It is fortunate that Mansur Ali Khan, or the Nawab of Pataudi as we knew him, played cricket in the 1960s and early-1970s. Had he emerged in today’s environment, we may have seen him at a few club games and perhaps even in Ranji Trophy matches but he would have been an unlikely member of the Indian Test team.
Such an assessment may appear excessively harsh and unjust. But this grim prognosis has nothing to do with the innate worth of a man who combined natural talent with style and strategic shrewdness. Tiger Pataudi excelled at a time when cricket, while being competitive, was also a gentleman’s game. In an age when the distinction between ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’ wasn’t merely confined to separate changing rooms at Lord’s but extended to larger questions of attitude, Tiger was the quintessential lordly amateur — a man who saw a cricket match as much more than a question of winning or losing.
Perhaps he had to. In those days, when cricket’s centre of gravity was still England and Australia — South Africa, alas, had ruled itself out of international reckoning by self-inflicted wounds — with the West Indians contributing to raw excitement, India was a habitual loser. The Indian crowds that packed the modest-sized stands at Test venues rarely expected the home side to win — that was a happy bonus. They expected displays of individual excellence — an Everton Weekes lofting the ball out of the ground, a Rohan Kanhai executing his trademark hook shot, a Colin Cowdrey demonstrating the art of perseverance and the duo of Ray Lindwall and Alan Davidson exposing the shortcomings of any batsman inclined to fish outside the off stump. For Indian enthusiasts, the result of the Test was incidental. More often than not, India came out second best.
In hindsight, it’s a miracle that Indian cricket managed to survive the decades of adverse results. Hockey, for example, has not managed to draw in the crowds (and sponsorships) after the decline in India’s fortunes after the 1970s. Cricket’s sustained popularity owed everything to the fact it was as much an individual sport as a team game. More to the point, it was a game that epitomised an ethos which, despite all our anti-colonial pretensions, was firmly rooted in India’s innate admiration of the culture of a land that once ruled over us. Some four decades ago, cricket was a different game from the cricket that has prospered ever since its economic home shifted from Lord’s to Mumbai. It was a game for the officers not the subalterns and advertisers.
Tiger Pataudi fitted into India’s mental image of the cricketing ideal. Before he made his Test debut against Ted Dexter’s visiting MCC side in 1961-62, he had what everyone imagined was the ideal pedigree: Winchester, Oxford and Sussex. He was our Peter May, our Dexter. He combined elegance with the right aptitude; he was our Englishman. Not since Prince Ranjitsinghji and his nephew Duleep had India seen anything like it. The Nawab of Pataudi, Sr, would perhaps have been an ideal but his cricketing career was woefully brief. Tiger was the inheritor of that tradition.
The legend of Pataudi was further fuelled by circumstances. In the normal course, the rightful successor of Nari Contractor — felled by a Charlie Griffith delivery that he seriously misjudged — would have been Polly Umrigar who, along with Vijay Manjrekar and Chandu Borde, was the mainstay of the Indian batting. But the cricket authorities had appointed Tiger as vice-captain of the side touring the West Indies in 1962. The appointment was primarily to help him gain experience and was essentially a grooming exercise for the future. No one expected that Contractor would be ruled out of all competitive cricket and that Tiger would be Captain of India at the age of 21, even before he had played 10 Tests for India.
The point is not that Tiger became Captain prematurely on the strength of being a stereotypical ‘natural leader’ but that he didn’t disappoint. Unlike his born-to-rule predecessors in the post — such as the comic Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagram (Vizzy) and the underperforming DK Gaekwad — Tiger lived up to his potential. Despite the loss of an eye, he was among the few Indians of his vintage who was capable of playing genuine pace bowling; he was an exemplary fielder in a side that didn’t believe in running after the ball; and, most important, he mastered the art of making the best use of available resources. It is important to remember that while most sides had a happy combination of pace and spin, the Indian team had spin and more spin. Yet, as Prasanna, Chandrasekhar, Bedi and Venkatraghavan will readily admit, no one knew how to better utilise spin than Tiger. He was the spinners’ dream captain — something that Dhoni is clearly not. He knew the art of captaincy.
Yet, that was a leadership which belonged to a different era when commentators and sports writers were more guarded in their judgements and when every Test wasn’t followed by a mandatory Press conference. Tiger’s dry wit and his understatement — both very English — would never have fitted into today’s voluble and brash India.
In Tiger’s death, India doesn’t merely mourn the loss of a great cricketer, it observes the passing of cricket as a gracious game.