Saif Ali Khan often described his dada as someone who “kept to himself – tribute to Tiger Pataudi
Tiger Pataudi was a good friend, but he was never a “buddy”. In fact, his innate aloofness prevented him from becoming too close to anybody. His son Saif Ali Khan often described him as someone who “kept to himself. He never went out of his way to force himself or his views on people”. Two people who were Tiger’s buddies were his captain at Hyderabad, the late M L Jaisimha, and Davis Cupper Naresh Kumar.
Tiger’s leadership was influenced by Richie Benaud, but without the flamboyance of the Australian. If a hundred or a five-wicket haul or an outstanding catch got the Indian captain to doff his cap, that was his greatest show of appreciation on the field.
But they were similar in their pursuit of results. They went for a win, never mind if in the process defeat stared them in the eye. The attitude was positive. Sadly, figures do not tell half the tale in Tiger’s case. He was way ahead of his time – a professional in the amateur Indian set-up.
How did Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, come to be known simply as “Tiger”? Legend has it that as an infant the young Mansur was pretty robust on all fours and his mother, Begum Sajida Sultan of Bhopal, gave him the nickname.
Tiger Pataudi was my first Test captain. I might have been very impressionable back in 1967, but Tiger’s team chats and his after-dinner speeches in England, Australia and New Zealand left a deep impact on me. He was the first Indian captain to focus on “Indianness” in the dressing room, eschewing anything parochial or regional.
I watched a lot of Tiger’s inimitable style of functioning both as a captain and as a courageous batsman. The “Noob” (as he was called in Oxford) was aptly nicknamed “Tiger” for his grace and elegance on the field. The way he pounced on the ball in the covers had the thrust and finality of a predator landing its prey. The Indian captaincy is a bit like the Indian Prime Ministership, full of intrigues and manipulations. When Tiger was thrown into the deep end, he hardly knew how to swim in the troubled waters of Board politics. This was in 1961-62 when a near fatal injury to Nari Contractor gave him the job. There were many seniors around who felt left out by the princely credentials of a youth who was barely out of his teens. I’m not too sure if Tiger’s upbringing in England helped him to get the coveted job, but his princely lineage surely did. Half a century ago, Indians were obsessed with royalty. But unlike royals who had led India earlier, Tiger had the cricketing skill to do so. In fact, the 21-year-old captain responded to the elevation with great maturity, much to the benefit of Indian cricket.
By then a car accident had deprived Tiger of sight in one eye. It was a setback which required all the courage in the world to face. How Tiger managed to get over the handicap is an inspiring story of unflappable determination. He had to make so many adjustments. He had to acquire an extraordinary skill to negotiate bowlers with an open stance; he had to concentrate that much harder than anybody else. At times when Tiger failed, especially against the quicks, there was a visible regret, but no self-pity.
From 1961 to 1967 Tiger the captain juggled with various bowling combinations for India. Eventually, it dawned upon him to rely solely on spin – for attack as well as defence.
Whereas Bhagat Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkatraghavan were the attacking bowlers, I was often used as a stock bowler, my main asset being left-handedness. For too long India were exposed to medium-paced trundlers doing just up-and-down stuff. Tiger felt the seamers were simply taking the shine off the ball, which he thought could be better done by a batsman.
At times it was embarrassing to see Tiger take the new ball himself. Even wicketkeeper Budhi Kunderan once opened the bowling (he wasn’t keeping in that match). But that was how Tiger was going to operate and nobody had the courage to challenge the Indian captain. The statistics suggest that more often than not Tiger was right, but his critics bemoaned the decline of medium pace under him. To be fair to him, Tiger had limited choice. And sometimes what he had was almost comical.
In an Irani Trophy match, the mighty Gundappa Vishwanath was batting on a double century when Tiger asked one of his quicks to bowl him a yorker. The bowler asked: “On the off or leg stump?”, sending Tiger into peals of laughter. Tiger’s contemporaries as captain were Sir Frank Worrell, M J K Smith, Sir Garry Sobers, Bobby Simpson, Brian Close, Bill Lawry, Graham Dowling, Clive Lloyd. Of the lot, maybe Worrell stood way above everyone else. Tiger had the measure of the rest.
