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Over the boundary

Two ex-diplomats on the most raucous subcontinental engagement of them all: Indo-Pak cricket, writes Ashok Malik.

books Updated: Aug 07, 2009 23:38 IST
Ashok Malik

Shadows Across the Playing Field
Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan
Roli
# Rs 295 # pp 208

Most India-Pakistan jugalbandi books end up resembling mirror images talking to each other. Shadows across the Playing Field almost falls into the same trap. At the penultimate moment, it withdraws its bat and lets the ball pass to the wicketkeeper.

Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan both have degrees from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Diplomacy. In terms of their engagement with cricket, however, they are far apart.

Tharoor is the ordinary fan. As he eloquently puts it, “I am not an ‘insider’; I count no cricketers amongst my close friends. Mine is, instead, the account of a keen observer, a lover of the game who has followed it from afar, often while living in non-cricketing nations, his enthusiasm sharpened by the keen edge of deprivation.” Tharoor brings to the book — as he does perhaps to the Indian Foreign Office — the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the bluff amateur.

Khan, on the other hand, is the consummate insider, the archetypal establishment figure. A former Pakistani foreign secretary, he moved effortlessly into cricket administration. He was in the cockpit during two landmark series.

In 1999, Khan was the manager of the team that defeated the hosts in a thrilling Test in Chennai and yet received a standing ovation. In 2004, Khan was chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board and put together the happiest series of all — the rousing Indian tour of Pakistan. Khan doesn’t know just cricketers, he knows everyone. Grandchild of the Bhopal royals, he is a first cousin of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. In the book, he talks of how the Pakistani cricket authorities responded to their ally Jagmohan Dalmiya losing his influence in India. There is a delightful section on how Dina Wadia (M.A. Jinnah’s daughter) and Gayatri Devi became cricket tourists in 2004.

The two men weave similar sensibilities into different essays. Tharoor marries a straightforward account of cricket encounters from 1952 onwards with nostalgia and self-propelled social theories. He sees the cricket cultures of the two countries as representing their ideas of nationhood.

The India XI, he argues, is a reflection of “the pluralist palimpsest of Indianness” and a manifestation of Nehruvian secularism. Tharoor is particularly taken up by the 2008 Indian Premier League, with “Indian crowds put[ting] national chauvinism aside in the interests of backing their mongrel city teams”, and throngs at the Eden Gardens exhorting Shoaib Akthar to dismiss Virendra Sehwag. To him, this evokes a time when “few saw religion as the primary determinant of their loyalties”, like “the great revolt of 1857”.

Khan is more down-to-earth. He writes with humour of the Pentangular and its denominational teams, and with feeling of the vestigial Hindu influence on post-1947 Pakistani cricket: “After Partition, Naoomal Jeoomal [who opened for India at Lord’s in 1932] stayed on in Karachi… I remember playing club cricket in Karachi as a young student with the immensely popular and genial Naoomal umpiring and giving coaching tips to all and sundry.”

Khan’s most revealing stories concern cricket administration. He gives away a secret: India and Pakistan only agreed to the first T20 world cup because it was being played in South Africa, and the South African vote was crucial if the subcontinent was to win the rights to the 2011 F50 world cup.

Khan leaves us with a tantalising if unsaid message. More than his co-author’s romanticism, it is the willingness and ability of Pakistan to develop a stake in the larger Indian economy that will determine the future of South Asia. Can the business of cricket be the template for the enterprise of peace?

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer