A princely state
When I was growing up in the sixties, the Nawab of Pataudi Jr was more than my favourite cricketer; he was my hero. He was the captain of India in 1963-64, when MCC toured with a second-rate team led by MJK Smith. That was the first cricket series that I actively followed with the help of running commentary on All India Radio and pictures published in Sport & Pastime. Pataudi did nothing noteworthy either as captain or player. All five Tests were drawn, and the Nawab's contribution as a batsman was one double-century and not much more.
But it didn't matter. I knew about Pataudi before I began to follow Test cricket, in the way that I knew of Dara Singh and Milkha Singh. India was a brand-new country in 1957, the year I was born, and in its enthusiasm for mascots it fashioned heroes out of some pretty eccentric material. I knew, for example, that Dara Singh was India's first world champion and that he had got there by wrestling King Kong to the ground. This was a fact; the older boys I played gully cricket with had told me. Just as they had told me that Pataudi had only one eye.
Looking back, it's hard to believe the hours we spent debating the state of Pataudi's eye. There was a colour picture of him in the souvenir album that Esso published in 1964 to mark the MCC tour. It was a spiral-bound album and each player had a page to himself, with space for a picture and a short biography on the right. You bought the album from the petrol pump and each time your parents filled up, you collected some photos and stuck them in the marked spaces. As a marketing ploy, it was brilliant: no Burmah Shell pump sold my parents a drop of petrol till I had filled in the whole album.
As a result, I knew more about Jim Parks and Phil Sharpe than anyone needed to know, but Pataudi's bio was frustrating because it didn't settle the matter of his eye. Was it a glass eye, or a normal one that didn't work? It was hard to tell from the photo. Still, it was a dashing picture, with Pataudi looking vaguely rakish, as a Nawab should. The bio let you know that he had captained Oxford and played for Sussex, which didn't hurt the image. Forty years ago these things mattered.
A part of his mystique was the romance of him being a Nawab, multiplied by the improbable fact that he was the son of another Nawab of Pataudi, who had also captained India. To complete the fairy tale for seven-year-old fans like me, just about two years before the MCC tour, he had become, at 21, the youngest captain in the world, when he was given the job in the West Indies after Charlie Griffith broke Nari Contractor's head. And there was more: he wasn't just the Nawab of Pataudi - he was Tiger. For us it wasn't just a name, it was an attitude. I remember him fielding in the covers against the New Zealanders at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi, chasing balls down, well, tigerishly. I think the reason we worshipped him was that at a time when Indian Test teams ranged from mediocre to terrible, he still managed to lead them boldly, with panache and without deference. It didn't hurt that he was born and raised in privilege; ironically, the citizens of republican India were delighted to be led by a debonair prince.
So did his batting matter? Of course it did. There were the two fifties he made against Bob Simpson's Australians that helped us win the Bombay Test in the three-Test series played immediately after the MCC tour. There was the fifty and the hundred in a losing cause at Headingley in 1967. India lost every Test in that series, but listening to Test Match Special on the BBC's World Service I was content that my hero had top-scored in India's first innings and then hit a wonderful 148 out of a total of 510 to avoid a follow-on (India lost respectably, by six wickets).
Listening to John Arlott and Brian Johnston speculate about the batting heights Pataudi might have scaled with two good eyes, I forgave him all the innings when he scored nothing and hadn't seemed to care. Best of all, there were the two fifties he hit against the Australians in the Melbourne Test of 1967-68, where, literally hamstrung, he hit 75 and 85, "with one good eye and on one good leg… " (Mihir Bose, A History of Indian Cricket). We still lost by an innings, but I was used to finding individual consolation in collective failure and the thought of Pataudi, hobbled but heroic, hooking and pulling his way to gallant defeat, was enough.
I didn't actually see him play that many innings. There was his top score of 203 not out in Delhi in that dull dead rubber against Smith's MCC, and the hundred, also in Delhi, against the New Zealanders the following year, which, for once, was in a winning cause. But I can't really remember his strokeplay in the way I can for Gavaskar or Azhar or Laxman, or any batsman made familiar by live telecasts. I saw more of Pataudi after he retired and turned up on television as an expert than I did when he was a player. He was the best expert commentator I've ever heard: sharp, sardonic and rude, but I'm glad he didn't make it a living because it left my memories of him intact. I didn't have to watch him age into a professional hack. Listening at Richie Benaud on Channel Nine, it's impossible to believe he ever played cricket. Pataudi was my hero from a time before television, through a childhood where I followed cricket by hearing it described; in a golden age where I didn't have to see to believe.
Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2004