March 16th, 1962. The open-roofed Kensington Park Arena in Bridgetown, Barbados. The visiting Indian team is in action against the Barbados team in what was supposed to be a practice match, slap bang in the middle of a 5 Test series against the mighty West Indies. 10,000 fans pack the stadium and countless more are perched on the palm trees around it. The tourists are under the cosh at 3/15 in response to the home side’s 394.
India’s captain Nari Contractor is at the crease facing a little known local fast bowler named Charlie Griffith. Running in with the sort of ferocity that could bring the fear of God crashing back into the souls of disbelieving men; Griffith delivers from wide of the crease a short pitched ball which Contractor just cannot pick up. A sickening thud makes its way around an already noisy stadium as the ball crashes into Contractor’s skull. He crumbles to the ground and will never play again.
The next man at the crease, the technically astute Vijay Manjrekar, is subjected to a similarly friendly brand of bowling. A late reflexive move to get his head out of the way saves him from a devastating blow. Yet another Griffith bumper, much like the one to Contractor, starting from wide of the crease and ending right on the money, crashes onto the bridge of his nose and he must to return to the pavilion. To his credit, he recovers well enough to smash a century in the second innings.
Woe has befallen the dressing room as the next man in is a 21-year-old who has played all of three previous Tests for India. He must now square off against the man who has taken two of his team mates to the cleaners. He takes guard to face the Griffith, still breathing fire and venom and somehow survives four deliveries, none of which he picks up from the bowler’s hand. This “noob” has just one good eye. Not for nothing do they call him ‘Tiger.’
The ninth Nawab, Mohammad Mansur Ali Khan of Pataudi was unceremoniously handed India’s captaincy duties at the age of 21 years, two months and 18 days, a feat eclipsed only by Tatenda Taibu many years later. He went on to lead India in 40 of the 46 tests he played.
M. A. K. Pataudi was never a man to be trifled with. This was probably genetic. While completing the form for his admission to the Winchester School in England, the Ninth Nawab’s father, Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi, chose to answer the question of ‘other aptitudes?’ with the slightly unorthodox answer ‘My son!’ He was of course admitted to that school.
The Nawab played and went on to achieve great things as captain of both Delhi and Oxford Universities, even on track to beat some domestic records; most notably that of Douglas Jardine for most runs in a domestic season. Had it not been for a cruel twist of fate, he might even have gone on to become one of the game’s greatest ever batsmen. An accident in a team mate’s car while returning to their hotel left him without the use of his right eye for the rest of his life, despite operations to try and save it. Never the kind to feel sorry for himself, he was back in the nets in a few weeks’ time trying to adjust his stance to cope better with his handicap. All this, one year before he made his India debut.
Let nobody underestimate the effect of losing an eye, let alone continuing a career as a professional sportsman in a game where the hard ball does so much of the talking. After this accident, the Nawab, while attempting to fill a glass of water from a jug, would frequently miss the glass by a good few inches. While lighting a cigarette, there would emerge a significant amount of daylight between butt and light. No such daylight was ever seen between the great man’s bat and pad.
Through a multitude of combinations of lenses, caps and other assorted visual adjustments, the Nawab eventually found a way to face fierce bowling. His only problem, besides not being able to pick up the length easily, was that he could picture two balls being bowled. By picking the inner of the two, he played bowlers from all over the world for the rest of his career. This required an immense amount of concentration and flawless technique with particular emphasis on getting to the pitch of the ball and bringing the bat down straight. The Nawab delivered, and how.
He scored six hundreds and seventeen fifties, always in precarious circumstances because pretty much all of India’s circumstances at the time seemed that way. He fielded either in the covers or the gully, taking 27 catches over the course of his career and that counts as fine an achievement as any. The Nawab led India to nine test match victories without a frontline pace bowler. Prasanna, Chandrashekhar, Bedi and Venkatraghvan were called upon and used expertly to work over any side in pretty much any condition. More importantly, he galvanized the team by employing tactics designed to attack instead of defending. This style of leadership lead India to overseas glory, most notably a Test series win in New Zealand in 1968. India went from a team trying to avoid defeat to a team trying to win.
The Nawab brought professionalism to India’s cricketing set up. Fielding, till then regarded as an optional extra among other skills on the ground, developed leaps and bounds under his stewardship. He employed the services of translators in the dressing room to ensure adequate communication amongst all the players. This was a particularly challenging issue since about 250 languages were spoken in India at the time. His blatant disregard for anybody whose claim to a place in the team was royalty and not merit was a refreshing change. And no the irony was most definitely not lost on him.
The Nawab had his indulgences. He wore a silk shirt on to the field of play, rebuffing the traditional flannels, at a time when such an act would have invoked disciplinary action against any other man. But which brave soul might dare step in the way of the man with such an exalted and boisterous vision for Indian cricket? He toured the world accompanied by two aides-de-camp, dispatching aghast contemporaries in his wake at a time when his team mates were allegedly caught shoplifting. His courtship of a noted movie star involved regular flights across continents at a time when frequent flyer miles didn’t lead to discounts.
The man we remember is the lanky yet robust one-eyed captain who led India to monumental performances and occasional victories. He overcame his own demons and then those of his team. He brought ingenuity and innovation to the lackluster domestic set up and inspired a generation. He might not be the best cricketer to have ever played, but he certainly is the bravest.
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. – Bishan Singh Bedi