Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi played before the age of television and live broadcasting, before the age of one-dayers, T-20 and IPL. He played in an ancient time considering the fast-changing pace of today’s cricket. He did not do much commentary post-retirement and he was not omnipresent in the public eye. And yet he persisted in popular memory as one of the eponymous icons of a bygone era, when cricket used to be a game of languid gentlemen, unassuming in their styles.
Pataudi’s dashing looks and princely upbringing aided his persona as a charismatic captain and a white collar cricketer. His promise for leadership was recognised quite early, when in 1962, a 21-year-old Pataudi became the youngest Test captain of India. This is remarkable considering that just a year earlier he was injured in a car accident that impaired his right eye, yet that did not deter him from playing cricket at a time when fast bowlers like Charlie Griffith used to hurl their menacing deliveries. In fact, it was Griffith who struck skipper Nari Contractor so bad that he retired hurt for good, and the young ‘stone-eyed’ Pataudi assumed the captaincy of Indian cricket, and since then had raised the bar for next generations of skippers.
Legends around this young Nawab spooled unendingly in the Indian media on topics ranging from the nature of the precious stone in his eye to what would have become of him, had he not been cut short by a tragic accident. He could enamor the newly independent nation with his charm and laconic manners both in and outside the domains of cricket. His marriage to the then raging queen of Hindi films, Sharmila Tagore, appeared at first a rather rambunctious alliance between two impulsive young adults, but the marriage lasted a lifetime, even with their diverge cultural and religious backgrounds. Pataudi’s aristocratic lineage is not marked by his hereditary pedigree, but by the understated magnanimity he practised in his public life even during the most volatile and threatening situations. Be it when he was unceremoniously thrown out of Indian captaincy in early 1970s or during his arrest for shooting Blackbucks in the early 2000s, he approached the public vilification with grace and acceptance not seen in public figures in recent times.
In fact, Pataudi never became a ‘professional’ public figure; he refused frequent media appearances and a career in cricket commentating. He shirked the public eye in any given opportunity to recluse himself in his non-sanctimonious world of privacy that is marked by four family members who are immensely popular public figures by their own rights.
He lost his father — considered one of the promising English county cricketers before the accident — when he was 11, and lost most of his estate to Indira Gandhi in the early ’70s. Yet he maintained a thick veneer of dignity all throughout, unseen in other progenies of Indian erstwhile princely estates. His departure in death, thus, marked by the end of a notable historical example that demonstrated how the last vestiges of Indian monarchies had evolved into the current system of democratic republicanism in India. Pataudi proved, through his life, that such an evolution could be attained with grace and dignity. Even though feudal anachronisms such as hunting of rare species could land a prince in jail, but the inmate could unassumingly accept the ordeal while reading Toynbee’s History of the World while in incarceration.
This lack of drama in public life is something that we got to learn from depleting figures like Pataudi, before our public discourse shifts from Parliament premises to well-managed hunger-strike venues and rath-yatras. This iconic practice of public dignity metamorphosed this Nawab into a genteel citizen who we lovingly called the Tiger.