Heroes are universally admired, all the better if they are dashing and handsome. But when they come from a family of nawabs or rajas as well, admiration turns into pure veneration.
India has been three times lucky in this regard. It has had Ranjitsinhji, Pataudi Sr and Pataudi Jr. Verily, they are the Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva of Indian cricket.
Ranjitsinhji was the jaam saheb or raja of Nawanagar. Iftiquar Ali Khan was the Eighth Nawab of Pataudi in Haryana. Both played for England; Pataudi Sr played for India as well, and was captain. Both were hailed as geniuses in their time.
And then, in 1956, emerged Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the Ninth Nawab. From all accounts, his cricketing skills combined those of his father and Ranjitsinhji.
This is no exaggeration. After an unfortunate and minor motoring accident in 1960, when he was just 20 and Captain of Oxford University, he lost sight in one eye. He was written off by everyone.
But, on the contrary, from 1961 to 1974, he played for India 48 times, captaining it throughout the 1960s. He scored nearly 3,000 runs in Test cricket, including a double century once, and over 15,000 in first-class cricket.
Therein lay his greatness of spirit and skill, for only those who have faced fast bowling can appreciate what this means. When facing a fast bowler, the stone-hard ball reaches the batsman in less than half a second — literally in the blink of an eye. It takes only a little longer when a spinner is on.
Pataudi became to cricket what the stone-deaf Beethoven was to music. It is hard enough to touch the ball when you have both eyes, whether it is whizzing past at 140 kilometres an hour or because of the spin, when you can hear the ball go phssss … But with one eye gone, and that too the left one, which is crucial for a right-hander… oh, boy! what can one do but clap? And that is what this book does.
It is both the equivalent of a standing ovation by men who played cricket at the very highest level and an ode to a man they were clearly proud to know.
Suresh Menon, as gifted a sportswriter as any, has done a wonderful job in bringing together these accounts by contemporaries of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. He comes alive in its pages — the man, the father, the husband, the cricketer and the Captain, who put a much-needed backbone in the Indian side.
By using spin as the main form of attack, he made a bonfire of cricketing orthodoxy. By being fair, he set an example. By being witty, he won hearts. By being circumspect, he earned respect.
The Who’s Who of world cricket - Ted Dexter, Sunil Gavaskar, Bishen Singh Bedi, Faroukh Engineer, Mike Brearly, Tony Lewis, Ian Chappell, Rahul Dravid, to name a few - have talked about him with a degree of fondness mixed with awe in a way that makes you believe, for those few moments that you are reading, that he is still amongst us.
All of them say Pataudi was laconic in the extreme. All say he had a great sense of humour. All acknowledge his cricketing genius. All recall how wonderful he was as a human being. All feel humbled by his fighting spirit. All know he was afraid of flying... and what he did to brace himself for the ordeal.
There are anecdotes galore, which I will not reproduce here. You can read the book for that. But I will tell you one of my own. I met him only once, in 1995, at his Dupleix Road house. Having seen him play often and lead India to wins, I had gone to ask if I could write his biography.
“You will have to do all the hard work,” he said.
The tea came in, brought by an aging retainer. He said he had to look after a lot of such staff who had been with the family for decades.
I told him I had seen him at our school in Bhopal once… in a red convertible, I think, it was. “Good,” he said.
Then I asked him about the election he lost in 1989. “Rajiv came to campaign, but money was a big problem,” he said.
I stayed for about 45 minutes and left, promising I would be in touch. I never kept that promise.
More fool me.