Saturday, September 24, 2011

Shekhar Gupta's tribute to Tiger Pataudi

What an elegant, informed and readable tribute. By far the best! Disappointed by the tepid response to the legend's passing away, especially from our current cricketing greats, the contemporary players, who make money by the buckets, but lack the grace to show better respect to one of India's best captains. All I have read so far are politically correct, polite noises , devoid of any reverence or humility. And most newspapers have given more coverage to that brat from across the border, Shoaib Akhtar's naughty autobiography....
By Shekhar Gupta

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 passing away gives me my excuse to start a cricketing story with, “When I was seven...”

So I saw my first Test match when I was seven. It was the winter of 1964 and Pataudi’s India were taking on Mike Smith’s ossible (6am for a 10am 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 achar) and waited for the game to begin. Cheapest seats — which we could afford — were facing point or square leg, depending on which end the bowling was on. Any cricket fan 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 quite majestically to get his only double century (203 not out) in partnership with a very dour Chandu Borde who meanwhile plodded on to 67. For somebody at seven, and a tiny gaggle of cousins of about the same vintage, this was something to cheer about. But it was a long, long time ago, when I was seven, and I have very few, if fading, memories of my Test debut: as a spectator, of course.

But I have a couple of memories 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 also uncharacteristic of Indian batsmen then, they were more English). There is one more memory: of one Indian fielder, only one Indian fielder, throwing himself at the ball, chasing it all the way to the boundary as if his life depended on it, and throwing to hit the stumps. Ironical that at

a time when Indian cricketers treated themselves as princes, shirt-collars turned up, and waiting for the ball to be thrown back by attendants or spectators, 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 (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 that was unfamiliar to Indian cricket than his willing athleticism. 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 thought we had built a world-beating team. We hit a nadir with that 42-all-out at Lords, in a series even more disastrous than this year’s 0-4.

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 in over a year, but agreed to take the mantle. From day one, he told the team they were out to win, even answer 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 Nissar in the thirties, and encouraged to bounce at the West Indies line-up that read: Greenidge, Kallicharan, Richards, Lloyd, 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 first innings). But even there, getting to 406 in the innings, chasing 604, to avoid the follow-on was no disgrace. Pataudi’s own contribution was very little. Pataudi was just the full-time captain, leader of men, Tiger himself. And he packed a roar even in his cricketing autumn.

Better informed people will write a lot more 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 Azharuddin in cricket in 1983. But Tiger, at 21, was drafted to captain a battered India in the West Indies to replace Nari Contractor, nearly killed by a 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 ago. I was chatting with Saif Ali Khan on a Bombay-Delhi flight and told him who I thought was the most talented member of his brilliant family. His mom, Sharmila, of course.

Within weeks now, I have to have a rethink as you read all the stuff on Tiger, and go back to your own memories. The man taught India aggression, winning, how not to fear pace, and achieved all of it with just one good eye. Now just how much talent would that have required? I may, therefore, 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, would complain or disagree.

Shobhaa De


चंद्रमौलेश्वर प्रसाद said...

Looks like the days have come for writing obituaries only. May his soul rest in peace.

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