataudi watched from afar as the players cried and begged for their lives. It was only after having a fair bit of fun at their expense that he ordered his servants posing as ‘dacoits’ — guns, huge moustaches et al — to release their captives. It is said the scene was so realistic that one of the youngsters, who became India’s batting backbone in later years, still doesn’t believe that the whole thing was set up by Tiger Pataudi.

 

Another story relates to his Sussex Second XI days. Tiger Pataudi once turned up for a match with sticking plaster all over his face. He told his teammates that he had been attacked by a gang with razors and knives and that he narrated to them of how he fought them off, single handedly. Naturally, every one of his teammates was concerned and fussed around him and treated him with every comfort. However, his teammates were aghast when it was his turn to pad up for batting. Ripping off the plaster, to everybody’s surprise, he revealed an unblemished skin!

 

Apart from being a great practical joker, he was ahead of his times as far as his batting was concerned. At a time when it was thought proper to play shots along the ground into gaps between fielders, Pataudi preferred to loft the ball into empty spaces. He believed in wresting the initiative from bowlers even on unfriendly pitches and was a great improviser.

 

There was this cocky young left-arm spinner from Uttar Pradesh who bowled him through the ‘gate’ and laughed. The occasion was the Indian team’s nets at the Green Park in Kanpur before the Test match against England in the 1972-73 series. The bowler had a classical, orthodox left-arm spinner’s action, but the ball would cut in sharply with the arm into the batsman.

 

“Hey! Who’s this guy?” said Pataudi, when it happened once too often. “Okay, boy. Let’s see if you can bowl me out again!”

 

The bowler, who had had his tail up, was treated to some magic shots by the ‘Nawab’ for the rest of the session. Waiting for the ball to break in, Pataudi would regularly and with a lot of ease, pat the ball between his pads to where fine leg would have been. Bewildered and befuddled, the poor bowler stopped bowling.

 

Pataudi, the debonair prince of cricket, attracted a lot of female fan following. Aspiring starlets and models would swoon at his handsome good looks and would seek his company.

 

A player and a gentleman; there will hardly be another prince of pranks like him.

 

May his soul rest in peace.

 

(Austin Coutinho, Deputy Manager (CRM) with RCF, is a cartoonist and writer. A former club cricketer, he is also a cricket and football coach)