Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who passed away in Delhi on Thursday after a battle with interstitial lung disease, was the last of the princely cricketers. Born into privilege — his father, the Nawab of Pataudi, Sr., made a century on debut in Sydney in the first Test of the Bodyline series and was the only cricketer to represent both England and India in Tests — Tiger (as M.A.K. Pataudi was nicknamed) was a gifted and elegant batsman, a magnificent fielder, and a natural leader of men. Educated at Oxford's Balliol College, he took over as captain of the Indian side when he was just 21 — astonishingly, not long after losing vision in his right eye in a car accident. He went on to lead the country in 40 of the 46 Tests he played. Arriving at a time when India was a perennial underdog in the Test arena, he welded individual talents into a world-class team and led it with magisterial self-assurance and rare tactical nous. Sooner than anyone else, he saw that India must play to its strengths, which meant going all out with many-splendoured spin. His jaunty confidence and sanguine attitude rubbed off on his teammates and it was under Tiger that India achieved its first overseas Test series triumph — 3-1 against New Zealand in 1968. Hailed as a transformative influence on Indian cricket, Pataudi saw his star fading not long after. Ahead of the tour of the Caribbean in 1971, the chairman of the Selection Committee, Vijay Merchant, used his casting vote to replace Tiger with young Ajit Wadekar at the helm.
Wadekar justified the confidence placed in him by leading India to successive series wins in the West Indies and England — but Tiger was not one to give up. He made a characteristic comeback, first as a player and then as captain, leading India at home against the West Indies in the close-fought 1974-75 series. He ended his Test career with an average of just over 34 — but everyone recognised that in his case greatness could not be measured by statistics alone. Playing with one eye long before the helmet arrived to protect face and skull, Tiger was courage personified against fast bowling. There were times when his batting reached a level of subliminal beauty rarely matched by anyone in that era. More than his double hundred against England in New Delhi in 1964, or any of his five other hundreds, connoisseurs of the game will recall Tiger's 75 and 85 — made while nursing a hamstring injury in one leg — against Australia at Melbourne in the 1967-68 series. In his retirement, Tiger made valuable contributions to Indian cricket and his incisive and forthright views set him apart from many a temporising expert. Long before the TV boom gave rise to Indian cricket's cult of celebrity, Pataudi, on and off the field, was the real article — a debonair superstar without a peer.