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Tiger Pataudi: India’s first ‘Muslim star’ who was not afraid to use his name

Remembering Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, a rare Muslim star in an era when India’s secular temper was still evolving. 

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Remembering Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, a rare Muslim star in an era when India’s secular temper was still evolving. 

It is because nostalgia is an attribute so essential to the love of cricket that so much cricket writing is in the first person, and tends to begin with those three dreaded words: “When I was…”

Mansur Ali Khan “Tiger” Pataudi’s birth anniversary (he would’ve been 77 today) gives me my excuse to start a cricketing story with, “When I was seven…”

That’s when I saw my first Test match. It was the winter of 1964 and Pataudi’s India was taking on Mike Smith’s England at the Feroz Shah Kotla. Those days stands were just concrete steps—chilled overnight—where you tried to reach as early as possible (6 am for a 10 am start) to find just enough of a perch to park your butt. You hung on to your jhola with lunch (paranthas or pooris with aloo and aam ka achaar) and waited for the game to begin.

The cheapest seats—which we could afford—were facing point or square leg, depending on which end the bowling was on. Any cricket follower would tell you that is the worst position if you really want to know what is going on: the place to be is behind the bowler’s arm. There were no giant screens for replays, the manual scoreboard was too small and distant to tell you much. So, you mostly cheered when the players of your team cheered, or tried to catch some radio commentary.

This match, however, was not expected to provide much cheer, as a dull draw was predicted (the five-Test series was an all-drawn yawn). But in India’s first innings of 344, Hanumant Singh scored a hundred on debut, and in the second, Pataudi batted majestically to get his only double century (203 not out) in partnership with a dour Chandu Borde, who plodded on to 67. For somebody at seven, with a gaggle of cousins of about the same age, this was something to cheer about. But it was a long, long time ago, and I have very few, if fading, memories of my Test debut: as a spectator, of course.

A couple, however, are imprinted on my mind. Of one slim and fit (unusual for India then) Indian batsman pulling the fast bowlers, and sweeping the spinners (those shots were uncharacteristic of Indian batsmen then, they were more English). There is one more: of one Indian fielder, only one Indian fielder, throwing himself at the ball, or chasing it all the way to the boundary as if his life depended on it, and throwing it at the stumps.

This was doubly ironic at a time when Indian cricketers treated themselves as princes, shirt-collars turned up, waiting for the ball to be thrown back by attendants or spectators. Cricket wasn’t an athletic sport in India then. Here was one man breaking that rule. And he was the only real prince on the playground. It was not for nothing that a most famous English commentator (was it John Arlott? John McGilvray?) said that when Pataudi fielded there, there was curfew in the covers.

Memories that get imprinted deepest on your mind are the most unusual ones. That is why Pataudi, the athletic cover fielder, is one that stays on mine. But he brought much more than athleticism to Indian cricket. He brought a sense of aggression, and an intent to win.

Of course, the first Golden Era of Indian cricket followed his departure, and more or less retirement from national cricket. Vijay Merchant, then chairman of selectors, carried out what was then called a “clean-up”, made Ajit Wadekar captain, and selected Sunil Gavaskar—a prodigy at 21—for the 1971 West Indies tour. That history is more familiar to us. We won our first series in the West Indies, and in England later that year. And as it always happens, the fall came just when we presumed too soon that we had built a world-beating team. We hit a nadir with that 42 all out at Lord’s, in June 1974.

Clive Lloyd’s rampaging West Indies arrived on the heels of that English debacle. A 0-5 disaster was predicted. That is when the board decided to recall Tiger from retirement. He had not played a match at any level in over a year, but agreed to take on the challenge. Particularly after India lost the first two Tests and he was made captain. From day one, he told the team they were out to win, fight fire with fire. Madan Lal and Karsan Ghavri were brought in to offer a two-man Indian pace attack probably for the first time since Amar Singh and Mohammad Nissar in the thirties, and encouraged to bounce at the West Indies line-up that read: Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge, Alvin Kallicharan, Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, and wicket-keeper batsman David Murray, if your bowlers got that far!

