Tiger Pataudi's body language oozed confidence and self-belief that gave a subtle message to his team-mates that there was nothing to feel inferior about

Contemporary generation, fed on the abridged version of the game and oblivious to India’s rich cricketing past, would not quite appreciate the colossus Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was. To this generation brought up on the junk diet of T20, Pataudi would be actor Saif Ali Khan’s father and Sharmila Tagore’s husband.

For those who have seen, appreciated and retained the memories of a bygone era, Tiger Pataudi will remain as the mastermind behind the game’s greatest spin combine of EAS Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bishan Singh Bedi. He launched an all-out attack with the dreaded spinners much like Clive Lloyd did in later years with the pace quartet of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft and Malcolm Marshall. He was also one of the greatest fielders in the world – in the mould of Colin Bland and Jonty Rhodes.

India were still far from being a first world cricketing nation, but Tiger’s body language was awe-inspiring. There was an imperious air about him, and it had much more to do than his royal background that gave him a privileged background of a palace with 150 rooms, over 100 servants — eight of whom were personally assigned to him. The body language oozed confidence and self-belief that gave a subtle message to his team-mates that there was nothing to feel inferior about. And that attitude and approach reflected in both his attacking batting and attacking captaincy.

Tiger captained 40 of his 46 Tests and his captaincy span, though interrupted, lasted between 1962 and 1975 — by far the longest by any Indian. That the 46 Tests took 13 years speaks for the thin volume of cricket in that era. Yet, those 40 Tests have since been only marginally bettered only by three Indian captains — Sourav Ganguly (49) and Sunil Gavaskar and Mohammad Azharuddin (47 each). Thirteen captains led India before Tiger and the most was by Lala Amarnath (15). These statistics show why Tiger was head and shoulders above the others in leadership skills and man management. In fact, history will rank him alongside men like Richie Benaud, Imran Khan, Clive Lloyd and Mike Brearley as a cerebral general.

Tiger had played just three Tests and was just 21 years and 77 days — the youngest in all Test cricket till 2004 – when he was forced to lead an Indian side against the might of a West Indies in West Indies led by Sir Frank Worrell. It was most unexpected and under very difficult circumstances. Here was a wet-behind-the-ears youngster asked to lead the likes of Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Chandu Borde, ML Jaisimha, Bapu Nadkarni, Salim Durani, Ramakant Desai and others – all seniors to him – whom he hardly knew, having spent the best part of his cricketing life till then in England. The selectors had chosen Pataudi as vice-captain in the hope of grooming him, but the Test career-ending blow to captain Nari Contractor’s head by Charlie Griffith propelled the young cub into a very uncomfortable lead role with no mental preparation.

The horrific car accident that cost Tiger his eye

But Pataudi was made of steel, despite his royal upbringing. He never showed his inner feelings — on or off the field. Five months before his debut against he had virtually lost his right eye in a horrific car accident in Sussex. Consequently, he lost perspective of judging distances. “When trying to light a cigarette, I found that I was missing the end of it by a quarter of an inch. I was also liable to pour water from a jug straight on to the table, instead of into a tumbler as I intended,” he wrote in his autobiography, Tiger’s Tale.

It took him five years, he says, before he could come to terms with his huge handicap. “I soon found I could no longer hook, because I couldn’t follow the ball around, and I had to curb my natural inclinations to drive half-volleys because I was so frequently beaten by the yorker. On the whole, I found I favoured the quicker stuff; slow spin was so difficult to follow in flight, but gradually I learnt to judge pace by the amount of flight and the effort that the bowler was putting into it… It was a question of finding out my limitations and then playing strictly within them.”

Pataudi was asked to lead the President’s XI against Ted Dexter’s Englishman in 1961. He found out that he was “seeing two balls, six to seven inches apart.” But he picked the inner of the two and managed to score 35 runs! This was his first big match after the accident and the selectors were probably impressed — unaware of his predicament! He was to make his Test debut against the same Englishmen and in his fourth innings got his first Test hundred.  

