"What should we address you as?" I posed this question to the Nawab of Pataudi in 1966 when we were playing for the Vazir Sultan Colts in the Moin-Ud Dowlah Gold Cup. "Should we call you skipper, captain, Nawabsaab, Pat or Tiger" was my next question. I had gathered the courage to ask after I had effected a run-out and he had applauded me. It fell upon me because all the other colts had decided that whoever contributed to the first wicket would do so. He was the only Test player in that team and all of us were young players trying to make a mark. We had discussed this the previous evening among ourselves but couldn't agree on how to address him. He had turned up just a few minutes before the toss in his cricket clothes but with no other kit, and after his legs had been massaged by the masseur, he had gone out to toss, lost it and promptly came back and the massage was resumed. When the umpires went out, he led us and we kept at least fifteen yards behind him on the field.
The first glimpse
That was not my first glimpse of the great man. I was lucky to get a pass to the send-off ceremony the Mumbai Municipal Corporation had arranged for the India team going to West Indies in 1962 and it was there that I saw him for the first time. I was more interested in keeping my eyes glued to my idol, ML Jaisimha, and when the team was leaving, I, like the others, crowded around trying to breathe the air these heroes were exhaling. The dream to play for India became a determination that evening.
I don't think there was a single budding teenage cricketer in the country who did not try to walk like him or have a stance like him. The open stance was unique since he had lost one eye and so opened his stance to get a better look at the bowler. We all tried to copy that but kept getting out bowled or leg before playing across the line. We couldn't copy his fielding since in that era he was pretty much a one-off who could slide and save the ball.
What was remarkable was how he could bat with one eye and how he could catch so well in the covers or in the slips. His sense of humour was the dry kind. Asked by an Englishman when he thought he could play at the highest level again after the accident that cost him his eye, he replied, 'When I saw the English bowling'. The other extraordinary thing was that he did not have any kit of his own, or if he did, he seldom brought it to the ground. So, he would pick up the nearest gloves and bat and walk out and still score runs.
His fear of flying was well known and if he could get to the venue by train or road, he would prefer those modes. We were once flying back from Kenya when we encountered some incredibly turbulent weather. I was nervous too and especially once it dawned on me that it was past midnight and we had entered a new day. To get over my nervousness, I tried to make him even paler than he already was. I asked, "Didn't your father pass away on your birthday? You know what, it is past midnight, so it is Saif's birthday now and may be history will repeat itself." The look I got was worth preserving.
He was the one who proposed that I should be his vice-captain for the 1974/75 series against the West Indies. On the eve of the first Test, he came to inform me about that, but, true to Indian cricket's ways, I was asked to keep quiet. That's why, when he got injured taking a catch and had to leave the field, there was confusion till confirmation came from the selectors that I was to lead the team. He retired after that series and kept his distance from the game and it was Indian cricket's loss that he wasn't brought in to give his vast experience and expertise. Even after his retirement, there was a mystique about him and nobody, except his family, could say they really knew him. By the way, he did not answer my question, so we never found out how to address him. Despite knowing him all these years, I still don't know what to call him.
R.I.P. Skipper, Captain, Nawabsaab, Pat, Tiger. There will never be another one like you.