By Rajdeep Sardesai
It is not without irony that as the news of Tiger Pataudi’s death was filtering in, another cricket jamboree was taking off. The opening ceremony of the Champions League T20 that was quintessential new India: a noisy, crass, stagemanaged tamasha. If Pataudi had been watching, he’d probably have switched the TV-set off. The world of Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was a universe of dignity, civility and understated elegance. He was a superstar in a pre-television era, a style icon who didn’t need to walk the ramp, a Nawab who didn’t need to advertise his pedigree, an original Tiger before the wannabe cubs took over.
In a sense, Pataudi typified a 60s generation of romantic dreams, of chivalrous men and enchanting women who were enamoured with the idea of a Nehruvian India. If actor Shammi Kapoor redefined cinema in this period by wooing his heroines with passionate ardour, Pataudi changed the face of Indian cricket through his charismatic persona. He gave the sport a ‘star’ value, a new-found aggression that typified the spirit of a nation yearning to break free of its colonial baggage.
In some ways, Pataudi was an unusual candidate to lead a ‘democratic’ upsurge that would eventually revolutionise Indian cricket. He was, after all, a Nawab of a small princely state, who had studied in Winchester and at Oxford. A child of privilege, he was acutely conscious of his origins, and when the privy purses were abolished, he even contested an election in 1971 from Gurgaon in protest. When he lost the Indian captaincy that same year to a ‘commoner’ in Ajit Wadekar, he initially refused to play under Wadekar’s leadership.
And yet, he was, as historian Mukul Kesavan aptly remarked, a “republican’’ prince , someone who led a cricket team that brought together people from different class backgrounds under one national flag. Until Pataudi arrived on the scene, Indian cricket had seen a turbulent relationship with its princely patrons. There had been enough instances where feudalism ruled over merit, most famously in 1936 when the Maharaja of Vizianagram had sent home the original ‘people’s’ hero, Lala Amarnath from the England tour. Unlike Vizzy, Pataudi knew how to hold a cricket bat rather well, and perhaps it was the faith in his own ability that allowed him to discover new talents from across India.
Indian cricket didn’t win much in the 1960s under Pataudi’s leadership, but for the first time, a genuine sense of meritocracy crept into the game. The Indian middle classes were coming into their own on the cricket field with Mumbai’s maidans and gymkhanas leading the way. Pataudi gave the confidence to this new generation of urban middle class cricketers to express themselves with a self-belief that had been missing in the initial post-independence period. Even if they lost more games than they won, a desire to compete was instilled in the team. In particular, it was Pataudi’s cricketing instincts that saw him introduce into Indian cricket a quartet of spin bowlers – Bedi, Prasanna, Chandra and Venkat – and convert them into potential match-winners. If 1971 was to prove a turning point in Indian cricket, then the foundation for the success was laid by Pataudi’s inspirational leadership through the 1960s.
His test batting record was modest, but to judge Pataudi by the volume of runs he made would be unfair. That he was able to play cricket after losing sight in one eye is itself quite remarkable. That despite the handicap, he could take on the fastest bowlers in world cricket is an achievement almost unparalleled in the sport. And yet, Pataudi wore the burden of his disability very lightly. As he once said in an interview, “I may have lost an eye, but I did not lose my ambition!”
Indeed, under that gentle, easygoing manner lurked a fierce competitor, someone blessed with a natural talent for all sport. He was perhaps the first Indian cricketer to actually ‘enjoy’ fielding, an aspect of the game that was seen at times to conflict with its princely origins. Traditionally, princes were meant to bat in Indian cricket, leaving the more arduous task of fielding to the lesser mortals. Pataudi changed that by literally bringing the eye of the tiger to the art of fielding.
Pataudi was a trend-setter in other ways too. His family had been divided by Partition, he had aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of the border. But he never allowed the scars of those divisions to affect his secular cosmopolitanism . He defied family and custom to marry Sharmila Tagore in an age where Hindu-Muslim marriages were uncommon. It was the first sportsman-cinema alliance, and easily the most successful.
And yet, for all his achievements on and off the field, he remained at heart the shy public schoolboy, an anglicized gent in a desi environment. Not surprisingly, his afterlife in cricket was a shade more difficult. Perhaps, the frenetic pace of new India frazzled him. He was occasionally tempted into trying his hand at politics, but clearly he was not cut out for the rough and tumble of elections. Nor was he comfortable with a cricketing establishment populated by men with petty minds and kingsize egos. Pataudi was never going to bow and scrape before officials who wouldn’t know the difference between a square cut and a late cut, and barring a brief encounter with the IPL governing council, he chose to stay away from sports administration.
He did, however, become the president of the Players Association, which was perhaps his way of reaching out to the next generation of cricketers. Today, of course, with multi-crore contracts, the players don’t feel the need for any association. But if today’s cricketers are cash-rich celebrities, its because of the torch that was lit by the likes of Pataudi many years ago.
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief IBN18.