It was all very Coppola-esque and Puzo-id in its operatic intrigue and imagery. Like when the hatchet men were dispatched to take care of business during the baptism of Connie Corleone’s baby daughter, the family decided to settle matters as the nation was reveling in the grand ceremony unfolding at Mumbai’s own gleaming new cathedral, the DY Patil Stadium, on April 25, 2010. He may have been a made man, but he had put the business in jeopardy. Allowing him to continue would not be prudent. Don Modi’s execution was executed flawlessly.
The capo’s generals and foot-soldiers were now rendered rudder-less. And the delicate dance of distancing themselves from the departed Don, thereby ensuring that the machete wouldn’t descend towards their own necks unfolded. Eventually, a few surfaced. With rueful and sheepish words that fell just short of apologies or admonitions about their erstwhile capo’s misdemeanors, they commenced their own rehabilitations. There was a business to run and this was no olive oil business to be left untended for too long.
It is easier for foot-soldiers and fringe-men to show up, kiss the ring of the new Don, swear allegiance and move on. Much harder for the capo régimes. Their guilt by association is harder to shake off. So when Ravi Shastri and Sunil Gavaskar – the Luca Brasi and Clemenza of the IPL family – hit the mattresses in the weeks following the execution of Don Modi, it was following an expected pattern. But then came an unexpected breach from the inner circle. A public utterance from the innermost circle of the IPL Governing Council. An overt admittance of guilt that the Council had been a failure and should have been more vigilant about Don Modi’s activities!
When Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi spoke those words, I for one, was startled out of my wits. Not for what he said. But for being suddenly reminded that all along, he had been a part of that inner circle. The heavyweights Luca and Clemenza had been omnipresent and in the spotlight all through this drama. But Pataudi had been conspicuously absent from the proceedings smeared across television and print media. He had now chosen to breach omerta and go public with his views.
Tiger? Bade Nawab? You? Surely not consigliore Tom Hagen of this operation?
I, for one, just cannot bring myself to associate him with the happenings which we have been watching with rabid, and then morbid fascination. Even when I know that the only reason for his presence was the organization’s need for putting up a front of cricketing gravitas and respectability. Luca and Clemenza were tainted, irreparably so in the public’s eyes and he was necessary to bolster up the credentials and more importantly the credibility. But it is still impossible for me to accept him as being a part of this cabal, this coterie, this cozy club of conniving commercialists.
For I happen to be irrevocably biased and coloured in my views of Tiger. It has always been this way from the time I even heard of him. And it was a fait accompli that this would come to pass given his status in the minds of a generation of Indians for who he was the epitome of everything that was right about the sport itself. My father’s generation, who gave me and millions of others no other image to follow in matters pertaining to Tiger but one tinted with exalted leadership, controlled aggression, fierce determination, bravado, panache, sartorial elegance, a regal flush of royalty, class and above all, principled and forceful dignity.
That was what he always stood for to them. Dignity and principles mattered over everything in life and in public life particularly. Even in what you can classify as celebrity; if that word can be used in the same way these days. Very predictable in their choices they were. They swore by Frank Worrell as a captain when it came to the cricket, and only he was next. Even in other spheres, they chose carefully. Take Hollywood actors, for example. Not John Wayne for them – just a Yankee yahoo. Brando – too much of a brooder. Burton, a drunk who might botch it all up. No sir, it was always only Gregory Peck for them. Peck, the epitome of upright and forthright leadership and reliability in all situations. Handsome, dignified, calm and reassuring to his troops. Always leading from the front and protecting his wards in the face of inclement danger. And somewhere down the line, my wires crossed and Tiger and Gregory Peck became intertwined in my own head. They even started to look alike to me, the same eyes, the same cheekbones and of course, the same backbone. To this day strangely, I can’t see one without the other.
Now, Gregory Peck could never assay the role of the Don in the Godfather, could he? No, for he lacked one vital trait – the ability to parlay moral and ethical ambiguity. His was a transparent honesty and directness that would not permit that. Not in their minds at least.
Tiger was their Gregory Peck of Indian cricket alright. A man born to lead in all situations. Even missions stacked up with odds against success. He was Mackenna, riding the dusty deserts searching for the gold and then looking on detachedly with a knowing look (like gold mattered to this Nawab) as the valley imploded as retribution. Their fearless Ahab, out in the middle of the capricious seas battling it out singlehandedly against Moby Dick. Even battle the ultimate evil in the Omen, and not give in. He was McArthur on the beach. And he was their Atticus Finch, who would defend the absolutely fundamental of all rights with a thoughtful dignity.