Mastery with one eye and one leg on a green top

Though Pataudi scored an unbeaten double hundred in Tests, his finest efforts came at Melbourne in the 1967-68 Test against Bobby Simpson’s Australia. Pataudi missed the first Test — which India lost by an innings — due to a pulled hamstring. If one wants to appreciate the severity of a pulled hamstring, look no further than Zaheer Khan who has been ruled out for 14-16 weeks. Pataudi came back to play the second Test after not having touched the bat for a month. Graham McKenzie played havoc on a green top, reducing India to 25 for five. But with just one good leg and one good eye, Pataudi scored 75 in the first innings and 85 in the second. Pataudi’s audacious strokeplay reminded Lindsay Hassett of his legendary team-mate, Sir Don Bradman.

Pataudi kept things simple — indeed very simple. He would just pick any bat in the dressing room and go out to bat and score big — in a Test match!

It’s never easy to step into the shoes of a famous father, but Tiger’s life is all about grit and glory and he took every challenge that came his way to surpass the efforts of his father — Iftikhar Ali Khan, who played under Douglas Jardine in the Bodyline series for England and later for India. Tiger Pataudi, was celebrating his 11th birthday with his siblings when he learnt that his father died of heart attack while playing polo. The senior Pataudi was just 41.

As a thinker of the game, his views were much sought after. He was, for a while, the editor of the now defunct Sportsworld. And whenever he wrote, it was the kind of journalism that you don’t get to read from today’s celebrated Indian cricketers – be it his language or thinking.  

Brilliant wit & prankster

He had a remarkable sense of humour. When the English cricketer Sir Gubby Allen asked him when he first thought he had a chance to playing again despite his handicap, Tiger replied, “When I first saw the English bowling!” Clearly, this breed of Tiger is also an endangered species!

Tiger was also a prankster and cricketers and cricket journalists who knew him will recall hilarious anecdotes about his ability to pull legs with a straight face. Sunil Gavaskar captures this facet of Tiger’s personality with this terrifying anecdote in his book, Sunny Days, after Tiger had invited a few players to play a match in Bhopal. Recalls Gavaskar, “On the rest day, they had decided to go on a ‘shikar’. They had hardly entered the jungle when suddenly they were surrounded by ‘dacoits’ who fired a few rifle shots in the air, warning them not to try anything funny. (Gundappa) Viswanath, (EAS) Prasanna and the other members of the party were asked to get down from the jeeps and hand over their belongings. When one of the men accompanying them tried to run, he was ‘shot’ down by the ‘dacoit’ leader. Viswanath and Prasanna were told that they were being held to ransom. The petrified Viswanath, who was tied to a tree, started weeping and explaining that he was an India Test cricketer and the country needed his services. The ‘dacoits’ had never heard of cricket and weren’t in the least bit impressed. They were eventually released, when the ransom were supposedly paid to the ‘dacoits’. Viswanath breathed a sigh of relief. Only later did they come to know that the ‘dacoits’ were, in fact, Tiger Pataudi’s servants and the whole incident was staged and a big hoax! Prasanna knew this because Tiger had told him earlier, but poor Viswanath to this day doesn’t believe it was a make-believe hold-up and cannot help shivering in fright when reminded of it.”

India had produced many big names and royal cricketers as well before Pataudi, but Tiger was the first of the larger-than-life players in Indian cricket — and in a non-commercial and non-television era. Even in those days when ladies were quite restrained in their show of affection for men, the charismatic Tiger was one of the most coveted men. Ultimately, Tiger fell to the charms of one of most beautiful women of his times — the glamorous great-grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, Sharmila Tagore.

Writing Ranji’s biography, Alan Ross wrote: “The prince of a little state but king of a great game.” The same can be said of Tiger Pataudi.

Adieu, Tiger.

 

(H Natarajan, formerly All India Deputy Sports Editor of the Indian Express and Senior Editor with Cricinfo/Wisden, is the Executive Editor of CricketCountry.com. A prolific writer, he has written for many of the biggest newspapers, magazines and websites all over the world. A great believer in the power of social media, he can be followed on Facebook at facebook.com/H.Natarajan and on Twitter at twitter/hnatarajan)