First published in First Post on 23 September 2011
“When I saw the English bowling,” was Mansur Ali Khan’s pat reply to a British journalist at a press conference immediately after his maiden Test hundred at Madras against Ted Dexter’s visiting England side in 1961. The question had been about when after the loss of one eye he had started believing he could play Test cricket again.
In his autobiographical Tiger’s Tale, Pataudi recounted how he decided to have some fun in the middle in that game. “The crowds here have rarely seen Indian batsmen take the aerial route,” he told his batting partner and skipper Nari Contractor, and proceeded to play some delightful lofted shots, including a couple of sixes, in an innings that broke away from the defensive mould of the time.
Pataudi was the first superstar of Indian cricket, arguably more charismatic than anyone before or after him to don India colours. The reasons were not far to seek: his brilliant wit and repartee as much as his striking good looks, superb athleticism and positive cricket.
He was inarguably the first Indian captain to demand consistently hard work in the fielding department, though there had been the occasional flash in the pan before his time. He set a marvellous personal example, patrolling the covers with lissome authority—those fortunate enough to watch the early Pataudi believed that he was not only a genius of a batsman but also a world class slip fielder, before he became blind in one eye. One of the first things he is said to have told his team after taking over as Sussex captain was: “Gentlemen, let’s see some scuffed trousers and bruised knees and elbows.”
Acknowledged as one of the world’s best fielders of his time, he was once invited by a television channel to compete in a fielding contest with Colin Bland, South Africa’s original Jonty Rhodes, to be telecast live, but Tiger declined because it involved getting up early on a non-match morning!
I write this hours after his death and almost every tribute I have watched has stressed his major influence on the self-belief of Indian Test cricketers hitherto known for their defeatist attitude (though Tiger himself was known to have acknowledged the role played by such predecessors as GS Ramchand).
Add all these ingredients and what you get is the magic of Tiger Pataudi, whose heroic exploits in a losing cause once earned him the newspaper headlines His Excellence The Nawab of Headingley. This was during the 1967 tour of England and he made 64 and 148 as India scored 510 after following on, forcing England to bat a second time. Next year, he was leading India in Australia, where after being forced to miss the first Test by a hamstring injury, he earned the sobriquet of Captain Courageous with his brave batting in the remaining three Tests—“with one good eye and on one good leg.”
It has been suggested that his 2793 runs at an average of 34.91 are ordinary figures, but these statistics have to be seen in the right perspective. For the major part of his career he averaged around 40, which was not far behind the performance of the leading Indian batsmen of his period. His failure against the West Indies at both the start and end of his career it was that brought down his average considerably. At the peak of his career, he modestly dismissed any excessive praise of his batting by claiming that most of his runs were scored against medium pace bowling! In rare moments, he however admitted that with two eyes, he might have equalled the great batsmen of the game.
I had the privilege of playing for Hyderabad when he was still a member of the team, with my first season his last. I walked on air the whole season, thanks to the sheer joy of sharing the dressing room with the likes of Tiger, my captain ML Jaisimha, Abbas Ali Baig and Abid Ali. I wonder if there has ever been a more glamorous outfit in domestic cricket than the Hyderabad side of the 1970s. I was very lucky to win the approval of these nawabs of Hyderabad cricket, even if the sojourn was all too brief, for Tiger and Abbas retired after that season and Jai and Abid soon afterwards.
Two memories linger from that season: one a totally unexpected cameo by him in a match against Andhra, when following an off-drive off my bowling, the batsman MN Ravikumar dived back to his crease after starting a second run as he saw Tiger pick up the ball in a feline swoop and fling it—feign a throw, in fact—only to see him walk up to where the ball had actually stopped on a damp outfield and retrieve it casually; another a masterly 198 against Tamil Nadu after demanding a promotion in the batting order and promising the captain a double hundred.
I remember suggesting to Pataudi that his decision to retire from Test cricket at the end of the 1974-75 series India lost 2-3 to Clive Lloyd’s West Indies. His reply was heartbreaking. “I don’t want to be killed on a cricket field, Ram,” he said, referring to his inability to see the express deliveries of Andy Roberts and Co.
In the midst of the swirling surge of emotions the news of his passing has caused, my thoughts keep going back to a moment at the end of my first Ranji Trophy season. We were sitting on the terrace at the Wankhede Stadium after losing to Bombay a match we should have won. I had had a good match personally, and Pataudi was quietly happy about it in the manner of a kindly senior. “Seven wickets against Bombay!” he repeatedly muttered, but adding a disclaimer. “Next year, wickets will be harder to come by, because every batsman will take you more seriously.” Prophetic, those words turned out to be, though I did not take them seriously then.
What he said next devastated me. “All the best, Ram. I won’t be playing next year. I am announcing my retirement from first class cricket.” It was Hyderabad cricket’s irreparable loss then. Today, cricket is poorer without him.
The author was MAK Pataudi’s Hyderabad teammate in the 1975-76 season. An off-spinner, he played in the Ranji Trophy, Duleep Trophy, Deodhar Trophy and Irani Cup.