Tiger Pataudi, who would have turned 72 today, was one of India’s best captains, bringing self-belief and pride to a team that had plenty of ability but little confidence
Tiger Pataudi’s exploits on the cricket field and his contribution to the game have been appropriately analysed, extolled and documented: everyone agrees that quite apart from mere statistics, he brought to the game a certain charm, a dignity, and to Indian cricket itself a self-belief sorely lacking hitherto.
Adding to his mystique was the unfortunate mishap that occurred in the infancy of his prime while he was mercilessly pulverizing opposing bowlers. It would seem that God, in doing a review of his largesse to mankind, felt that he may have been a trifle over-generous in Tiger’s case and sensing that this could disrupt a level playing field, decided to deprive him the benefit of one eye. Anyway, back among mortals, Tiger still excelled, proving to the world that any disability is only as daunting as we make it out to be.
Tiger Pataudi was already a familiar name much before he set foot on the Parks. We knew of his achievements at Winchester and the fact that he was already enrolled by Sussex. There was huge excitement and anticipation. At first sight in the nets his technique seemed a little unconventional as his bat started its descent from the gully position — surprising for a boy from an English public school where there is such great emphasis on technique. However, we soon discovered that at the moment of contact, Tiger’s bat straightened out magically and his eye and foot coordination was such that he was able to choose where to despatch the ball earlier than most batsmen.
Another unusual facet of his batting appeared to be his inclination to loft the ball, an audacity not recommended to young batsmen in England. Sure enough, he set about scoring piles of runs. For me, two of his memorable knocks were centuries at Lord’s, one against Sonny Ramadhin (much retired but turning out for an MCC side) and in the Varsity match later on. As far as I can recall, he went on to equal my record for highest number of runs scored in a season at the Parks and then proceeded to beat his father’s mark for runs obtained during an entire Oxford season. Then the unfortunate accident happened.
We were returning to our hotel after a hard day’s play against Sussex at Hove; Tiger decided at the very last moment to get out of the team van and travel with our wicketkeeper, Robin Waters, whose little car had a collision with an oncoming vehicle in a cut in the road. There was a loud sound and when we rushed to the site, we found Tiger lying on the ground by the car. He did not appear in any great discomfort, rubbed his eyes a bit and proceeded back to the hotel. It was only the next morning that he started to feel the hurt and the doctor pronounced that a glass splinter had got lodged in his eye and required to be surgically removed. Alas, it turned out to be more serious than anybody had initially thought and a brilliant career was temporarily thwarted.
At Oxford, his interest in studies was minimal which prompted one curious colleague to ask him what he would be doing post-Oxford. His reply was on expected lines: ‘I won’t have to be doing anything; you see, I am a Nawab,’ and I think that for a major part of his life he actually believed this dictum: a Nawab should sit back and things would get done for him. He would join us at the lovely Oxford pubs, but was generally reserved except in the company of a chosen few. He had this aura of aloofness about him which erroneously created the impression of haughtiness and arrogance.
At the end of his first season, E.W. Swanton asked the two of us to join his international team for a tour of the West Indies. In Barbados, we were put up in a rather luxurious house and on returning from a late party found to our horror the gates locked. We barely managed to climb in (thanks to the practice at Oxford), only to find two huge dogs blocking the path to our room. This was the first time I got to see Tiger’s unbelievable athleticism as we both ran for our lives and barely escaped those nasty jaws. We also knew Tiger as essentially a man’s man not much given to socializing and partying. I was therefore taken aback once when in the middle of a dance with a very pretty girl, I felt my shoulder being tapped. I turned around to find Tiger doing the tag and was both surprised and delighted. I believe that was the beginning of Tiger’s social transformation and since that day there was no looking back. He was always discreet, gallant and a perfect gentleman where his lady friends were concerned.
Back at Oxford, he was chosen captain, scoring over several senior players. The same thing happened when he became India’s captain a little later. Both instances were seemingly preordained. At the start, he did not appear to be a thinking captain and was rather mechanical in his running of the game, but with experience he became one of India’s best captains and brought oodles of self-belief and pride in a team not lacking in ability but hugely in confidence. The use of spin as a potent force was his legacy as he set about repairing several other shortcomings in the players’ psyche.
Imagine our utter surprise when one day in the 1965-66 season we found the captain of India sitting in a corner of the Hyderabad dressing room. This was in our match against Andhra. Surely he should have been playing for the Delhi team somewhere in north India? It soon came to light that our captain Jaisimha, a great buddy of Tiger’s, and Mr. Ghulam Ahmed, a respected Board official, had contrived to bring about this switch. Hyderabad was not strange to Tiger as two of his sisters lived there and he had many friends who were not necessarily cricket related. He settled down immediately and gelled beautifully with the rest of the team. On our long train journeys, travelling third class, and in periodic recesses from the never-ending card sessions, his man-for-all-seasons, ‘Kishen,’ would produce out of thin air a harmonium set which Tiger would proceed to play reasonably skilfully while intermittently breaking into some strange versions of an Indian dance. Time would pass most congenially.
During home games, the day’s game done, we would gather for a drink in our dressing room, members of the opposing team often joining in, and then proceed in due course to Jaisimha’s house for some sumptuous south Indian cuisine. Far from being reserved, Tiger was an eager participant in all the jollity and would join in the ensuing discussions regarding the day’s play and tactics to be adopted for the following day. Away from home, the bonhomie would be even more pronounced; pranks were aplenty with Tiger the source of many of them (my neck ties would suddenly disappear just prior to an official function).
The team’s spirit was exemplified in the rather bizarre scenario when the captain of the country’s team was playing under someone else and then captaining the same individual a few days later in a Test match. It was a happy team full of talented cricketers like Govindraj, Jayantilal, Krishnamurthy, Mumtaz Hussain and seniors like Jaisimha, Abid Ali, Habeeb Ahmed, Tiger and myself. There was hardly any curfew and after a day’s play in Bangalore a venerable member of the team, Santosh Reddy, was found in the wee hours of the morning perched on a well-trimmed hedge outside our hotel reciting Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, heartily cheered by Tiger and others. Little wonder then that we did not win the Ranji trophy despite our playing capabilities! But if there were to be a trophy for the team which had maximum fun playing the game both on and off the field, we would have won it.
During our courting days in Mumbai, Tiger and I used to see a great deal of each other. Once we were back in Delhi after retirement, these meetings became fewer though we knew that in a crisis we were only a phone call away. From time to time I would get a call seeking advice regarding a cricketing matter or help writing a speech. Towards the end, he would complain about difficulty in breathing and this indeed led him to hospital for his final journey. When I saw him in the ICU the day he died, he was barely able to speak and looked confused and helpless, doubtless knowing that though he had fought and come out winner in many battles before, this battle was different and unwinnable.
(Excerpt from Pataudi: Nawab of Cricket. Published by HarperCollins India. Edited by Suresh Menon. Foreword by Sharmila Tagore.)