Review: 'Pundits From Pakistan' and 'Brave New Pitch'

Main ne maana ki kuchh nahin Ghalib
Muft haat aye to bura kya hai?

In these darkest of days for Indian cricket fans, I had the pleasure of reading two outstanding books about Indian cricket. Pundits From Pakistan, by Rahul Bhattacharya (Pan Macmillan, 2005, 352 pages), is older than the date suggests. The other – Samir Chopra’s Brave New Pitch (Harper Collins, 2012, 224 pages) – is very contemporary indeed. That time-lag between the two publications is actually very apt, because Pundits From Pakistan  was written when Indian cricket was soaring. India had beaten England in England, Australia at home, tied Australia in Australia, and then beaten Pakistan in Pakistan. Chopra’s book, on the other hand, has come after an altogether pyrrhic World Cup victory, in the midst of the dead embers of Test cricket in India. The two books are, in that sense, eloquent bookends.

These are very different volumes, and Bhattacharya’s book fits more easily into the template of ‘good cricket literature.’ The writing is clunky in places, but there is nevertheless a touch of Cardus in how the author imagines the game: that unmistakable touch of nostalgia, in which even the present comes to be seen through a sepia curtain of late-afternoon sunshine, or filtered through the crackle of the radio on a cold winter morning. Without that nostalgia, that slight confusion between being awake and dreaming, cricket would not be worth following or even playing.

The trick, when writing in that spirit, is to avoid slipping into the maudlin even as the writer teeters on the edge of sentimentality. Bhattacharya pulls it off. He knows that he is writing at a peculiar moment in the history of Indian cricket: the near-miraculous convergence of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Ganguly, Sehwag, Kumble and Harbhajan, the dizzying promise of Irfan Pathan, the presence of a talented and nearly inexhaustible supporting cast in Zaheer, Balaji, Nehra, Agarkar, Shiv Sundar Das, Wasim Jaffer and Mohammed Kaif. He knows that Ganguly’s captaincy and John Wright’s coaching has added something unprecedented to the mix: a magic cocktail of swagger, cool-headedness and professionalism. And he knows that it will not last forever. He is out, therefore, to relish the meal while it lasts. In the process, he treats the reader to the high drama of the matches as well as the throwaway details of a great team on tour: the small encounters in the hotel lobbies and dressing rooms.

The other star of Bhattacharya’s narrative is Pakistan. Bhattacharya is quite aware that he is writing about a team that has lost its superstars: this is Pakistan without Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, to say nothing of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Zaheer Abbas. He compensates by giving us intimate portraits of ‘lesser’ players like Mohammed Sami and Danish Kaneria, and a grand little epic of Inzamam-ul-Haq, who sinks slowly over the course of the series like the Titanic after a collision with a floating mountain of halwa. Bhattacharya’s admiration and affection for the Pakistan captain are palpable. But just as importantly, the retired stars – the Javeds and Imrans – keep intruding into the pages, hotel lobbies and interviews. They are gone and have never gone away: in the best traditions of cricket, the past hovers over the present like a stubborn ghost, imparting continuity between childhood and middle age, supplying that old crackling-radio feeling.

Then there is Pakistan the country, beyond the dressing room. Here, we find another flowering of the stubbornly Romantic nature of cricket writing. Those who follow the sport know that within the small world of Test-level competition, some relationships and rivalries matter more than others. The Ashes, for instance, have taken on a distinctly racial significance: whenever England play Australia, their journalists, fans, players and administrators behave as if they are engaged in a holy and altogether superior ritual, floating high above the world of bloody natives. (The spectacles of Jardine-as-Dracula and Larwood-battering-Woodfull have been replaced entirely by the image of Flintoff making out with Brett Lee.) The India-Pakistan cricket relationship is more fraught, being subject to the actual hostility between the two countries, frequently interrupted sporting ties, the fulminations of Maharashtrian fascists and a beheading or two. It has, nevertheless, its own tragic intimacy, at the heart of which is the opportunity to cross the barbed-wire fence and discover a lost home and a lost half on the other side. Bhattacharya describes banners reading “One Blood” being held up by the crowd. He reminds us of the stitched-together flags and the faces painted in the colors of both countries. In the narratives of spontaneous hospitality and late-night feasts in the bazaars of Lahore, the stories of visas granted and denied, there is the Romantic longing for wholeness that is at the very heart of modern Indian and Pakistani identity; it is more meaningful than victory or defeat in cricket but is, of course, more enjoyable when you win.

