In December 1961, six months after the car accident in which he lost most of the eyesight of one eye, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi smashed a brilliant century against England at Madras (now Chennai). Asked what inspired his return to top-notch cricket soon after the devastating accident, Pataudi replied, “the sight of the English attack.” This simple anecdote is enough to convey not just the mystique of Pataudi but also why he has been hailed as one of the noblest and most courageous cricketers to ever adorn the cricket field.
Having suffered the pangs of total blindness myself for about six months in my teenage years, I can vouch that an eye injury can be a major ordeal. One can understand the enormity of Pataudi’s courage only if one remembers that his eyes threw up two images and he had to pick the ball nearest to his body to field or bat in split seconds! Remember, a cricket ball travels at hundred miles an hour and the batsman of that era played without the shield of helmets or safety gears on uneven wickets and bumpy fields. Though I gained my eyesight in a miraculous, fairy-tale manner, yet if later I managed to play first-class cricket, it was largely due to inspiration provided by Pataudi’s magnetic persona and deeds.
Obviously, Pataudi to me was a sportsman nonpareil. Despite lacking vision in one eye, he towered above others on the strength of his grit, intelligence, cricketing ability and fighting spirit. If his fielding lit imagination on fire, his batting extolled virtues of grace and aggression without being afraid of pace or spin. In an era of bad, under-prepared pitches, Pataudi played many amazing innings of extraordinary grit and tenacity. The two innings of 64 & 148 in the Leeds test of 1967 and his scores on the Australian tour of 1967-68 are testaments to his greatness as a batsman. Constrained by a leg injury throughout the tour, he pulverized the Aussie attack whereby his 75 at Melbourne prompted Lindsay Hasset to comment “that’s the way Bradman used to attack the bowling” while the great Don rated it as “one of the finest batting displays ever.” Though his test average of 34.91 may seem meagre, not many know the adversities under which the runs were scored. I am convinced that had Tiger played with his full vision of two eyes, he would have gathered several batting records to his name forever.
The sobriquet “Tiger” was most appropriate for the finest cover fielder of the world who was equally proficient in close-in positions too. While Neville Cardus described Pataudi’s exploits as “suppleness and lithe grace” of “a beautiful animal”, his detractor Vijay Merchant in 1966 described his anticipation, ground coverage, pick-up and throw as delights whereby “many a batsman paid the supreme penalty of attempting to steal singles from him”.
Despite his dynamic batting and fielding, Pataudi is best remembered as the finest Indian captain of all time; one who could walk into any all-time Indian XI on the strength of captaincy alone. Cricketers like Gundappa Vishwanath, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, EAS Prasanna and Bishan Bedi claim none inspired them the way Pataudi did. He may have led from the front but was democratic enough to encourage his teammates, especially the spinners, to give their input. Instinctive, innovative and intuitive, his approach to the game may have been daring and aggressive but he always played fair and honestly in the highest traditions of sportsman spirit.
His ability to decipher chinks in the opponents’ armoury made him mould spin as India’s weapon of triumph. Despite objections, he brought several youngsters like Solkar, Abid Ali, Bedi, and Mohinder Amarnath into the test team and it was Tiger’s conviction that earned Gundappa Vishwanath the elevation after just a few Ranji matches. It is no secret that when Vishwanath failed in his debut innings against Australia at Kanpur in 1969, the selection committee chairman, Vijay Merchant, denounced Vishy’s selection. However, the majestic unbeaten century by Vishy in the second innings, inspired by pep talk by Pataudi, not just saved the test match but also shut up all critics. However, just when India’s youngsters were beginning to prosper and bloom under his guidance, power brokers in the BCCI removed him from captaincy in 1970 as they didn’t like Tiger’s frankness in calling a spade a spade.
His bold captaincy and also his inter-faith marriage are proof of his non-conformist attitude throughout his life. Not many know that he was an accomplished Tabla player with a penchant for classical Urdu poetry, besides being a great admirer of singers Talat Mehmood, Begum Akhtar and Mohammed Rafi.
My personal interactions with him on two distinct occasions, separated over three decades, left indelible impressions of his magnetic charm and a raconteur whom you could listen to for hours in obvious delight.
It so happened that Tiger had come to witness the Ranji Trophy final between Bombay and Rajasthan at the Railway Ground in Jaipur in February 1966. Though a small kid, I was taken to the match by an affectionate Uncle on account of my keen zest for cricket. As I was familiar with Tiger’s countenance via the numerous magazines and newspapers subscribed by my adorable father, I recognised Tiger on the second day as he was seated just ahead of us. In my childish delight, I rushed up to him to inquire if he was indeed the famous Nawab of Pataudi and Tiger, grace personified, clasped my hand and cooed, “Yes Beta, I am Nawab of Pataudi”.
And then, to everyone’s surprise, he gestured to me to sit with him. I had no qualms and thereafter witnessed the match for several hours in the lap of one of the greatest cricketers ever to tread the cricket field. Apart from enjoying the wonderful snacks that came his way, I also pestered him with inane questions but Tiger answered with a smile, patting my back and ruffling my hair in an amused manner.
Those precious moments of my childhood were shared by me with Tiger, almost three decades later in 1992-93 at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi when the Indian Veterans played a series against the Pakistani seniors. I was not part of the Veteran’s team but was invited to join in by my friends and seniors Kailash Gattani and Ashok Mankad as they were losing out to Pakistanis in off-the-field activities like ‘Antakshri’ and ghazal singing. Knowing I had been the winner of the All India Best Amateur Singing contest, they wanted me to take up the cudgels on their behalf against Taslim Arif and company. So enthusiastically supported by Vishy, Mankad and Gattani, I managed to beat the opposition hands down the following evening at Hotel Surya Sofitel. The next day, when I was introduced to Tiger, he shook my hands and then in an inimitable, witty manner said: “I believe you held our flag high in last night’s battle.”
I was floored and for the next six hours sat glued to him, imbibing every word of cricketing and worldly wisdom. The lights, the crowds, the fireworks and even the brief presence of his beautiful wife Sharmila Tagore, failed to draw me apart from the man who, along with Rafi Sahab, I had revered since childhood. As the game was only for fun, our conversation continued unabated and I was astounded by not just his pithy observations but also his immense grace and charm. As I trudged back home, I understood why Tiger Pataudi had been the best gift to Indian cricket. I say this not because he complimented me for my erudition and language, but as I have still not seen a more intelligent, dashing and fearless cricketer than Tiger Pataudi, both on and off the field.