Pundits From Pakistan July 19, 2008

Ticket to write

Wide-eyed enthusiasm and plenty of off-field action in this old-school tour book that looks at one of the biggest cricket series of recent times

Once upon a time, before ball-by-ball coverage was a twinkle in television's all-seeing eye, the tour book was a common feature of the cricketing calendar.

First came the tour; then, a few months later, the tour book, chronicling the drama as it unfolded match by match with plenty of behind-the-scenes flavour. These books often provided the first close-at-hand accounts, being franker and fuller than the newspaper reports that preceded them. Pretty much every big tour got this treatment.

Such a process has become largely pointless in the modern age, when every moment of every international match is analysed by dozens of television, radio, print and internet journalists, not to mention several of the participants.

But India's tour of Pakistan early in 2004 was not your run-of-the-mill tour and fully merited Rahul Bhattacharya's revival of an old tradition. When India and Pakistan play cricket, there is never just cricket at stake. This was particularly true of this tour, India's first to Pakistan for 14 years. Two years earlier the countries had been at each other's throats, teetering on the brink of war. The tour became part of the rapprochement; an assassination attempt against General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistan president, nearly scuppered the whole project and left the Indian players understandably jittery.

The wider context never eludes Bhattacharya's eye. The posturing and politics are all part of the fun - along with the simple pleasure of an Indian being allowed into Pakistan, a region that so many Indians would have once viewed as part of home but which for years had been a no-go zone. The authorities made special dispensation for Indians to cross the border and such was the take-up that it was reckoned to be the heaviest cross-border traffic since Partition. This, then, was in one sense the smallest of tours, yet in another the biggest.

Bhattacharya, who was in his mid-twenties when he wrote this book, travels this foreign land with wide-eyed innocence and curiosity. He doesn't waste his time between matches. Such days are always the richest bits of the best tour books. He visits Jinnah's tomb. He goes to risky, radicalised Karachi and concludes that comparing it to Mumbai (as many did) as fishing village turned commercial capital, was lazy analogising. He stays with friends of friends.

He does excellent cricket interviews. He goes to see Danish Kaneria and his family; Kaneria was only the second Hindu to play for Pakistan and there is no time like an Indian tour of Pakistan for asking why. He speaks to Aaqib Javed about the dark arts of swing bowling. He finds Arif Abbasi, the Oxbridge-educated administrator, and talks about Pakistan's class-bound "classless" cricket.

Bhattacharya doesn't waste his time between matches. Such days are always the richest bits of the best tour books. He visits Jinnah's tomb. He goes to risky, radicalised Karachi

He tracks down Abdul Qadir, the spin magician, on a plot of land outside the Gaddafi Stadium, charging money for interviews. And he finds Shoaib Akhtar's old coach and talks to him about why Shoaib's arm hyper-extended and how he learned to bowl fast.

Shoaib, perhaps the one Pakistan cricketer who would like to do a Bhattacharya in reverse and cross the border for Bollywood, is one of the great characters in this story. He is rarely far from the action during the games themselves, even when he's getting injured, or (one suspects) feigning injury. Bhattacharya describes the star-cum-rogue well: pushing off from the sightscreen, chest heaving, thighs bulging, nostrils dilating; always the rogue - who else could go water-skiing when he's supposed to be injured? - but always lively enough to command attention.

The accounts of the matches themselves are lively. The writing is always good and Bhattacharya turns an original phrase. But here perhaps is a legacy of live cricket 24/7: reading extended match reports no longer feels like a necessity. But the cricket is eventful enough to review: a high-scoring one-day series see-sawed, and the Tests all produced positive results and epic performances (Sehwag's 309, Dravid's 270, to name but two).

The irony of the whole tale was that beforehand the Indian government had vacillated because it feared that defeat on the field, or violence off it, might lead to a setback in a forthcoming general election. In the event, the tour went off smoothly and Sourav Ganguly's team won both the Test and ODI series, but the government was beaten at the polls anyway.

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

Picador India, 2005

Simon Wilde is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Times