I have a long list of cricketers whom I admire for their incomparable skills. Ranging from Rohan Kanhai, Ted Dexter, Ian Chappel, Steve Waugh to Wesley Hall, Ian McGrath, Garfield Sobers and Shane Warne, the list has many more names, known as well as the unknown. In fact, my veneration extends to players like Don Bradman, Frank Worrel, Keith Miller and Jack Hobbs also whom I never saw playing but whose exploits are breathtaking tales of bat and ball.

However, five cricketers; Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, Salim Durrani, Gundappa Vishwanath, Bishen Singh Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar are dearest to my heart as they were not just players of great calibre but also those who affected my life as great human beings. Since I write on the tenth death anniversary of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, I’ll restrict my humble tributes today to my first cricketing hero and a great saviour of Indian cricket though I promise to revert back to other stalwarts on another day.

From the time he stepped into the sports arena, Pataudi exuded a quiet and defiant power with his dignified aura. A handsome man of few words, impish smile and brilliant wit, he could bring a house down with his humour, though one must confess, many couldn’t decipher his dexterous punning of English and Urdu languages! The lovable sobriquet of “Tiger” suited him admirably on account of his extraordinary agility, tenacity and prowess on the field. In the era of bumpy, uneven fields, Tiger had the swiftest movement and safest hands, allowing no ball to go past him.  It isn’t a hyperbole that some of Tiger’s catches were simply astounding and breathtaking but alas, we had no television than to record and rewind the feat of the world’s finest cover fielder who was equally good in close-in positions also. Old-timers recollect Tiger’s amazing speed and brilliance at Delhi in 1964 that converted an improbable shot into an amazing catch to dismiss England skipper Mike Smith.

Connoisseurs agree Tiger bound the disjointed Indian test team into a cohesive, national unit and it was his charisma that motivated the likes of Eknath Solkar, Abid Ali, Venkataraghavan and others to give special attention to fielding, though the fruits were plucked by his successors. His ability to decipher chinks in the opponents’ armoury was recognised right from Oxford and Sussex days and that is why he moulded spinners into India’s weapons of triumph. Despite reservations of selectors, he brought youngsters into the test team and it was Tiger’s conviction that earned Gundappa Vishwanath the elevation after just a few local games. It is no secret that when Vishy failed in his debut innings against Australia at Kanpur in 1969, the selection committee chairman, Vijay Merchant, was acidic in condemning Vishy. However, the majestic unbeaten century by Vishy in the second innings not just saved the test match but also shut up all of Tiger’s critics. Just when India’s youngsters were beginning to prosper and bloom under his guidance, power brokers in the BCCI, who did not like Tiger’s frankness in calling a spade a spade, removed him from captaincy in 1970.

To me, Tiger Pataudi was a sportsman nonpareil. Despite a lack of vision in one eye, he towered above others on the strength of his grit, cricketing ability and fighting spirit. If his fielding lit his imagination on fire, his batting extolled virtues of grace and aggression whereby he hooked, pulled, swept and cut with aplomb without being afraid of pace or spin. In an era of bad, under-prepared pitches, Tiger played some amazing innings that will be remembered for his extraordinary grit and tenacious desire to win. The two innings of 64 & 148 in the Leeds test of 1967 as well as his scores on the Australian tour of 1967-68 are testament to his greatness as a batsman. Constrained by a leg injury throughout the tour, he pulverized the Aussie attack and his 75 at Melbourne prompted Lindsay Hasset to comment “That’s the way Bradman used to attack the bowling” while the great Don himself rated it as “one of the finest displays of batting.” Indeed, he was an outstanding batsman especially when many stalwarts have been hit on the helmet in the last few decades despite flat wickets!

While most people know of Tiger for his cricketing abilities, not many know that he was an accomplished Tabla player with a penchant for classical Urdu poetry. A great admirer of singers Talat Mehmood, Begum Akhtar and Rafi Sahab, Tiger Pataudi was a great raconteur whom you could listen to for hours in obvious delight. My personal interactions with him on two distinct occasions, separated over three decades, left indelible impressions of his magnetic charm. In February 1966, it so happened that Tiger had come to witness the Ranji Trophy final between Bombay and Rajasthan at the Railway Ground in Jaipur. Though a small kid, I was taken to the match by an affectionate Uncle on account of my keen zest for cricket. My knowledge of cricket was largely gained through the radio commentary but I was familiar with Tiger’s countenance via the numerous magazines and newspapers subscribed by my adorable father. Hence, when around lunchtime on the second day I happened to see Tiger sitting two rows away in front, I rushed up to him to inquire if he was indeed the famous Nawab of Pataudi. In spite of his onerous duty to choose the Indian team for the England tour with the selectors, Tiger was grace personified as he clasped my palm in a handshake and cooed, “Yes Beta, I am Nawab of Pataudi”.

And then, to the surprise of all the VIPs present, he gestured to me to sit with him. Obviously, I had no qualms and for several hours till the end of the day’s play, I witnessed the match in the lap of one of the greatest cricketers ever to tread the cricket field. Not only did I enjoy the wonderful snacks that came his way but also pestered him with inane questions Tiger answered everything with a smile, patting my back and ruffling my hair when he was amused. Those precious moments of my childhood were shared by me with Tiger, almost three decades later in 1992-93 at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi when Indian Veterans were playing a series against the Pakistani seniors and we had a great time reminiscing the past events.

I was not part of the team but was invited to join in by my friends and seniors Kailash Gattani and Ashok Mankad as they were losing out to Pakistanis in off-the-field activities like Antakshri and ghazal singing. Knowing that I had been the winner of the All India Best Amateur Singing contest, they wanted me to take up the cudgels on their behalf against Taslim Arif and the company. Enthusiastically supported by Vishy, Mankad and Gattani, I managed to beat the opposition hands down the following evening and the news was conveyed promptly to the Indian Team manager Tiger Pataudi. The next day, when I was introduced to Tiger in the Pavilion, he shook my hands and then in his inimitable, witty manner said: “I believe you held our flag high in last night’s battle.”

I was floored and for the next six hours sat glued to him, imbibing every word of cricketing and worldly wisdom. The lights, the crowds, the fireworks and even the brief presence of his beautiful wife Sharmila Tagore, failed to draw my attention from the man who, along with Rafi Sahab, I had revered since childhood. As the game was only for fun, our conversation continued unabated and I was astounded by not just his pithy observations but also his immense grace and charm. And when I trudged back home, I knew why Tiger Pataudi had been the best gift to Indian cricket. I say this not because he complimented me for my erudition and language or the autograph, he gave me on my “Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson” (see pic) but I say it because I have yet not seen a more intelligent, dashing and fearless cricketer than Tiger Pataudi, both on and off the field.

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