Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi: Master of understatement
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, who would have turned 80 on January 5, 2021, was self-deprecatory to a fault. He was a champion of young talent, and many stars benefited from his kindly gaze. Any underlying sadness about what might have been, had he not lost an eye in a car accident, was hidden away from the public.
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi would have turned 80 on January 5, 2021, but he left us a little over nine years ago. Encomiums poured in for the courage that enabled him to play at the highest level despite losing his vision in one of his eyes, his heroic batting exploits on the numerous occasions he triumphed over his disability, his tactical nous as captain of India, and above all, his two major contributions to Indian cricket: the upliftment of fielding standards; and the expulsion of the scourge of regionalism in the team.
There was an inspirational, if somewhat unsubtle, scene in the Hindi movie Chak De India, in which the coach played by Shahrukh Khan tells the Indian women’s hockey team that they are all India players, not representatives of Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal or Haryana. Anyone familiar with Indian cricket of the 1960s can easily relate to this scene. It was Pataudi who first spoke those words unequivocally almost as soon as he took charge as captain. He set a personal example by insisting on the best combination being selected no matter where the players emerged from. Yes, he did have his favourites—who, incidentally, all performed—but no one could accuse him of regional bias. He set high standards as a fielder, proving quicker, more athletic, and accurate (with his brilliant throws) than the youngest members of his team. He demanded bruised knees and turf-stained trousers and shirts from his boys—even if it meant some of them had to incur exorbitant laundry charges as the diving, sliding nawab was known to borrow gear from his teammates after arriving nonchalantly flannel-less at the ground!
Ajit Wadekar was rightly credited with masterminding India’s first overseas series wins against West Indies and England, both in 1971. Tiger Pataudi led India to its first Test series victory abroad—by a convincing 3-1 margin over New Zealand in 1968, after top batsman Graham Dowling (239) and fast bowler Gary Bartlett (6 for 38) had sent the Indians hurtling to a crushing defeat in the second Test at Christchurch. He not only scored consistently but inspired his colleagues to do their best as well. All-rounder Rusi Surti was his faithful lieutenant and tireless soldier, Wadekar scored the only Test hundred of his career during that series, and EAS Prasanna added 24 more scalps to his impressive 25 Australian victims in the first half of that twin tour. The eight-Test campaign proved that India could compete well abroad. Except for one match, India put up a gallant fight in all four Tests in Australia, though she lost 0-4. The captain, who missed the first Test through a hamstring injury, came in for high praise from the Australian press for his outstanding batting in the series "on one good leg and with one good eye."
Back in India, the home team gave several anxious moments to the touring Australians before the visitors eventually prevailed. The tour by New Zealand that followed perhaps proved Pataudi's undoing as captain. Though it was never officially stated, it was believed that chairman of selectors Vijay Merchant bludgeoned his way (with his casting vote) through the meeting that deposed Pataudi and anointed Ajit Wadekar India's new captain because he had been dissatisfied with the discipline standards of the team that season. While Pataudi was believed to be no admirer of Vijay Merchant the man, he had huge respect for his batting—and Bombay cricket in general.
Declining invitations to tour abroad again, Tiger made an impressive comeback against England in the 1972-73 season at captain Wadekar's express request, and eventually came back as India captain when Wadekar announced his retirement, hounded by critics after India's disastrous 1974 tour of England. The rest is history, with Pataudi entering his best phase as captain, despite failing abjectly as a batsman against the fiery West Indies attack. India fought back after being two down against the mighty West Indies to draw level at 2-2, but was trounced by the tourists, with skipper Clive Lloyd (242) going on a rampage.
Tiger's greatest contribution as India's captain was perhaps the forging of the famed spin quartet and virtually inventing the awesome close-in cordon that was to become the template for many future teams. He was known to favour the Bedi-Prasanna-Chandrasekhar trio, but once said that the fourth spinner S Venkataraghavan would have been a permanent member of his eleven as an all-rounder had he paid more attention to batting for which he had considerable talent.
Pataudi's work ethic was unquestionable, but he owed allegiance to an old-fashioned school of thought that believed that what a player did off the field or what hours he kept during match days was entirely his business, so long as he remained match-fit, and delivered on the ground. A whole generation of cricketers could have performed better than they did had there been greater monitoring of their regimen by the team management. India might have emerged sooner as a strong force in world cricket.
Pataudi who never bragged about his achievements was self-deprecatory to a fault. Any underlying sadness about what might have been, had he not lost an eye in a car accident, was hidden away from the public. He bore personal loss and sorrow stoically, often with a smile. He was a champion of young talent, and many stars benefited from his kindly gaze. GR Viswanath, BS Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar and EAS Prasanna were among those he spotted early, when he was himself not much older than they. He left his home cricket team of Delhi to join his friend ML Jaisimha in the Hyderabad team, and became an honorary 'southerner' in Indian cricket. Crowds in this part of the world loved him. So did his Hyderabad and South Zone teammates, as well as his rivals in the zone. In his last innings at Chepauk, he signed off in great style with 198 against Tamil Nadu in the 1975-'76 season. Few in the 30,000 strong crowd knew it was his farewell knock. Nor did the 21 others who played the match along with him. After all, he was the ultimate master of understatement.