Destined to Be a Tiger
By Siraj Khan
I guess every game has a Tiger of its own. Some found in the woods, some on the golf course. And then there’s the royal Tiger of cricket.
It is January 5, 1952. A little boy and only son of his parents, is all excited about celebrating his 11th birthday party later that evening, when his sister tells him that their father has had a heart attack while playing polo and has died. Now, at that tender age, not only is he responsible for his family’s fate being the sole male member, he is also responsible for the welfare of 15,000 people of the State of Pataudi. He is the new Nawab.
The boy, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, was lovingly called Tiger at home because, as an infant even when he had learned to walk, he often preferred to crawl. Little did he know then that he would end up carrying that name for the rest of his life, for reasons that destiny was to unfold.
He was sent to school in England, while his family remained in India. Several close relatives including his paternal uncle General Sher Ali Khan and his family, including Liaquat Ali Khan (later Prime Minister of Pakistan) and others had opted to cross the new border into Pakistan. In 1961, Pataudi was preparing to return home after college. By this time his prowess at batting at Oxford and Sussex had already been established and some people were talking of his possible selection in the Indian Test team, despite his young age.
To term the chain of events that followed as dramatic would be an under-statement. On July 1, 1961 while still in England, Pataudi met with a car accident which damaged his right eye and left him almost blind. However, because his sheer tenacity took him to the nets soon after, attempting to adjust to his new condition, people back home did not realize how bad the damage was. He returned home wearing stylish sun-glasses and soon found out that he had been selected for the Test team which would play host to Ted Dexter’s mighty MCC (the Marylebone Cricket Club as the England national team was then called). He cheerfully accepted. And so, exactly 50 years ago, Tiger was practicing feverishly to prepare himself to Indian conditions, launching his cricket career.
The Test debut came shortly after in the drawn match in December 1961. In the Third Test at Chennai on January 10, 1962 he scored his debut Test century — stylish and sparkling — which actually helped India win the match.
Although an automatic selection for the West Indies tour right after, he went through the agony of sitting through two Tests as twelfth man, watching his seasoned teammates collapse to the powerful West Indian pace attack. That was when Charlie Griffith bowled a nasty lifter that hit the Indian skipper and opener Nari Contractor, almost taking his life. Pataudi, then just three-Tests old, received a telex stating that he had been appointed captain mid-series, as all the senior members had declined. He was given no choice. People were spellbound next morning to see the youngest player in the side lead the Indian team out to the field.
Test cricket history’s youngest captain, just over 21 years old, had arrived to tell the world that his nickname of Tiger was for a reason. That day was March 23, 1962.
Fifteen years and 46 Tests later, Tiger had taken his country to a completely new level. At a time when Indian players were used to getting awards for just preventing the other side from winning, Tiger recorded India’s first ever Test series win abroad in 1967-68, defeating NZ 3-1. Wins against Australia, England and others followed. His batting record may not impress the statistically inclined, but most of his 100s and 50s were made in style and when they were most needed. All that, and a top score of 203 not out against England under Cowdrey, testify to his grit, playing all along with vision in mostly one good eye. Some commentators remarked jokingly that perhaps he would not have attempted many of his cleverly-placed shots between fielders if his right eye was fully functional.
When Sharmila Tagore agreed to tie the knot with the Nawab on December 12, 1969, after four years of courtship, it was not only a marriage of cricket and cinema, but also of two religions and cultures. Not to mention that it broke many stereotypes. He was a Nawab from a prominent Muslim family; she was a Hindu from a family no less than Tagore's. Sharmila converted to Islam and became Ayesha Sultana. Aradhana with Rajesh Khanna was released just before their marriage but her best movies came after marriage and motherhood. She could have hardly expected a more liberal life partner.
Pataudi’s highly successful concept and exploitation of the spin quartet of Bedi, Chandrashekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghvan are now legend. That was many years before the arrival of Kapil Dev, when a few overs were given to gentle medium-pacers, just to remove the shine from the ball, before the spinners took over.
Pataudi often used to roll his arm himself with his medium pace and once even surprised the opener by indulging himself to the solitary wicket credited to him in Test cricket. Tiger later apologized to the batsman, as that appeared more of a sorrow than a joy for him. Diplomacy, of course, ran in the family. Father I.A.K. Pataudi had served the Indian Foreign Service after partition. His cousin Shahryar Khan became Foreign Secretary in the Pakistan Foreign Service and Chairman Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), while another cousin, Major General Isfandiyar Ali Pataudi was being talked about as the next chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
Tiger himself always remained a great cricket diplomat for cross-border peace. After the 1965 war, when cross-border cricket was banned, Tiger spoke openly stressing the need to “keep sports clean of politics”. He actually tried to use cricket towards reigniting relations, but without luck. Much later, once while doing commentary at one of the Sharjah matches, he told Imran Khan that one of his greatest regrets was not having played against Pakistan in his entire career. By the time the revival of India-Pakistan cricket took place in 1978, Tiger had decided to hang up his gloves (1975).
His amazing accomplishments were not confined to batting and captaincy. He will surely go down as one of the best cover fielders that the game has ever seen. Pakistan’s past captain Javed Burki once remarked that in his career, Pataudi must have prevented as many runs in that position as he scored as a batsman. There are stories of cricket commentators watching batsmen smash a perfect cover drive assuming the ball would race to the boundary, only to find Tiger dart to stop the ball, pick it up and toss it back to the bowler. The crawl of his childhood had turned into an elegant prowl. Tiger was not just a name, it was an attitude.
(Siraj Khan is a Boston-based world citizen who lives a life without boundaries. He is a cricket lover and connoisseur of film music. Khansaheb2@aol.com | www.opnayyar.org )