By Shabir Hussain Buchh
When you’re only 21 and you have to walk out for toss with Sir Frank Worrell, there has to be something special about your cricketing abilities, aura and resolve. MAK Pataudi – Tiger to his friends, fans and fellow cricketers – had all of them in abundance.
He was a cricketer ahead of his times. In an era when copybook cricket was strictly adhered to and batsmanship was more about defence than attack, Tiger defied the unwritten law like only a handful of others could.
When young Tiger was blooded into the Indian team, Polly Umrigar, Chandu Borde and skipper Nari Contractor were keen to know “how much the silver spoon he was born with had spoilt him”. The good news was broken by Farokh Engineer: “Hey, he is a regular guy.” Every single player in his side that he led a few weeks later was senior to him.
Tiger, after becoming the youngest test captain months after he was hit by a deadly accident that left him permanently blind in one eye, instilled self-belief among Indian cricketers who seemed to be grappling with colonial hangover and were quite unsure of themselves.
Tiger inspired while he was playing and continued to inspire after his retirement. And when he bid us adieu one last time on 22 September 2011, obits and elegies flew in from all parts of the world.
Though he has written an autobiography, cricket lovers could never have enough of him. And that is where Pataudi, nawab of cricket, comes pretty handy. More than just handy!
It is a collection of tributes to him by some legends of the game, his contemporaries, opponents, journalists and his family and friends. Edited by Suresh Menon, the head of Wisden India Almanack, it is a collection of 22 write-ups – compact with a bunch of photographs and the contributors share their memories and Tiger tales. Tiger’s larger-than-life persona on the ground and off it has been beautifully pieced together – a 360-degree view.
Sharmila Tagore says in the foreword: “I had loved Tiger for 47 years, was married to him for almost 43. We didn’t make it 50. But it was a memorable partnership, certainly an enriching one for me.” A proud wife that she was, Sharmila fondly remembers how Tiger was averse to dwelling on his trials and triumphs and how he was undeterred by a blow, however severe. Sharmila reminisces Tiger’s love for music and dance and what a big fan of Lata, Rafi and Talat he was and how he regaled the family with his hiran dance which could compete with any of the present-day item numbers. Tiger, she tells us, learnt to play the flute, the harmonium and the tabla.
Tiger was the first captain who brought the culture of Indianess to the dressing room. “Look fellas,” the skipper would go, “we’re not playing for Delhi, Chennai, Bengal or Maharashtra. We’re playing for India. Think India for goodness sake.” Tiger brought to the game a certain charm, a dignity, recalls Abbas Ali Baig, and to Indian cricket itself a self-belief sorely lacking previously.
“There was a lot of ordinary man about him as well as the nawab,” says Mike Brearley, “He was the first cricketing superstar in India. He had more than a touch of genius.”
He played two innings, says Ian Chappel about the 1967-68 tour of Australia that would have been exceptional if Tiger had all his faculties and full fitness. Chappel seems completely bowled over by how Tiger belted the Aussie speedster Graham McKenzie with just one eye and a pulled hamstring.
Ian regrets that Tiger never got the recognition he deserved as an Indian cricketer.
N Ram talks about the fact, acknowledged widely, that Tiger’s single, game-changing contribution through the 1960s was integrating and contemporising Indian cricket at the highest level.
Tiger always hailed the mighty Clive Lloyd for his vision, which led him to bring about the most tactical innovation, playing four fast bowlers in his XI, which defied conventional wisdom. N Ram brings it up because before Lloyd, it was Tiger who had defied it. And his was perhaps a bigger defiance because he took to the field with an all-spin attack. He believed in picking the best, a winning combination and it is because of this that India started sniffing and tasting success. The spin quartet of BS Chandrasekhar, S Venkataraghavan, Bishen Singh Bedi and EAS Prassana is a part of the cricketing folklore.
Former England captain Tony Lewis picks up his early Tiger sightings. “You would want to know how good a batsman Tiger was,” says Lewis, “when he had two good eyes and so I must begin with early sightings of the schoolboy who was breaking all records at Winchester College.” Lewis marvels at the speed with which Tiger spotted a ball to be hit hard. He goes on: ‘A venomous cut or pull, a hook, a lofted drive would explode like a firecracker behind the bowler’s arm in Hyderabad crowd; explosive, yes, but there was not an inelegant movement. I could see he was capable of destroying the best bowling.’ And about his fielding, Lewis, going by the highest standards, says he was a brilliant fielder from a young age. Sliding stop he was doing in the 1960s what modern fielders do now, echoes Gavaskar. And Naseeruddin Shah recalls radio commentators calling him the lithe, young man with a panther’s reflexes on the field.
There is a piece by Vijay Merchant which the <Illustrated Weekly of India> had carried in 1966. Merchant compares him with Walter Hammonds for the power that his drives exuded. “He is also not afraid to lift the ball over the in-fielders’ heads, and, when in the mood, can hit sixes as well as anyone else in Indian cricket.” Tiger Pataudi, says Bishen Singh Bedi, was a pioneer of the lofted drive.
All praise for Tiger’s fielding abilities, Merchant rates him as one of the best fielders in the world not just in India.
Suresh Menon, the editor of the book, calls the Tiger phenomenon the ‘Self-Respect Movement’, comparing Tiger with Jawaharlal Nehru. MJ Akbar wonders if Tiger knew “what he meant to us”.
Ray Robinson, the Aussie sports journalist’s piece published in the <People> magazine, 1967, is a part of the book. He writes about how Richie Benaud praised the Nawab for having told his players that a sensible attack was the best form of saving a game than boring defence. Benaud and Worrell were two cricketers who influenced Tiger the most.
Rahul Dravid, who along with Menon and Sharmila, launched the book at Jaipur Literature Festival on 27 January calls him “the Players’ Player”. “Tiger knew more about cricket than most,” says Dravid. “Pataudi was a special person who never had to make an effort to be special. The game came naturally to him, so did the post-game era.”
Rajdeep Sardesai remembers his father Dileep telling him how good a batsman Tiger was. “When some of us struggled with complete vision, Tiger would make it look easy despite the visual handicap.”
Tiger treated Fred Trueman with a disdain to which he was unaccustomed, says John Woodcock dwelling on Tiger’s county exploits.
The anthology concludes with tributes by Saba and Soha who talk us through what Tiger meant to them more than just their dad.
With his demise, as Ian Chappel says, that breed of Tiger is now extinct.
(Shabir Hussain Buchh is a freelance journalist and columnist)