We were introduced to Cambridge through Ranji and Tiger revealed Oxford to us: “He set Oxford on fire” they said. And he had, breaking Douglas Jardine’s standing record at the school. And when the situation was dire, it was him that India had turned to: in the Caribbean, as the team’s skipper lay in hospital, shelled by missiles unleashed by Charlie Griffith. Tiger’s bravery in the face of adversity was legendary, and if Gregory Peck wouldn’t climb the mountain for his team that day to silence the guns, who would? Leadership was where he shone and he had oodles of it. “Only he knows how to nurture the spin treasures we have” they rumbled, as Wadekar fumbled around with the quartet. And their new little prince Vishy had been mentored and tutored by him hadn’t he? Even if Tiger had engineered a fake kidnapping that had traumatized and reduced Vishy to tears of panic. “What a sense of humour”, they preened proudly. And in conservative South India at the time, they swelled with pride at his inter-religion marriage. Sharmila Tagore was their darling princess, their Audrey Hepburn. Who better to entrust the safety of a princess to than Gregory Peck? I am certain they secretly harbor a desire to see his son – the other Khan, chote Nawab – cream the reigning two Khans of Bollywood too some day.
Fate, or perchance destiny, ensured that I should cut my cricket watching teeth in the presence of who else but him. 1974, and as I joined the hordes walking into the barely completed K.S.C.A Stadium in Bangalore, my grip on my father’s hand would have been a tad intense, the face a wee bit flushed. In hindsight, one is a lost cause when the first cricket match you witness packs enough portents in it to sustain a lifetime’s interest in the sport. The mighty West Indies were almost ephemeral in the mind then, an image created by dramatic tales of Frank Worrell, Garfield Sobers, Rohan Kanhai and Wesley Hall, regaled to awestruck little faces looking up at the tale bearer. These cricket gods were all gone, but their legacy was not something that could be sneered away. Scared voices spoke of the new mayhem bearer of Wesley Hall’s lineage, Andy Roberts: “I believe he runs in from the boundary!” we were told and our palpitations were well underway. There were some tyros on the team. Two of them; utter unknowns: “Who is this fellow? What a letdown to have to watch him compared to Kanhai” and “At least Roy Fredericks is there to open with this greenhorn”. And that would be Isaac Vivian Alexander Richards and Gordon Greenidge on their debuts. The breath catches in the throat to this day.
As they walked out for the toss, it was Atticus leading the way. He stepped over the ropes onto the green with Clive Lloyd, and there he was in flesh! The stadium expanded and occupied more space in that instant, as chests filled up with pride. He was back in charge. Ajit Wadekar had done the job – created history at the Oval in 1971– but the world had been set right now. He would climb the mountain-face and hammer the pegs for his men to follow said their hearts. The same hearts which had been skeptical when Richard Burton had been put in charge in Where Eagles Dare and not the Gregory Peck of Guns of Navarone. And I gawked in awe. As he fielded at extra-cover languorous as a panther, looking lethal and foreboding in that India cap as he leaned into his walk as the ball was bowled. He didn’t have his Andrea Stavros, his Anthony Quinn, with him – Salim Durani had been dropped. Frankly, Tiger didn’t do much of note in that match – only Lloyd, Kallicharan and Greenidge did – other than materialize in real life after hogging the imagination. But enraptured I was – albeit more by how he was perceived and received than by his deeds.
And so it continued with reminders all along. Sunil Gavaskar was named the Wisden Cricketer of the Year for 1980, but we had to listen to them talk about 1968, when Tiger won the accolade. Attempting to follow Ian Botham’s exploits at Headingley in 1981 on the BBC begat constant interruptions over the shoulder about Tiger’s fighting 148 at the same ground in 1967. Even post-retirement, every Indian captain had to endure unending tirades of comparison to him. Azhar? Dada? Are you kidding? “Remember India’s first ever overseas win against the Kiwis?”they thundered. “Why don’t they just make him chairman of the selectors for life?” they argued as India’s “bunch of jokers” bungled around. He could never do any wrong – almost. Like when he was in the news for some alleged poaching. That embarrassed them and they tried to brush it off stiffly “This hunting business is the kind of thing people from royal families do, you know?” It was like Gregory Peck playing Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil. It had to be an anomaly.
That is how I want to remember you Tiger, as the tabloids go lurid with the deeds of shame of the cartel you have lent your name to. And I do not want to venture near how it hurts and stings to that generation who looked at you as Indian cricket’s own Gregory Peck; for them to see your name intermixed with these “custodians” of Indian cricket. They will never permit you to lead any team on any mission, lest you actually try to do your job. And do it the only way you know – with true leadership and principles that might end up breaching their carefully constructed façades and castling their house of cards.
Walk away Tiger, before it gets any more sordid, if that is somehow even possible. You don’t need them, and frankly, they don’t really need you – other than on their marquee. Don’t allow them to portray you as a good Godfather of their family. Luca and Clemenza can handle “cricketing matters” on that council fine. Speak what’s on your mind and walk away. Don’t hold back. Cut loose with a few choice words and bid adieu.
Here is a suggestion. Look them in the eye and quote your Salim Durrani – sorry, Anthony Quinn – as Abu Auda in Lawrence of Arabia: “Thy mothers mated with scorpions!”