London, June 18, 2012
Saif Ali Khan Pataudi did not need a script for he was speaking about his father from the heart. “We still have not got used to him not being around — his presence was so strong that the vacuum it has created hasn’t begun to cave in yet so we are not fully conscious (of his absence),” he said. “He was my hero, too,” Saif added.
Saif was speaking in London at a memorial lunch hosted last Friday, June 15, by the Indian Journalists’ Association in the UK to remember the life and times of Mansur Ali Khan, the erstwhile Nawab of Pataudi (fondly known as ‘Tiger’), the former cricket captain of India who passed away on September 22, 2011, in Delhi at the age of 70.
Saif, along with his sisters, Saba Ali Khan and Soha Ali Khan, had accompanied their mother, Sharmila Tagore, to the lunch. Also present was Saif’s fiancé, Kareena Kapoor, and Tiger Pataudi’s first cousin, Shahryar Khan, seven years his senior and a member from the Bhopal side of the family which moved to Pakistan after partition. Shahryar summed up for many when he said of Pataudi, “He was a wonderful cricketer and even more wonderful human being.”
Those who travelled down memory lane and recalled Pataudi included Asif Iqbal, the former cricket captain of Pakistan; former left arm Indian spinner Dilip Doshi; Rajesh Prasad, the deputy Indian High Commissioner in London; and the Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma. The former vice captain of England, Micky Stewart (father of Alec), said that Pataudi “made his debut for Sussex at 16 years of age which is something tremendous, isn’t it?” Stewart raised a laugh by using a little euphemism, “In his early days he led a fully active social life.” For one county match, Stewart turned up as captain of Surrey to find that Pataudi, the Sussex skipper, was absent before the start of the game. Said Stewart, “Tiger was missing. And suddenly a message came through to the secretary which was passed on and it said, ‘I have been detained in Paris. Would you please ask Jim Parks to captain the side?’ ’’ The reason why Pataudi went missing was disclosed by Sharmila when she addressed the guests. With a little smile, Sharmila confessed, “I was the reason that he was detained in Paris many years ago.”
The lunch was held at the Crown Plaza Hotel, also known as the St James Court in Buckingham Gate. “This venue is so special also because this is where we stayed last when we came for the England-India match,” explained Sharmila. “He was invited to give the Pataudi Trophy which was instituted by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) and this is the hotel we stayed in,” said Sharmila.
Among those present was Ben Cunningham, a pupil from Winchester College, which Pataudi had attended from 1954 until 1959, when he became the school cricket captain and hit 1,068 runs in that season. It is a record that stands to this day. His condolence letter, among the first to be received by Sharmila, touched her. He had never met Pataudi, but the 17-year-old was head of House at Beloe’s, where Pataudi had also boarded over five decades ago. “Ben Cunningham, you were the first one who wrote — we were so really moved by your letter,” Sharmila remarked in her brief address. Cunningham had said, “He is our most famous old boy.”
Earlier, Saif had started by admitting, “I feel under-qualified to make comments about my father — he was my hero, too.” He remembered a “fathers vs sons” cricket match at Lockers Park, a preparatory school in Hertfordshire both Saif and Pataudi had attended before they moved on to senior school at Winchester College in Hampshire. Pataudi, who was captaining the fathers’ side, “was fielding in the covers as usual — I was batting and I was at the non-striker’s end,” said Saif. “Our captain cut the ball to him and he pretended to fumble it and started sprinting towards the boundary line and we took another single. He had not fumbled it — he turned round and whipped it over the stumps and both of us were half way down the wicket. The captain was run out — he was looking at me,”said Saif.
Pataudi was taking the game very seriously. “Then he went into bat and he hammered our bowlers mercilessly and broke my friend’s mother’s windscreen so everyone had mixed feelings about that game. He was a competitive cricketer," added Saif. With a laugh, Sharmila completed the anecdote. “He truly played like that against nine year olds and he broke somebody’s windscreen. We went into tea and no one spoke to him. He was absolutely persona non grata — there are wonderful memories.”
Referring to the loss of an eye in a car accident, Saif made the point, “Many things he did were in adverse situations; the teams he captained, his handicap (loss of his right eye), often compounded by a hamstring or dislocated shoulder.” There was the time when Pataudi was struck in the face. “In 1974-75, I was very little and I didn’t like Andy Roberts very much for breaking my father’s jaw. But my cousin Saad used to thrown a plastic ball at my father and he used to practice with this red plastic ball — it wasn’t so much the speed they were practising but the movement. He could not see the yorker and he couldn’t see the bouncer at this point,” said Saif.
Pataudi wasn’t put off. “It was incredibly courageous to go out and face Vanburn Holder and Andy Roberts with no helmet and getting hit in the face and leaving the field to get quickly stitched up. To come back and then hammer Holder for 19 runs in an over was an amazing thing for me to remember. And also captaining against that (West Indian) side with 90,000 people at Eden Gardens chanting, ‘Take him off,’ when (BS) Chandrasekhar was being destroyed by (Clive )Lloyd and (Alvin) Kallicharran and my father throwing the ball back to Chandrasekhar and saying, ‘Bowl again’ and getting hit again for 12 runs in the over and again until breaking through and us winning that match, with Chandra getting four wickets,” he added.
Saif spoke of father-son conversations. “Often sitting with him would be hours of silence and monosyllabic conversation,” said Saif. “His good friends would come down and they would both sit and say very little. He would ask me to learn how to play bridge and I pretended to not grasp the concept — I think my youth would have been destroyed playing bridge for nine hours at a stretch.”
Saif went on, “He paved the way for me at school — I was one of the first Indians in Lockers Park. Everybody knew he was a hero; he had a record there of throwing a cricket ball the furthest distance — 95 metres.” He spoke for the family. “It is rare and it’s wonderful for a mother and for children to have something like this to live up to. There are many instances when my mother says to me, ‘What would your father have done?’ and I think that’s a great achievement as well. Whenever we would call him or ask him something about life, however complicated, he would have a wonderful one line answer and give the best advice.”
The son paid his father an unusual compliment, “He was such a nice house guest as well. When he would come and stay he was so incredibly polite for a father — you could hardly sense him except when he was taking his flight back to Mumbai. He would order a very stiff Screwdriver.”
“Another thing that stands out is the great friendships he had forged and had — he used to spend a lot of time at the Victoria pub (near the Pataudi apartment in London),” the son recounted. “Often I would find people from all over England— eight or none friends sitting there, having a beer and a nice chat and I think it’s the most important thing, really, the friendships he had made.”
The editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth; Mike Selvey, former England cricketer and now cricket correspondent of The Guardian; David Brooks, CEO of Sussex (a county which Pataudi had captained, as he had Winchester, Oxford and India); David Collier, CEO of the England and Wales Cricket Board; Lord Bilimoria; Lord and Lady Noon; Lord and Lady Hameed; Charles Fry, former chairman and president of the MCC; journalists Andrew Miller and Julian Guyer; and the Marquess of Reading, a cricket lover and great grandson of a viceroy of India, also attended the lunch. There will be Pataudi related events at Winchester College and at Balliol College, Oxford. A dinner has already been hosted by the MCC in the Long Room at Lord’s. The Long Room was beautifully decorated for the occasion, with the Pataudi Cup placed on the top table. Sharmila was presented with a portrait of her husband. Among the speeches, one of the most eloquent was by the former England captain Mike Brearley.