The practical Tiger

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Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi
5 January 1941 – 22 September 2011

A strategist on field and a gentleman off it. The Nawab brought guts and nerve to a timid Indian cricket, remembers Suresh Menon

Standing tall Tiger Pataudi circa 1966, at the Sussex County Club
Standing tall Tiger Pataudi circa 1966, at the Sussex County Club
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

THE SIXTIES dawned in India a little later than they did in the rest of the world. There was no ‘end of the Chatterley ban’ or the ‘Beatles’ first LP’ to bookmark the decade as in the Philip Larkin poem. But there was Tiger Pataudi. And when he launched an attack on the England bowlers in the course of his first Test century in Chennai, he shook Indian cricket. The game had been moored for too long to the 1950s, with its boring, unimaginative, safety-first play. Tiger carried it into the modern era.

With his captain Nari Contractor, Pataudi added 82 in an hour of exciting batsmanship, coaching the senior batsman in the art of deliberately hitting the ball over the heads of fielders. The century was startling enough; what was even more so was the fact that Pataudi, at 20, was playing Test cricket less than six months after losing an eye in a car accident.

That single fact told you everything you needed to know about Pataudi: his passion for the game, his toughness, mental and physical (the accident also robbed him of the ability to throw a cricket ball for nearly two years), his zen-like acceptance of whatever life had to offer and his temperament that regarded cricket as a sport. He had the ability to treat victory and defeat with the equanimity recommended by Kipling, with the awareness that he had overcome far greater disappointment than a missed catch or an innings defeat.

His death at 70 brings to an end the era of the man who set the ball rolling towards India’s No. 1 ranking —a status achieved in his playing days, with victories in the West Indies and England; although it was under the leadership of Ajit Wadekar. Pataudi nursed the careers of India’s original Fabulous Four, the spinners Bishan Bedi, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan. More significantly, for the first time, a team that had been led by untalented princes and political appointees, was led by a nationalist who thought ‘India’, and not ‘Bombay’ or ‘Madras’ or ‘Delhi’.

Tiger led a self-respect movement, inspiring players to believe in themselves, and to see their gifts as equal, if not superior, to those of any other player in the world. For too long India had been nursing a colonial hangover. Talented players, easily intimidated by the opposition, believed that the other side was always superior and were grateful to be sharing the same 22 yards with the legends of the game.

There is some irony in the fact that it took Tiger, a man educated in England, to show Indians how it could be done. The comparison with Jawaharlal Nehru, also educated in England, who returned to India to inspire his countrymen is inescapable.

Tiger Pataudi was a subtle man, witty and reserved unless provoked (which was seldom). He never lost his school-boyish glee at pricking pomposity. He loved to gossip when among close friends, and had a fund of stories that will now remain untold (or told by someone else which will somehow diminish them).

Colin Bland rated Tiger above Jonty Rhodes as a fielder. ‘His anticipation was so good he never got his trousers dirty by diving around’

For a romantic who was steeped in the game, his father having played both for England and India, Tiger was also a very practical man, as you have to be when playing international sport with a handicap. At 20, Tiger said, “Since my accident I have had to compromise with my ambition to become a truly great batsman. I have concentrated instead on trying to make myself a useful one, and a better fielder than my father was.”

Trevor Bailey, one of the best brains in the game, the finest man never to have captained England, once told me that if Tiger had not lost his eye, he would have been “in the Bradman class”. Colin Bland, when I met him on India’s first tour of South Africa, rated Tiger above Jonty Rhodes as a fielder at cover point, because “his anticipation was so good, he never got his trousers dirty by diving around.” No more endorsements are needed.

IT WAS Tiger’s practicality that killed fast bowling in India for a whole generation. Rather than have it half-and-half (decent medium pacers and decent spinners), he put his faith in all-and-nothing (top-class spinners and no fast bowlers). In this he was led by the fact that a bunch of potentially great spinners was emerging at around the same time, and also perhaps by the knowledge that none of the quicker bowlers were in the class of England’s John Snow, his colleague and leading bowler at Sussex.

Pataudi’s plan was two-pronged: encourage the spinners and insist that the fielding standards were raised in support. His own commitment in the field was an inspiration, and soon he had close-catchers of the calibre of Wadekar, Venkataraghavan, Eknath Solkar and Abid Ali primed to pounce on anything the batsman failed to keep down. The disastrous tour of Australia in 1967, when catches were dropped with metronomic regularity, undid much of the spinners’ work. Shoddy work in the field had cost India Test matches against the West Indies at Chennai that season.

When India emerged at the top of the heap after the twin tours of 1971, the fielding provided the edge; and Pataudi’s plan came to fruition.

Tiger was an unusual man, who became captain of India in unusual circumstances. At 21, he had just bagged a pair (scores of zero and zero) in the match against Barbados. It was skipper Nari Contractor’s last after being struck on the head by Charlie Griffith. Tiger was then put in charge of the team. The rival captain was Frank Worrell, with whom Tiger had played deck games on ship as an 11-year-old on his way to school in England. The West Indies team was returning from a tour of Australia.

‘The Help of God and a Quick Victory’ is the Pataudi family motto. Tiger wrote in his autobiography that it is particularly applicable to cricket where “God is Luck and the quicker the victory, the fewer the number of problems left behind.”

There can be no better epitaph for this inspiring player and man; he left behind fewer problems than he started out with.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bengaluru. 
talmenon@yahoo.com

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