O Captain! My Captain!

Pataudi was laconic and wry more than slapstick. Even so, this laidback prince shared one attribute with Shammi Kapoor…

As an importunate young boy, I once asked Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi for an autograph at a social gathering. It was not the right occasion and I was intruding. Pataudi didn’t say, “No.” He only moved his eyebrows and gently shook his head, almost as if he were doing me a favour. I slunk away. He generously gave me his autograph at another and more appropriate time, but that’s a different story.
There was an authority and a dignity to the rebuff. It was typical of “Tiger” Pataudi — as India’s finest cricket captain was known — and his sense of private space. Pataudi was Indian cricket’s first modern icon. He was famous and he was popular, and yet he refused to succumb to the celebrity cult.

He lived life his way, was careful with how much he said and how much of his life he opened up to strangers. He did appear in the odd advertisement, but he didn’t chase cement and ball-point pen companies for endorsement contracts.
As a corollary, he became the rare former cricketer to not hanker after Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) assignments. He did not lobby for jobs as manager or selector, or to be sent as match referee. Officials at the BCCI and the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association had to cajole him to attend the few advisory meetings he did, and do a short stint on the Indian Premier League governing council.
Equally, he was out of place in the contemporary commentary box. He was blunt, eccentric and capable of humour that left most others bewildered. In 1982-83, India toured Pakistan and got smashed by Imran Khan. In one Test match, Madan Lal simply couldn’t handle the pace and got out. The commentator turned to Pataudi, the expert in the box. Perhaps he’d just had a drink, perhaps he’d just had lunch, perhaps he had nothing to add to the pictures that showed Lal comprehensively beaten. Whatever it was, Pataudi started singing, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…” Thirty years on I’m still scratching my head.
In public adulation and hero worship, India’s cricketers are matched only by its movie stars. There is one crucial difference: sportsmen have shorter career spans. At 40, a cricketer is burnt out, but an actor is still bashing up villains. As such, while drawing a parallel between show-stopper cricketers and their movie star peers, an age differential has to be factored in.
For instance, Sunil Gavaskar (born 1949) is almost a decade younger than Amitabh Bachchan (1942) but they were the twin popular culture magnets of the 1970s and early 1980s. Similarly Shah Rukh Khan (1965) and Sachin Tendulkar (1973) speak for the mid-1990s, early 21st century India. To continue this analogy, who would be Pataudi’s peer?
In a poignant coincidence, it would be a man who died only a month ago, Shammi Kapoor. They embodied the Indian spirit of the 1960s, though they seemed to have little in common. Born in 1931, Kapoor was almost 10 years Pataudi’s senior. On the screen, his signature was an over-the-top exuberance. Pataudi was laconic and understated, wry more than slapstick. Even so, this subtle, laidback prince shared one attribute with Kapoor — he injected a dose of derring-do into a staid and austere post-Independence India.
Shammi taught us to laugh, prance and not accept fatalism and tragedy as the default positions of the Hindi film hero. Tiger taught us to set attacking fields, use spinners to tempt the batsman, rather than just to save runs with a defensive line, and to hit the ball over the top.
In his autobiography Tiger’s Tale (Stanley Paul, London, will you please reissue it?), Pataudi writes of the Madras (Chennai) Test against England in 1962. It’s his first series and he walks in to join his captain, Nari Contractor, with India in trouble. He tells Contractor, in India nobody’s seen batsmen loft the ball. Let’s give it a go.
In a terrific display of counterattacking cricket, the two rescue India. Contractor goes for 86 and Pataudi completes his first century. Indian cricket’s script for the 1960s is rewritten.
Pataudi (along with team-mates such as Farokh Engineer and M.L. Jaisimha) challenged fast bowlers, even hooked and pulled. They often lost — but good god, did they entertain. In the 1950s, India’s contribution to the art of playing fast bowling was perfecting the duck and the retreat to square leg.
The effervescence was short-lived. Shammi and Tiger were prophets before their age. The 1960s proved a false dawn, and society soon surrendered to the cynical and underperforming statism of the 1970s — free India’s most wasted decade. It took another generation, and the cusp of a new millennium, for the legacy of both Shammi and Tiger to be fully appreciated, and for the rest of us to catch up with them.
India never gave Pataudi the team he deserved. That is why we can only imagine that magical game in some Elysian oval, where Gavaskar and Dravid have scored the runs, Zaheer and Kapil are sharing the new ball, and Bedi and Gupte readying to bowl. There in the covers, cap peak over his right eye, is Tiger — ever relaxed, ever alert, ever in command, ever captain of India. Goodbye Prince, and thank you for the memories.

The writer can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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