Book Review, April 2005 April 5, 2005

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

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

Forget the video, read the book

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For some years now, the cricket tour book has been a genre in decay. In the days when tours were long, leisurely affairs, involving sea voyages, preparatory matches, and convivial team dinners, the genre could flower in the hands of an Ian Peebles or an Alan Ross. But tours these days are such rushed affairs, with both players and journalists closeted from the societies through which they pass, that there's rarely scope for the kind of considered meditation, the sprawling novel-like narrative, that makes a great tour book, and indeed a great tour.

But last year's visit by India to Pakistan was different. For cricket fans, it was fresh rain after a long drought. By any standard, it was a historic tour, crammed with political significance, eventful cricket, and a gamut of emotions. It was crying out for literary treatment commensurate with its human richness.

Rahul Bhattacharya has risen to this challenge with one of the best cricket books to be published anywhere in many years. Forget the DVD highlights; if you want to relive the tour in all its dramatic complexity, read Bhattacharya.

His innings-by-innings accounts are garnished with vivid descriptions. Shahid Afridi sending Zaheer Khan "over the mid-wicket fence with a macho slog, yet raising his rear leg like a teenage girl playing badminton". Anil Kumble "handing the umpire his weathered India cap, tugging his high-waisted trousers higher still, and propelling himself one more time into that bounding, tight-jawed run". And my favourite: Shoaib Akhtar on a bouncer spree compared to The Slickers' "Johnny Too Bad": "a robbin' and a stabbin' and a lootin' and a shootin'".

Bhattacharya rightly devotes several pages to Virender Sehwag's triple-century - "opening batsmanship, twenty first century style, a force as potent as new-ball bowling". He is ruefully wise about what he calls "India's Gavaskar fixation", and I was delighted to find him questioning the lop-sided dogma that dictates that the benefit of the doubt must always go to the batsman. His account of the declaration that left Tendulkar stranded on 194 is thorough and even-handed, sympathetic to all those implicated in the anguish.

Bhattacharya makes good use of his opportunities to explore the conundrum that is Pakistani cricket. There's a bracing celebration of tape-ball cricket: "the main thing was this: the fast bowler felt joy. So much happened for him - swing both ways dammit!" At the same time, he notes with sadness the willingness of Pakistanis to believe the worst of their cricketers: "Nowhere in the world had I seen such cynicism on the street towards a cricket match."

Among the highlights of the book are extended interviews with Aaqib Javed and Abdul Qadir. Here Bhattacharya proves he has an ear as well as an eye. Aaqib's story is a typical Pakistani tale: preternaturally early achievement, repeated imbroglios with authority, mid-career disillusionment resulting in premature retirement. However, as Bhattacharya notes, in this case the tale has a happy twist, as Aaqib discovers a new metier as an inspirational youth coach. "Fast bowling is for nut cases," Aaqib declares, "especially here, to run in and bowl in 50 degree heat you have to be a madman." Not surprisingly, Qadir sees his own speciality as the more demanding vocation: "Leg break bowling one should bowl with a big heart ... where nothing else can succeed, leg spin can succeed."

Thankfully Bhattacharya does not suffer the tunnel vision that is the occupational curse of the press box. On the contrary, the strength of his book is the sophisticated sensibility he brings to the experience of the tour as a whole. He conjures up the poetry of cheap hotels and late-night bus stands, the anguished search for cybercafes in provincial towns, the charm of fleeting but intense human encounters.

Above all, he is intensely aware that this series was about far more than cricket: the tour's most intense drama is found in the meeting between the two countries that the cricket facilitated. He pays tribute to the crowd at Karachi and the pride of Multanis but it's Lahore that steals his heart. "Those five magical days" spanning the pair of Lahore ODIs, he describes as "days of epiphanies, of closures, of small kindnesses and large, of rediscoveries and new discoveries ... For younger generations, it was an emphatic tearing down of stereotypes that had been fed to them, in their textbooks, their movies, their media." Fittingly, the book concludes with an anguished account of the militarist histrionics at the Wagah border crossing.

Pundits triumphantly demonstrates that genuine emotional involvement in cricket has nothing to do with the hysteria of national chauvinism. He is not out to prove a point about either country, but to chronicle and savour an encounter in which, for once, "India and Pakistan were playing without fright, playing with expressiveness."

Mike Marqusee's books include War Minus the Shooting, on India-Pakistan cricket