We lost that series, but it was the most stirring fightback in our history, until Bhajji, Laxman and Dravid brought about that 2001 miracle against Australia. From two down, India came level, only to lose the last Test, that Lloyd and Fredericks settled (242 and 104 respectively) in the West Indies’ first innings 604/6 declared. But even there, getting to 406 in the first innings and avoiding the follow-on was no disgrace. Pataudi’s own contribution was very little. He was just the full-time captain, leader of men, Tiger himself. And he packed a roar even in his cricketing autumn.

Better informed people have written a great deal about Tiger’s cricket. But since my journalistic periscope is mostly political, let me talk politics. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi was our rare, in fact almost solitary, Muslim star in not just cricket but popular culture, in an era when our secular temper was still evolving.

Through the sixties, Muslims were not even usually picked in the national hockey team because they were not trusted against Pakistan. Ask Inamur Rahman, a most brilliant forward of his time, to not play very much for India. Aslam Sher Khan arrived in Indian hockey in 1972 and Mohammad Azharuddin in cricket in 1984. But Tiger, at 21, was drafted to captain a battered India in the West Indies to replace Nari Contractor, nearly killed by a Charlie Griffith bouncer. It was 1961, and exactly the year when one Asif Iqbal left Hyderabad (Tiger’s Ranji team) for Pakistan, which he captained later on.

Tiger Pataudi, though he may never have looked at it like that, became that symbolic link in the evolution of Indian secular thought. Remember, this was a period when our biggest Muslim film stars had felt constrained to take Hindu names, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala, for example.

I return now to the first person and the “when I was…” narration. But this was not several decades, but only a few weeks before Tiger’s death in September 2011. I was chatting with Saif Ali Khan on a Mumbai-Delhi flight, and told him who I thought was the most talented member of his brilliant family. His mom, Sharmila, of course.

I did a rethink as I read all the stuff on Tiger, and returned to my own memories. The man taught India aggression, winning, how not to fear pace, athleticism, and achieved all of it with just one good eye. Just how much talent would that have required? I did, therefore, ask to be allowed to change my opinion on who is (or sadly, was) the most talented member of this family. I am sure neither Sharmila, nor her brilliant children, complained or disagreed.

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  1. True he was the first agressive Indian cricket captain of radio comentary school days much before perhaps Ganguly was born.

  2. There were plenty of Muslim stars before and after the great Nawab of Pataudi. Please check out Mohemmad Nissar (first ever Indian test cricket team, 1932), Abid Ali(test debut 1967, Ranji trophy 1958), Syed Kirmani, Salim Durrani (debut 1961), Mohammed Azharuddin and many others. We loved their athleticism, good looks. Afghan-born Durrani was more handsome and debonair than even the reddish-hued Pataudi. Abid Ali was our all-rounder and man for all seasons, long before before Kapil Dev. Kirmani was better than Farokh Engineer. Guptaji is either lazy to do simple google research or has a Muslim victimization agenda to promote.

    • This guy sees a muslim/hindu in everybody. He seems to be racially profiling everybody. The topic has nothing to do with his headline or blurb! Very racial!

  3. Not too sure whether he was a great batsman, he was certainly a great fielder. As regards his leadership qualities, he was a good captain with a nice balance of aggression and cerebral thinking.

  4. Mesmerizing! Refreshing to see someone of Shekhar Gupta’s calibre has taken it on his own to literate today’s generation about our forgotten heroes, that too a “Muslim star”.

  5. Also, shouldn’t he be the first and most famous Haryanvi? Before Kapil Dev and with none of the characteristics of a Haryanvi stereotype!

    • Kapil Dev never claimed to be Haryanvi. He played for Haryana but was raised and lived in Chandigarh. Kapil Dev belongs to Punjabi family and his family speaks Punjabi at home. Real Haryanvi stars are the haryanvi speaking wrestlers. In criket, Delhi player Sehwag is Haryanvi star.

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