Not many overseas captains can visualise the Indian dressing room which sometimes houses five or six religions, differing backgrounds and a host of dialects and languages. Tiger’s greatest contribution was to create an “Indian” atmosphere.
In my book, three international captains stand out: Ian Chappell, Mike Brearley and Tiger. Perhaps Brearley was the only one in need of reassurance as a player, while Ian and Tiger were easily worth their places. Statistics may not do justice to Tiger, but he was every inch a leader tactically. He didn’t have an Ian Botham or a Kapil Dev at his disposal, but he learnt to live with that. Tiger’s control of Indian cricket in his prime was the envy of his contemporaries as well as the establishment. But none dared to challenge his authority when he was at his best. Not that Tiger did not have his shortcomings.
But his aura was such as to crush any plan of a rebellion before it was hatched. However, when the slide began, as it inevitably will in a sportsman’s life, there was no escape for the tiger from the jackals and the hyenas. Vijay Merchant, Chairman of the Selection Committee, fired the first salvo by using his casting to remove Tiger from captaincy in 1970-71. Many believed this was his way of settling an old score with Tiger’s father, the senior Nawab of Pataudi who had led India to England in 1946 when Merchant himself nursed such an ambition.
The beneficiary of Merchant’s vote was the shy and introverted Ajit Wadekar. All the hard work done by Tiger profited Wadekar. His focus on bringing in youngsters, improving the fielding standards and teaching Indian players to take pride in their job all allowed Wadekar to lead India to unprecedented series wins in the West Indies and England.
There was a visible change in India’s tactical approach under Wadekar. In his first ever team meeting chat in Jamaica, Wadekar’s opening sentence was, “Boys, we are going to draw this Test.” As it happened, we were able to make the West Indies follow on!
For Wadekar’s third series as captain, Tiger gracefully played under him and helped win the Chennai Test and take the series.
Tiger had two wonderful qualities: he never talked about himself, nor did he speak ill of others behind their backs. Not once did I hear him use a swear word against anybody in the opposition or even in his own camp. In Kanpur in 1972 when we were playing England, a group of rowdy young autograph-hunters got on his nerves. But all he muttered then was, “Your parents should never have slept together.”
He had an incredible sense of humour which he often used for the benefit of the team. Asked by a former England cricketer, “When did you discover you could play without your eye?” he replied, “After seeing the English attack.” Nobody knows what peaks he might have scaled but for the accident. Tiger was the first Indian to throw himself at the ball – diving or sliding – when Indian captains were known to enjoy the comfort of standing in slips. I have not seen a better fielder in the covers. For a brief while Colin Bland of South Africa got much publicity in the British media. But Tiger was more consistent with his dash and remarkably accurate throw into the keeper’s gloves. It was a treat to watch Tiger chasing a cricket ball; for a nawab, Tiger was exceptionally athletic. During one of our camps in Khadakvasla, Tiger ran the fastest 100 metres, his timing close to the national record!
After a disastrous tour of England in 1974, Wadekar was eased out of captaincy, and the Board asked Tiger to lead in the first two Tests against Clive Lloyd’s West Indies. Tiger would have none of that. It was to be all five Tests or none at all.
Sadly, Tiger’s own form was not quite up to scratch. It was almost tragic to see him face Andy Roberts, a young Antiguan with two or three different types of bouncers. In Kolkata, Andy worked up a dangerous pace to unsettle the Indian captain, hit him on the jaw and Tiger had to retire hurt. But luckily for India, Lloyd’s captaincy left much to be desired. From 0-2 down, we were able to square the series.
We lost the final Test in Mumbai, and Tiger left his indelible seal on his handling of the “spin quartet”. We owed Tiger an awful lot for giving us all an exalted stature in the history of Indian cricket.
I can say this on behalf of myself and my erstwhile colleagues that without Tiger Pataudi at the helm, we might not have realised our true potential.