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Tiger by his tale
It is rare for the famously conservative Marylebone Cricket Club, founders of cricket, to honour a cricketer with a memorial dinner. It is rarer still for the same person to be held in high esteem by Winchester College, a 630-year old English public school, and by Oxford University. But 'Tiger' Pataudi was always special.
Statistically, there is no comparison between the batting records of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, on the one hand, and Pataudi, on the other. Yet, the latter's prodigious talent, which many among India's current generation of ardent cricket lovers may not quite comprehend, is being celebrated at the home of cricket, Lord's, in a rather unprecedented manner this week.
The London-based Indian Journalists' Association set the ball rolling with a memorial lunch on June 15. Here, the former foreign secretary of Pakistan and former president of that county's cricket board, Shahryar Khan, narrated how he was entrusted with the task of accompanying his younger cousin, then still a child and a student at Winchester, to be coached by Frank Woolley. Over two days, said Khan, the retired England allrounder didn't offer a single word of advice to the youngster, despite, as he put it, Pataudi's mother "paying good money" for the eminent cricketer's services. Somewhat agitated, he raised this with him. Woolley laconically replied: "There's nothing to teach him. "
In 1961, when he was only 20, the gifted Pataudi cracked centuries in each innings for Oxford against Yorkshire. This moved the fiery England fast bowler Freddie Trueman - who was leading an attack with three other Test bowlers in it - to salute the lad.
A few weeks later, though, a car accident irreparably impaired the vision in his right eye. Pataudi failed in his first Test at Delhi, got a half century in the second, and scored a fine century in his third Test at Chennai.
Pataudi was also famous for never making excuses or indulging in self-pity. In his autobiography, Tiger's Tale, he conceded he had to abandon his earlier ambition of becoming a great batsman. In his typically understated style, he wrote: "I have concentrated on trying to make myself a useful one. " He remained, though, an electrifying fielder, sliding to cut off strokes as if on skates.
Within months of his test debut, he was catapulted to captaincy, after Nari Contractor suffered a near fatal injury in the Caribbean. Pataudi's intolerance of regionalism, an attacking outlook to batting and an insistence on good fielding would lay the foundation of India's subsequent success.
He was a man of few words. His filmstar son Saif Ali Khan, arm-in-arm with fiancê Kareena Kapoor at the events, joked about the long silences in conversations with his father. Indelibly etched in his mind is the incident of Pataudi being hit on the chin by a rising delivery from the fearsome Andy Roberts in Kolkata in 1974, before returning to the middle with stitches and a bandage to pummel Roberts' new ball partner Vanburn Holder for 19 in an over. "My father was my hero, " he declared.
At Lord's, Mike Brearley, the cerebral former England captain, and now chairman of the MCC's World Cricket Committee, led the accolades. His father, Horace, taught mathematics at Winchester when Pataudi was a student there. Micky Stewart, who was once vicecaptain of England when Pataudi was India's skipper, narrated that on the morning of his team Surrey's encounter with Sussex, a message arrived from Pataudi (then county captain ) on the lines of: "Detained in Paris;let Jim (Parks) lead the side. " Acknowledging the many kind words expressed about her late husband, Sharmila Tagore smilingly admitted she was the reason for Pataudi being held up in the French capital - to unsurprising amusement and applause. She was shooting what was to become a Bollywood hit, An Evening in Paris.
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