Book Review, July 2005 July 5, 2005

Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04
by Rahul Bhattacharya

Marcus Berkmann
A review of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04 by Rahul Bhattacharya

Old feud, fresh view

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There is no doubt that India's tour of Pakistan just over a year ago was something a little bit special. The two countries have been at loggerheads, at the very least, for more than half a century and on the verge of war more than once. Whenever their cricket teams have played each other, their games have been freighted with significance. And yet, for obvious historical and cultural reasons, the two nations have more in common with each other than with almost anyone else.

For one thing they are both insane about cricket to a degree that we few cricket fans in football-crazed Albion can only admire and envy. It has become a cliché to say that the axis of power in world cricket has shifted to the subcontinent but that does not mean it is untrue. Meanwhile, the stream of great players churned out by each country continues. I am with TWC columnist Michael Henderson on this one: Rahul Dravid is my current favourite player, now that the flinty-eyed madman SR Waugh has retired. And, although you may not want Inzamam to bat for your life, you would certainly have him bat for your lunch. He would probably ask for your dinner as well.

There was always a great book to be done on this series and happily Rahul Bhattacharya has written it. His name will be known from reports and articles for Wisden and the Guardian, and you will have recognised an old head on remarkably young shoulders. He is only 26; successful book-writing at that age should probably be banned by law.

This is his first book and not surprisingly it is a personal one - as much about his experience covering the series as about the series itself. Along the way he encounters the usual bureaucratic and procedural problems familiar to visitors to the subcontinent (and to anyone who has read a book about the region). I loved the phone connection advertised as `R499 plus tax'. The tax turned out to be R1,999.

It is not clear from the text whether Bhattacharya had been to Pakistan before but he writes about what he sees and hears and feels with a refreshing openness. Quite simply, he is thrilled to be there and that the tour is taking place at all. This belief that cricket can do good in a wider cause imbues the whole book, although Bhattacharya is savvy enough to realise that everybody who can take advantage will take advantage. He just does not labour the point. Research and interviewees are allowed to speak for themselves. Gradually he builds up as rich and detailed a picture of subcontinental cricket as I think I have ever read.

And his cricket reports, once you get used to them, are terrific. Bhattacharya's prose style is rarely restrained but he really lets rip during the matches, with flurries of metaphor, simile and allusion. Like most of the batsmen he admires, he takes bold risks. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, sometimes both in the same sentence. Stylistically, at least, he is the anti-Swanton. But his judgements are remarkably sound and he knows his onions.

There are flaws. Pundits From Pakistan is, like nearly all books these days, too long; it often rambles; sometimes you have to read a paragraph three times to work out what he is talking about. But it has life and energy and youthful optimism and I salute it. Like the tour it describes, it is something a little bit special.