Mumbai: The story goes that after he took to the crease after losing his right eye in a car accident in England in 1961, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi was asked when he realized he could bat again. “When I saw the English bowling,” he said, without missing a beat.
Pataudi was part of a flamboyant era of Indian cricket in the 1960s and 1970s but also one where victory was not part of the Indian cricket lexicon. When he took over as captain at the age of 21 midway through the tour of the West Indies when Nari Contractor was felled by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith, he had not only to change the Indian mindset but also earn the respect of players, all much older than him. His personal courage in playing with only one eye went a long way in achieving this.
Educated at Winchester and Oxford, the Indian dressing room was a whole new learning experience for him—people of that era have likened it to a cess pool. In his autobiography Tiger’s Tale, he mentions how captaining the Indian cricket team was the most difficult job in the world because players did not even speak the same language.
He had to bring all those elements together, and Pataudi did this successfully though this might not find adequate expression in the record books: of the 40 Tests in which he captained the team, he won only nine. But as Bishen Singh Bedi, who was to captain India later, said, Pataudi made the players think like Indians and play as a team.
Pataudi occasionally talked about the colonial legacy and how it did intimidate the team. His own experiences in England helped him counter that, and under him, Indian cricket emerged stronger and richer. He paid emphasis on fielding (he was a brilliant cover fielder himself) and brought in players like Abid Ali and Eknath Solkar on the strength of their fielding ability.
In the absence of fast bowlers of any quality, Pataudi also devised an all-spin strategy that gave India its famed spin quartet of Bedi, Chandra, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan and victories more frequently than ever earlier—including the first overseas in 1967 against New Zealand.
In 1969 Indira Gandhi nationalized banks and stopped privy purses for royalty. Perhaps because of the prevailing sentiment, Pataudi was displaced as captain by chairman of the selection committee Vijay Merchant’s casting vote in 1970.
He refused to tour the West Indies and England, citing personal reasons, but made a successful return to the Indian team in 1972-73.
In the subsequent season, Pataudi regained the captaincy and it was largely due to his inspiring leadership—and the spin bowlers—that India fought back from a 0-2 deficit to 2-2 before finally losing the series 2-3 in a memorable series.
The first ever Test played at the Wankhede Stadium was the last in that series and was also Pataudi’s final appearance. His reflexes were slowing and he was troubled by even medium pace. Post-retirement, he dabbled in media (as editor of Sportsworld and occasionally TV commentator), was an International Cricket Council match referee and also part of the governing council of the Indian Premier League for the first three years before resigning after the Board of Control for Cricket in India decided to make the job honorary. He remained a celebrity figure, aided in part by his marriage to actress Sharmila Tagore and the acting careers of his children.
However, he consistently stayed away from administration in Indian cricket saying he was not “qualified enough” for the job. It was this very dry wit which characterised Pataudi. He did not speak much, and when he did, it was always with this droll sense of humour,but with words that carried weight. At the inaugural Raj Singh Dungarpur lecture in Delhi last year, for instance, he said that while “the ICC was the voice of cricket, the BCCI was its invoice”.