Here’s the full review. Looking through it again, I realise I haven’t said a single negative thing about the book, which is a big no-no for any self-respecting reviewer; no matter how good a book is, we’re expected to throw something in that prevents the review from being over-adulatory. Well, no apologies: I honestly didn’t find anything so seriously flawed that it (de)merited a mention, given that I had to leave a lot of good stuff out anyway. (When there’s a book you really, really want to write about, even 1,000 words is not enough; while on that subject, read Nilanjana S Roy on the 300-word review.)
Was discussing Pundits with nitpickety Shougat (who’s also reviewed it, for Today) and he pointed out that there’s one really ugly sentence in the book’s prologue (it involves the phrase “glistens moist with a numberless hues” and it is over-the-top). But in a way, that’s higher praise than anything I’ve written in my review; when someone as hard to please as Shog the Dawg picks on one sentence in a 340-page book, you know you have a winner.
Pundits From Pakistan: On Tour With India, 2003-04
(Rahul Bhattacharya; Picador India; Rs 275)
The cricket book we’ve been waiting for is finally here. After reams of cliched, soul-deadening match reports and scorecard collations, after numerous laboured “biographies” that swamp their subjects in a tangle of numbers, Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits From Pakistan comes as a burst of fresh air. This account by a young Indian reporter witnessing a historic, bridge-building cricket series and discovering Pakistan in the process is full of thoughtful, observant writing that reinforces the old aphorism “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
Pundits is the result of the author’s experiences while covering the Indian team’s tour of Pakistan in March-April 2004. This tour - which saw some exceptional cricket played over three Tests and five one-dayers - would eventually be regarded a significant step forward in relations between the two countries. However, there weren’t too many positive signals sent out before it began. Players were understandably concerned about security, TV channels squabbled over telecast rights, politicians and cricket boards played mindgames with each other - and that’s without even mentioning what the Shiv Sena’s hoodlums were up to.
Bhattacharya starts his narrative by detailing the almost comical series of events that unfolded before the Indian team, and a huge contingent of fans and journalists, was finally able to embark. The tour eventually gets underway: the author makes friends with Pakistani journalists; feels the full effect of Indian popular culture in a cybercafe in Multan; mulls the similarities and differences between Karachi and Mumbai; discovers why eunuchs are inordinately fond of Mohammad Sami. He conducts delightfully piquant interviews with Abdul Qadir and Aaqib Javed and provides a hilarious pen portrait of Shoaib Akhtar: “He has infuriated his team and administrators by dancing in the discos of South Africa after pulling out of a Test match with an injured knee...He has felled top batsmen and held their bleeding bodies in his benevolent arms...He has been born with pancake-flat feet and a motor mouth.”
And then, there’s the cricket. Anyone familiar with much recently published cricket literature will know that most books, even the ones that begin promisingly, turn into compendiums of scorecards and newspaper-style reportage once the actual matches begin. Pundits, mercifully, does not. One of Bhattacharya’s most creditable achievements is that the match descriptions don’t split his book right down the middle. He describes the cricket alright, describes it in reasonable detail; don’t believe anyone who tells you this is more a travelogue than a cricket book. But he manages throughout to capture the activity on the sidelines (in the Indo-Pak context, often more interesting than the actual play) as well -- capturing crowd moods, learning from a retired cricketer while watching a match that Inzamam ul Haq turned to batting because he was called for chucking as a 12-year-old bowler!
Bhattacharya knows both his cricketing history and his literature, and he uses references in gently illuminating ways - invoking Gabriel Garcia Marquez and W G Grace with equal felicity. The personal touch is evident even in the photo captions - clearly written by the author himself - where, for instance, an L Balaji delivery is likened to the bowling of Sydney Barnes, the legendary swing bowler who plied his wares a century ago.
Nor does he shy away from expressing strong views, not even when it means questioning the logic behind one of the game’s most accepted traditions: that umpires should give batsmen the benefit of doubt. (“To argue that the batsman has just the one chance is facile,” he says, “Any bowler will tell you that, as often as not, one chance is all he will have to remove a batsman.”) Whether or not you agree with all his arguments, you have to admire their articulacy.
The writing is empathetic and all-encompassing; this comes across not just in the observations on Pakistan and its people but also in the profiles of cricketers - which is vital, for cricket reportage in India is often jaundiced and small-minded. Bhattacharya doesn’t use one cricketer’s achievements to belittle those of another (a favourite pastime of sports writers everywhere). The ability to appreciate different talents can be seen in his nuanced observations on cricketers (On Tendulkar: “At times it was tempting to play him REM singing ‘You wore our expectations like an armoured suit’ in the hope that he would rip it off. But he seldom did.” On Dravid: “Watching him is an inspiration because at a most visible level Dravid’s lessons are the lessons of life. After a point all achievement is appetite...How much can you keep biting off? How much can you keep chewing?” Sehwag: “He has nothing of the image of the thinking cricketer. Secretly, everyone wishes they could think like him. His clarity I have not seen in an Indian batsman.” Laxman: “There is no muscle in the art of VVS, no malice, no meanness. Strip away the context...strip it down to a man and a stick and nothing more and the art of VVS barely resonates any less.”)
Pundits is a thoroughly enjoyable read, even if you aren’t that interested in the sport (you can always skip the few pages that get too cricket-heavy). It’s also a reminder to those of us who bewail falling standards in cricket writing that top-notch cricket literature doesn’t have to be obviously flamboyant or stylish. Bhattacharya does have style and wit (don’t miss his description of Ganguly and Dravid’s running between the wickets as “magnets configured to always face each other the wrong way”) but what he has in greater measure is passion, and a gift for observation. Though he doesn’t flinch from recording the unsavoury, he has the ability - rare in both cricket writers and in political commentators - to see the good in most things, both on and off the cricket field, so that he can say, at journey’s end, “for six weeks I had been made to feel special and that would now go away”. This doesn’t come from blind idealism, it comes from open-mindedness. It’s what makes this book.
In his prologue, the author contrasts George Orwell’s cynical view of organised sport (“mimic warfare”, leading to “orgies of hate”) with C L R James’ belief that it can broaden the mind. Bhattacharya’s own book is a joyful vindication of the Jamesian stance.