This brings me to Samir Chopra’s book, which comes at a time when the victories have not only dried up, but quite possibly become extinct. Fittingly, then, whereas Bhattacharya speaks to the fan in a poetry of sorts, Chopra delivers a cold blast of prose in an age when considerations of blood and bootleg Scotch have been overshadowed entirely by dollars and cents. Less than a decade separates the two books and situations, but Brave New Pitch comes to us in the era of the Indian Premier League. It is largely about the IPL and the giant shadow it has cast upon the game. When Chopra began writing the book, the IPL had taken shape but Indian cricket had not yet gone to pieces. When he made the final revisions, he had to account for that sequence of eight defeats in a row against England and Australia. To his credit, he wove that disaster adroitly into his analysis. But his book also makes clear that there is no longer room in Indian cricket for romance of the Cardus-meets-Ghalib variety.

Coming between the starting and the finishing of the book, the Indian disasters in England and Australia (and since then, at home) have divided Brave New Pitch into two major themes. One is an issue that has been a part of cricket since the nineteenth century: fair compensation for players. Even more powerfully than Packer and World Series Cricket, the IPL has brought this issue to the forefront, by generating a conflict between the club that pays extremely well and the country that makes moral demands upon the loyalty and identity of the individual cricketer. There is no need to go into the details of the conflict here, but it must be pointed out that fans and cricket journalists – those that have not been bought off by the BCCI, at any rate – have not always been kind to players who have refused to ignore the money on offer at the IPL. Chopra, however, is unequivocal in his sympathy for the players, who are, he points out, entitled to the same financial security that other professionals and workers expect for themselves. In fact, one of the great strengths of the book is that it looks at the current tensions within Indian and world cricket through a clear, historical lens of labor relations. Chopra’s knowledge of the economics of American professional sports comes in very handy here, providing his analysis with an easy cosmopolitanism that is rare in the insular worlds of sports history.

The other main theme of Brave New Pitch – the undeniable damage done by the IPL to the quality and international competitiveness of Indian cricket – is somewhat at odds with the author’s inclination to see the IPL as a good thing for Indian cricketers. That, however, is not so much an inconsistency in the analysis as a reflection of the twisted and unresolved situation within the administration of the sport in India (and to some extent, the world). Chopra is aware that the initial hopes – which he shared – that the IPL could be accommodated into a reasonable calendar of international cricket, while generating money, security, entertainment and a higher standard of play, have not worked out. He insightfully explains why this has been the case: the naked conflicts of interest between the ownership of IPL teams and the management of the BCCI (which are often in the hands of the same people), and the growth of what he calls India's ‘gold-rush economy,’ in which the primary impulse of entrepreneur-administrators is to utilize new money-making opportunities to get very rich very quickly, with minimal regulation, oversight or judicial intervention. He acknowledges that the changed demographics of the Indian crowd have partially vacated the old Romantic mansion of cricket, but points out that even the post-Romantic IPL-era crowd has been shortchanged by the mafia of cricket bosses and corporate bean-counters.

Like other thoughtful commentators on Indian cricket, Chopra has very good ideas about ‘what needs to be done’: changes in the structure of domestic First Class cricket, infrastructural and professional support for the game at the local level, adjustments in the format of Test and one-day cricket, and so on. One may or may not agree with the particular suggestions he makes. What is more pertinent is the author’s perceptible pessimism about whether sensible reforms, transparency and accountability can be implemented in the current economic and bureaucratic environment. The game has passed from the hands of players and dreamers – however tenuous their grasp may have been in the past – and now resides entirely with those who are determined to suck it dry until it is dead, and then move on.

No review is complete without some nitpicking, and I do have a nit to pick: Chopra wastes far too much printer’s ink on the issue of popularizing cricket beyond its historical base in the Commonwealth countries. This has recently been a favorite pipedream of cricket writers as well as a pet project of the ICC. Planning for the return of cricket to America, beyond the enclaves of Commonwealth expats, is not a serious use of anybody’s time. Nor, one might add, is it important that the ‘average American’ in Philadelphia and elsewhere play cricket. All sports are played in specific historical contexts, and cricket has its own context and its geography. The fantasy of expansion is unnecessary, especially when there are real problems to address.

All things considered, however, Chopra has written one of the most thought-provoking and knowledgeable cricket books to be published in recent years. He writes with a keen sense of history: not just the history of the game, but that of the world in which the game is played. That alone places him head and shoulders above most other contemporary cricket writers: above, for instance, Gideon Haigh, who writes with an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport but little sensitivity to the political and social realities that motivate those who follow the game. In having an ‘ear’ for these realities, Chopra is not so far removed from Bhattacharya, in spite of the prosaic tone of his writing.

February 5, 2013