Technically and strategically brilliant, Tiger Pataudi was a path-breaking captain for India; he was always a move ahead of his adversary.
An aggressive skipper required an equally attacking bowler as his sword arm. In this context, off-spinning wizard Erapalli Prasanna and Pataudi were kindred spirits.
In the historic clash of 1968 in New Zealand, where India registered its first overseas series triumph, Prasanna claimed 24 wickets in four Tests at 18.79.
In the earlier leg of the tour against a strong Australia team, Prasanna grabbed 25 wickets in four Tests at 27.44.
Pataudi, as Prasanna revealed to The Hindu, was a huge influence on him. The off-spinning great provided us with a fascinating insight into how Pataudi discussed field placings with him.
“His logic was that a right-handed batsman must play a leg-spinner on the off-side and an off-spinner on the on-side. He also used to say that unless I turned the ball too much, which would allow the batsman to play me fine, there was no need for a fine-leg.”
Prasanna elaborated, “Initially I had a deep fine-leg and he modified it into a deep square-leg to the right of the umpire.
“If you draw a straight line between the two short-legs, forward and backward which he stationed for me, you would reach the deep square-leg which Tiger had suggested. Everything he said had a scientific reasoning. Then I had a squarish mid-on in the 30-yard circle and a mid-on.
“By making the batsmen reach out for the ball on the off-side with flight, he told me I could have them caught on the on-side if I imparted the right amount of spin,” the off-spinning great said.
Coming up with an example, Prasanna recalled how a silly point was removed for all-rounder Bernard Julien in the dramatic Test at Chepauk in the 1974-75 series. “This was done to provide the batsman a sense of space on the off-side since there was no silly point. Julien reached out and I got him caught and bowled on the on-side.”
Prasanna said, “Tiger made me visualise the field. I asked him why he was not having a long-on for me.
“He answered, ‘if the batsmen try to hit you from down the pitch, the ball, because of the revolutions on it, would travel at a 30-degree angle to be picked up near the 30-yard line at the squarish mid-on. And he said if the batsmen attempted to scoop me out of the park, the drift on the ball would see them play too early and force them to sky it between mid-on and mid-wicket.”
Tiger and Prasanna relished hunting down batsmen. The illustrious off-spinner remembers, “He would have four fielders on the off-side and rarely had a point for me. He would tell me that if the batsmen tried to cut me then I could get them.
“Tiger usually posted a silly mid-off, almost in line with the popping crease, a slip, an extra-cover and a short third-man or a gully for me. He would attempt to lure the batsmen with the large gap to the left of extra cover.”
Pataudi and Prasanna came across an equally bold customer in Ian Chappell during India's tour of Australia in 1967-68.
“Tiger told me that Chappell would jump out to smother the spin. We thought about it and decided on a short mid-on since I could make the ball hang in the air. Chappell had his moments but we also had him picked up at short mid-on on the uppish drive.”
Prasanna recollects how Pataudi made him aware of a batsman's blind spot.
“I was bowling round the wicket to the left-handed Australian Bill Lawry. Tiger asked me to come over the wicket and enlightened me about a batsman's blind spot, between the leg and the middle stumps. From a bowler's angle, it would appear to be on the right of the leg-stump. I pitched it in the right spot and the obdurate Lawry was finally dismissed.”
On another occasion, during the 1975 Test against the West Indies in Madras, Pataudi anticipated that Clive Lloyd would come after the bowling. “He still implored me to flight the ball. Lloyd thundered down the track, I got the ball to dip, and the batsman was stumped by a mile,” said Prasanna.
The gifted off-spinner had only one word to describe Pataudi. “He was a ‘genius',” he said in admiration.