Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi–the hero who conquered setbacks of fate

In William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, the character Malvolio, reading from a letter, speaks the oft quoted lines: “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” But when the famous Bard of Avon wrote his play, he probably never imagined that there would come a person who fall into two categories. That person was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi who was born into a nobleman’s family and then he achieved further greatness by becoming a legendary leader on the cricket field.

He came from a family of achievers and makers of history. The Pataudi family traces its origin to Faiz Talab Khan, an ethnic Pashtun who hailed from Afghanistan and became the first Nawab of the Pataudi State in 1804.

Mansur’s father, Ifthikar Ali Khan was an excellent cricketer and hockey player and a very good polo player. He was the only cricketer to have represented both England and India. He scored a century on debut for England and later became captain of India. But many people are unaware that he was also selected for the Indian hockey team for the 1928 Olympic Games. He would have played alongside the legendary Dhyan Chand but he pulled out due to personal reasons.

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Mansur’s uncle Sher Ali Khan Pataudi opted for Pakistan at the time of partition and went on to become a Major General in the Pakistan army. He commanded Pakistan’s 14 (Parachute) Brigade during the 1947 war against India and was awarded the Hilal-i-Jurat of Pakistan. Later he served as the Chief of General Staff (which is just one rank below Chief of Army Staff). He also served as a diplomat and a minister in the cabinet of General Yahya Khan.

Mansur’s mother’s family was illustrious too. Between 1819 and 1926 the princely state of Bhopal was ruled by four brave women. They became famous in history as the Begums of Bhopal and their outstanding administration earned the respect of even the British Government. They were Qudsia Begum, Sikander Begum, Shah Jehan Begum and Sultan Jahan Begum. The last named had a son by the name of Hamidullah who was born in 1894. In 1926 Sultan Jahan abdicated in favour of her son Hamidullah and so, after many years, a male ruler ruled over Bhopal.

But later Hamidullah had three daughters and no sons. So the title was to go to the eldest daughter named Abida Sultan. However she married Nawab Sarwar Ali Khan and moved to Pakistan with her husband and son. Thereby the title passed to her sister Begum Sajida Sultan. She was by then married to Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi. The couple had three daughters and a son, Mansur Ali Khan. Meanwhile the son of Abida Sultan who had moved to Pakistan grew up to be a person of great consequence too. He was Shahryar Khan who served as Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and also Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board.

But to return to young Mansur Ali Khan, it is seen that throughout his life, Mansur faced obstacles and he overcame them by dint of his own steely determination and self-control. On his 11th birthday, he lost his father to a heart attack, at the age of 20 he lost his right eye in a car accident, at the age of 21 he was given the responsibility of captaining the Indian team despite being one of the youngest players in the squad. It was as if fate knew that he was a man who could take on heavy burdens and still succeed.

His wife, the noted actress Sharmila Tagore, has written that he did not like to speak about himself. Never once did he complain about the difficulties he faced in life. It is left for us to imagine what he went through. After the sudden death of his father, he was sent off to study in England. We can guess what difficulties he faced. He hardly had time to overcome the trauma of his father’s death before he found himself in alien surroundings.

In school in England, the young boy had to adjust to a new environment. He was no longer the pampered son of a Nawab. There were no servants to help him at every step. He had to cope with a strange culture, unfamiliar surroundings, unusual foods, cold climate and above all, classmates of a different race. There must have been plenty of ragging and bullying.

But he took it all in his stride and went on to become one of the best cricketers in his school. The initial attitude towards this thin young boy from India underwent a transformation. The bullying and taunts of his classmates changed to admiration and respect as he unfolded his armoury of shots on the cricket pitch and put his name in the record books.

When he was studying at Winchester College, Mansur established himself as a batting maestro. Such was his dominance that he was appointed captain of the team in 1959. He scored 1068 runs to break the old record which stood in the name of Douglas Jardine the captain of England team during the bodyline series against Australia. The former England captain had also studied in the same institution.

Just when it seemed as if the athletic young lad was going to blossom into a great cricketer, fate dealt him another massive blow. On 1st July, 1961, the 20 year old Mansur was traveling in a car along with several other players when it met with a collision with another vehicle. Mansur, who was in the front seat beside the driver, injured his shoulder and a glass splinter entered his right eye.

Mansur has described this tragedy in a matter of fact way in his autobiography “The Tiger’s Tale”. He writes: “The surgeon was summoned from his home to perform an emergency operation. He did a very good job but I learnt afterwards that I had lost the lens of the eye since it had dissolved through injury. The pupil of the eye had been stitched up leaving me without vision.”

The fact that he made his way back into cricket with vision in one eye is a miracle. There have been other famous sportsmen who suffered eye injuries and they were forced to leave their sport. One was fellow cricketer Colin Milburn of England. After he had met with a similar motor accident he took inspiration from Mansur and tried to come back but failed.

For many years England opener Geoff Boycott refused to believe that Mansur really did not have vision in one eye. Boycott could not imagine that a person with one eye could play cricket like Mansur could. The famous England all-rounder Trevor Bailey was of the opinion that if Mansur had not suffered his eye injury, he would have been as legendary a batsman as the great Sir Gary Sobers.

The very next year Mansur was catapulted into the role of captain of India. It happened when India was on a tour of the West Indies and in a match against Barbados, the original captain Nari Contractor had his skull fractured by a bouncer from Charlie Griffith. The hapless batsman may have died that day but for timely intervention of the team manager Ghulam Ahmed who ensured that Contractor received immediate medical attention.

But the selectors then placed the mantle of captaincy on Mansur’s young shoulders and he had the unenviable task of getting the cooperation of players who were far senior to him. However, again Mansur accomplished the task without any fuss. He went on to become a great leader who inspired the Indian team and pulled it out of mediocrity.

If India today is among the best teams in the world, we must thank the man who laid the foundation. The quiet and soft spoken man who acted with great courage but never wanted the limelight. Instead it was the limelight that followed him wherever he went.

Mansur Ali Khan passed away due to a lung infection on 22nd September, 2011 mourned by his legions of fans and cricket lovers throughout the world. His wife Sharmila has written in a book:
“When I go to Pataudi, I like to take a book and sit by his graveside surrounded by the trees rustling and birds chirping. My world has changed but there it seems things are not so different. We talk to each other but I say a lot more than he does. I always have. And he remains in death as he always had in life, our rock.”

Pataudi’s sister Begum Saleha Sultan was married into the Paigah family of Hyderabad. Her husband Nawab Basheer Yar Jung passed away two years ago while she died in 2020.  Keeping up the tradition Begum Saleha’s body was taken to her ancestral cemetery in Bhopal. Her son Saad Bin Jung who now lives in Bengaluru also earned name as a fine cricketer.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects

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