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To the manner born

'Are you sure you don't want to interview Rinku instead?' At the time the question surprised me but it shouldn’t have. It was typical of Tiger, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Sep 24, 2011 22:48 IST

‘Are you sure you don’t want to interview Rinku instead?’ At the time the question surprised me but it shouldn’t have. It was typical of Tiger. He wore his talent and celebrity lightly. It’s not that he wasn’t determined and ambitious but he never let it show. He was a quintessential gentleman. Frankly, he wouldn’t have known how to be anything else.

“If there is a criticism your friends make of you,” I asked at the interview for the BBC, “it’s that you’re laid back.” A warm smile lit up his face. It made him look both youthful and mischievous. “There’s a lot I’ll take from my friends, Karan, but that’s the way I am. We’re all products of our time. But you know I don’t think I’d have achieved very much more if I’d spent my time dashing about. The point is to be happy with yourself the way you are.” Tiger definitely was.

Yet behind the debonair sophistication of an Edwardian gentleman Tiger was a professional to the core. Once he agreed to the interview I told him I wanted my producer, Vishal Pant, to spend time with him to cover the research. “What’ll he be looking for?” Tiger asked. “Stories, anecdotes and a bit of humour.”

Tiger had them at his finger tips and he wove them into his answers with discretion and aplomb. His humour was self-deprecatory and the favourite butt of his stories was himself.

“How did you woo Sharmila?” I asked. He claimed he’d pretended to be a salesman selling air conditioners or fridges. “I was sure she had everything she wanted but perhaps she could do with another fridge!” Foolishly reaching for a cricket metaphor I continued, “Did you bowl her over?” Without a moment’s hesitation but with the naughty look back on his face he replied, “She batted pretty well. But in the end my perseverance paid off.”

I asked him how, when he was barely 20, he had lost his right eye and he told the story as if it was an inconsequential development of little significance. It happened when his car crashed on the way to Sussex from Oxford. “It wasn’t such a bad accident but I got a splinter in my eye.” While recuperating in India he was chosen to play for the national team. At 21 he became the youngest cricket captain and, many would add, the best known if not simply the best.

Over the years he was often a guest on my programmes. I believe his last TV appearance was with me on CNN-IBN’s ‘Last Word’ on August 5. We were discussing India’s failing fortunes in England. Whist critical of the team he deftly avoided the exaggeration and hyperbole which seemed the flavour of the moment. And when I popped a silly question — which on cricket shows I often do — he dignified it by giving me an answer that made me seem knowledgeable of the game.

In fact, Tiger was always generous with his praise. But from the interviews he liked I could tell he preferred the rapier to the bludgeon. He enjoyed the thrust and parry of a verbal exchange, he admired wit and was fond of irony. When I was overbearing he would discreetly say it was “a bit loud”.

That’s an adjective that could never have been used for him. He was subtle, elegant, understated and sophisticated. Or, to put it differently, he was a true aristocrat.

PS: Friday’s Times of India published extensive excerpts of the BBC interview crediting TimesofIndia.com but not the channel or me! I guess we all want our little claim on Tiger.

The views expressed by the author are personal