The impossible job
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi led Indian cricket out diffidence. Edward Craig hears how he coped with the intensity of captaining the country and how the role has changed
If a 21-year-old playing in only his fourth Test was picked to captain India these days, ahead of one of their many stars, you can imagine the outcry. When Charlie Griffith felled Nari Contracor in India's tour of the West Indies, MAK 'Tiger' Pataudi, then the Nawab, stepped in. He was still at Oxford University and had a lot to learn. Wisden records: "Pataudi seemed inexperienced in the handling of legspinners."
But this is how India blooded their most celebrated captain. They lost the series 5-0 ("West Indies had such a strong side that we didn't have a chance anyway," says Pataudi) but it was the start of an extraordinary learning curve that established a rhythm and style of Indian cricket that prevails today. Pataudi's record may seem poor in stark terms of win-percentages and defeats but this is as unfair on Pataudi as Ricky Ponting's record is flattering to him.
The first thing Pataudi did was to make India difficult to beat. He created a team. He convinced the selectors to play their best bowlers whatever the conditions and, if that meant four spinners, so be it. He forced India to risk losing to win. He banished much of the parochialism and politics by being transparent and honest. And he did all this while only just holding a place in the side himself. Pataudi is a heroic-tragic figure. An Indian aristocrat schooled in England (at Winchester, Douglas Jardine's alma mater), his father had captained India as well as playing for England. Aged 21, playing cricket at Oxford and for Sussex, he was breaking batting records, establishing himself as the next great Indian player, when he lost his right eye in a car crash. But he worked out a method to make the most of his remaining assets and was picked to tour the West Indies that winter - as vice captain.
Now 65, during a regular summer visit to London, he is relaxing in a west London flat on one of those stifling July days, looking distinguished and casual in equal measure. A loose white shirt hangs off heavy shoulders and he speaks carefully with a gentle Indian accent.
"Some captains lead from the front and some push from the back," he says. "I wanted to lead from the front but I found myself a long way from being the best player after my accident. So it was a question of pushing. Ray Illingworth and Mike Brearley were pushers. People like Richie Benaud and Garry Sobers were pullers. Either way you have to get the confidence of the side. Rahul Dravid is the best player in the Indian side. He is not flamboyant or an extrovert but I don't think anyone would doubt he is the main player in the team. That wasn't the situation with me. The team knew that I'd frequently get out for very few runs because of my eyes. They didn't expect a great deal."
So this young man had just become captain and, by his own admission, was more than likely not going to score many runs (he actually made 2,793 runs at 35 in 46 Tests - all with one eye). How did the team cope with that? Did his background help? Luckily for Pataudi it was an ageing team and he was a quick learner with an instinct. "Being instinctive as a captain is a mixture of common sense and experience," he says. "You have to have a bit of both to become instinctive. You learn over the years and, if you have common sense, you retain that knowledge and put it to use when the situation arises. Until a situation arises that you have never seen before - then you might be flummoxed. But, if you have been at it for a while, there are very few situations you have not come across before. In the West Indies I was helped by the senior players because they were retiring and there wasn't a great clash. Two or three senior players like Polly Umrigar were very supportive. Because of this I carried on afterwards."
Pataudi's privileged upbringing had its drawbacks. Through his years as captain it was a constant battle to balance his relationship with his players and not come across as aloof or snobbish. Pataudi reckons that balance is crucial for any captain, especially today. Do you become one of the lads or part of the management?
"He has to be somewhere in between," he says. "He can't be too aloof and he can't be totally one of the boys because he has the full responsibility. You have to make tough decisions and, if you get too involved in the individual players, it gets too difficult. It is a lonely position to be in. You are very much on your own, it is difficult to make friends because you have to take decisions they may not like, so it is better to stay a bit away. Then you get criticised for being too aloof. That is part of the game. One of the criticisms was because of my background. I was too snooty, snobbish, that sort of thing." Is this why Ganguly at times came across poorly as captain? Was he trying to maintain that balance? Pataudi is guarded in response and answers a different question. "Imran Khan may have suffered in a similar way. Imran has a similar attitude to me, Ganguly was different." Nothing more.
The role of India's captain, or any international captain, has clearly changed since Pataudi took over. Increased support staff is an obvious difference, as well as the intense media scrutiny and demands, in spite of which a captain's main job now is to captain. It was not always the case. "When we went to Australia in 1967-68, it was the first time in 20 years," says Pataudi. "We didn't know anything, how to catch a bus or step out of a hotel. People used to get homesick. We toured for five months with no families around. These were young people who had never been abroad before. The manager did not help because he had never been abroad either. A lot depended off the field on the captain. People came to you with their personal problems. There were also the social functions, which were extremely tiring. They were formal and long-winded. You had to make speeches. You had to find time to think of your own problems and life too."
The pressures may be different now but Pataudi can see how tough the job is and does not envy the on-pitch dissection by television and journalists. "There is so much television in India now, everyone's an expert," he says. "When I was playing, in the evening people would come and ask you what's going to happen tomorrow. Today they tell you what will happen. You have to be so much tougher now because you are getting so much criticism. You must never take too much interest in what the press people are saying. You can lose confidence."
So what makes a good captain, especially a good Indian captain? "People have to believe that you are not in any way pushing somebody, that you don't have any favourites, and that you are playing for the team the whole time. Knowing history is extremely important. We used to read all the books when they came out. Are people reading nowadays or are they just watching television?" This is the first sign of frustration, of an embittered former player. But Pataudi's life has been all about frustration and dealing with it. He was the most talented player in his side but was robbed of this talent. So he drove his energies towards others, towards making India a viable Test nation, establishing its identity on the world stage. It became a selfless mission, born of the frustration he felt through his handicap. Asked what he is most proud of from his playing career, he answers in the negative, talking about his one failing, his big regret. There was one talented cricketer, Salim Durani, whom he could never get the best from. Even now, 25 years later, the frustration festers.
"Maybe Brearley would have done it. I used to get upset. I'd never seen so much talent in my life and he just wouldn't bother. I'd try everything - talking sense, pressure. Maybe I could have tried harder. If Botham had been a failure, wouldn't you have been upset?" Frustration is what drove Pataudi, though he is modest about what he achieved: "I did contribute to the evolving of Indian cricket at a particular time and it has evolved beyond that now." And it is frustration, too, that keeps him away from the game now. He was asked to head the Indian players' association recently but believes it to be a futile body that the Indian board ignores in any case.
Suddenly he looks his age - not old but the youthful energy that enthused his early memories has expired, overtaken perhaps by a recognition that the mission was not quite accomplished. Had he liked being Indian captain? "I didn't enjoy it, I don't think enjoyment comes into it. It is either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. It is something one doesn't refuse to do."
Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer