Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, last Nawab of Pataudi and captain of India, died on September 22nd-aged 70.
From some decades to recent ages Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi appeared, Indian cricket was often a feudal affair. Royals captained the teams, picking the players out of a sense of sheer entitlement; they installed themselves prominently in the batting order; and after the match the photographs were hung in some trophy room or antechamber of the palace of the Maharajah of X or the Prince of Y, among the wild ox heads and tiger skins.
All the odder, then, that the man who shook up the national game, encouraged players from all regions and classes, made cricket an unmissable part of the lives of teeming, boisterous, firecracker-throwing city crowds, was a prince himself. He was the ninth (and last) Nawab of Pataudi, son of the eighth nawab and the Begum of Bhopal, and a Test cricketer, son of a Test cricketer: the pedigree was as impeccable as the upbringing was lavish, in the manner of the Mughal kings. As captain of India, indulging his love of pranks, he once convinced a team member that Kolkata’s white-marble Victoria Memorial was another of his palaces.
His schools included Lockers Park Prep in Hertfordshire, Winchester (captain of cricket), and Oxford, where he was the first Indian to captain the University side. Jermyn Street was his natural habitat, as much as the lumpy outfield at Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium; in the 1950s he modelled for Gwalior Suitings. Onfield and off he had an aristocrat’s insouciant elegance. His spell in England left him with a range of good bats, a certain reticence, and a fondness for bridge; and also with a yen to see professionalism in the “completely amateur set-up” of the Indian game.
His nickname, “Tiger”, dated from childhood, but seemed to fit his style of play and life: whether his fierce competitiveness at bat, hooking and driving the ball to dig India out of some hole or another, or his elegant fielding in the covers, racing with easy grace to scoop and return, or his eager crouch in the gully, waiting to destroy. Most princes never rated fielding beside the individual skills of batting or bowling. He made it sharp, and used it to encourage the teamwork that would not just draw matches, but win them. Together with the superb spin-bowlers he promoted—Chandrasekhar, Venkataraghavan, Bedi and Prasanna, their skills honed on India’s hard, dry grounds—he built a team that achieved India’s first Test series victory abroad, against New Zealand, in 1967-68.
Yet his true heroism sprang from handicap. He had one eye. The right had been lost in a car accident in England in 1960, apparently eclipsing at its outset his cricketing career. But his ambition was undamaged. Within weeks he was in the nets again, practising, and within months he was playing Test cricket against the West Indies, against some of the fastest bowling in the world. More astonishing still, in mid-series he was picked as captain, when Nari Contractor was concussed by a ball. (He was only 21, but said that his experience at Winchester and Oxford meant that “one was not naive”.) He went on to score, over his career, 2,793 Test runs that included 6 centuries. No one knew how. He explained that in fact he saw two balls, and hit the inside one. With two good eyes, who knows what he might have done.
Building up India
Where he really excelled, however, was as a captain. To lead India was no easy job. Only 15 years after Partition, the scars were still raw. As a Muslim, he felt it: uncles, aunts and cousins had migrated across the border, and he always sighed that India and Pakistan would have made a great team together. As for the Indian team itself, when he inherited it, players kept to their own regional languages, cultures, even food. “Look”, he would tell them, “you are not playing for Delhi, Punjab, Madras, Calcutta or Bombay; you are playing for India. You are Indian.” Before long, the players succumbed to his imperious charm.
He captained India in 40 Tests, and won only nine of them; but it seemed he had won many more. (He regretted never having a great batsman of the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, who arrived as his captaincy ended.) The defeats often had a nobility about them, none more so than his fighting 75 and 85, with a pulled hamstring, against Australia at Melbourne in 1967-68. Of the victories he made, perhaps the most vital predated his spell as captain, when he scored 103 in India’s first series defeat of England at Madras, in 1962, and the long colonial hangover was banished from the cricket field.
He kept his princely temperament. The abolition of royal entitlements in 1971 was unfair, he said, and he ran in vain for parliament in protest. Aristocratic languor, critics thought, made him too diffident sometimes on the field. Others recalled his sulks when he was dropped as captain for Ajit Wadekar, in 1971, who went on to lead the team to Test victories against the West Indies and England.
For good or bad he introduced Bollywood glamour to cricket, especially with his marriage to Sharmila Tagore, a glittering film star. He lamented how Indian captains were made idols and then “thrown in the gutter” by the public; the habit took off with him. But his importance went well beyond cricket. Tiger Pataudi persuaded Indians that they could take on any country, on their own turf or not, and win.