Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was India's first transcendental cricketer: his courage and single-mindedness allowed him to overcome the loss of vision in one eye to become a skilled batsman; his integrity, charisma, and generosity enabled him to shape a united team the country could be proud of.
The critics were never parsimonious when it came to describing Pataudi's cricket. When he was out for one against England in Bombay in 1973, Bobby Talyarkhan said on radio, “Pataudi is out 99 runs short of his expected century!”
He was a debonair figure at the crease and a Tiger on the field. He was endearing, glamorous and realistically ambitious while leading the team. Well aware of the limitations of Indian cricket, he personified the image of a perfect leader.
His royal background ensured he got the best of everything. His education and cricket grooming took wing in England where he studied and played with distinction. He captained Oxford and Sussex and commanded respect even from senior cricketers in the side. Tiger's reading of the game was exemplary and it allowed him to experiment and innovate.
Cricket came to Tiger as part of a remarkable legacy. He followed the footsteps of his father, Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, the only cricketer to have represented both India and England. Pataudi Senior played for England in the 1932-33 Ashes series but refused, as a matter of principle, to be part of the Bodyline tactics. He led India to England in 1946. He died six years later at 41 in a polo accident. Mansur Ali Khan was just 11.
Tiger himself survived a car accident in July 1961 but lost his right eye. Four months later, as captain of the Board President's XI, he walked out to toss with England skipper Ted Dexter. Test debut followed soon. His fourth Test innings, at Madras, resulted in a knock of 103. Tiger later described it as “one of my most memorable.”
That century earned him a regular slot and destiny paved the way for captaincy, at 21, when Nari Contractor was hit by a Charlie Griffith bouncer at Barbados. The elevation to captaincy earned him a place he deserved for his exceptional leadership skills, as the team discovered in time. Thus began his fascinating journey at the helm even though the circumstances that led him to the job were, as he observed once, “unfortunate.”
Pataudi led India in 40 of the 46 Tests he played in. It was a difficult period for India as victories were rare and wins overseas were unheard of. He showed the way. He showed greater confidence in the spinners than the seamers and the famed quartet of Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrashekhar and Srinivas Venkataraghavan blossomed under a captain who offered generous support. The slow bowlers adored Tiger for his faith in them.
A series win in New Zealand in 1968 established his credentials as a captain. His views were clear. “You can lead a side by being aloof or a sociable captain. You can be a tough fellow, or a nice fellow; an inspiring performer, or a shrewd tactician. But however you do it, you must command the players' respect,” he wrote. It summed up his personality for he was known to be genial and firm, depending on the situation. Pataudi had his high points, laced with individual and collective triumphs, but his career did not justify his enormous talent. The eye injury remained a handicap but he drifted from his goals in the later years, particularly his rocky relationship with Vijay Merchant when the latter assumed chairmanship of the national selection committee. He strongly believed in setting examples and benchmarks. His obsession with good fielding led many to work on their fitness overtime. “I am fanatical in my demands for keen fielding. This to me comes first, with everything else a poor second,” he wrote in Tiger's Tale.
A smart turnout made him happy and grubby knees happier. He was fine with “scruffy appearance” but not “scruffy fielding.” He would do training lessons in fielding with a tennis ball at home on the lawns and always advised youngsters “Never neglect your fielding practice.”
Like his father, Tiger ensured that there were no rifts in the team. He was said to be ruthless in tackling groupism at the earliest hint of one developing.
Positive and fearless
As a batsman, he was an acknowledged entertainer. He believed in staying positive, instinctively attacking and fearless in any situation. Of his six centuries, he rates the 103 against England at Madras, 148 against England at Headingley in 1967 and 128 not out against Australia at Madras in 1964 as special. Surprisingly, he did not include in the list an unbeaten 203 against England in Delhi in 1964.
Tiger's lofted shots were a rage and his electric fielding a sight to behold. Old timers rate his 75 and 85, batting at No 7, against Australia in Melbourne in 1967 as “classics.” Pataudi conquered the fiery Aussies on a green pitch without so much of footwork, having suffered a leg injury. The knocks also remain close to his heart.
It was ironical that Tiger's appointment (in 1964) and then sacking (in 1971) as captain came from a casting vote by the chairman of the selection committee. He did not mind playing (three Tests at home against England in 1972-73) under Ajit Wadekar's captaincy but returned to lead and sign off in style in 1974-75, winning two Tests against Clive Lloyd's all-conquering West Indies, ending his career with 2,793 runs.
The Marylebone Cricket Club, in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of India's Test debut, commissioned the Pataudi Trophy for Test series between India and England. It was a fitting recognition to the Pataudi family's services to the game. Pataudi was pleased with the honour and expressed his delight during a chat with The Hindu last July before leaving for England to watch M.S. Dhoni and his team. India's shoddy show left him depressed.
Married to film star Sharmila Tagore, Pataudi is survived by Saif, Soha and Saba, besides his wife. Saif and Soha followed the footsteps of their mother. Tiger did not mind his son and daughter joining films. When asked for an autograph, he would joke, “You should be chasing Saif, not me!” Even at 70, Tiger remained the charming man that he always was.