October Issue 2009

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Sports | Published 11 years ago

Only someone with a heightened sense of irony would subtitle a book 60 Years of India-Pakistan Cricket. Since partition, the two countries have done a lot of fighting, arguing and finger-pointing but have played precious little cricket. Apart from short bursts of activity during times of peace, when India and Pakistan try to cram in a series every year, mutual suspicion and political differences have tended to come in the way of sporting relations.

For a project on the history of Indo-Pak cricket, however, you can’t get two people more qualified to deal with the controversies that have plagued the unfriendly neighbours than Shashi Tharoor and Shahryar Khan. Credentialed liberals both, Tharoor is the current external affairs minister for India and a former UN deputy secretary-general, while Shaharyar Khan is a diplomat who was also chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board. Given their passion for cricket, which becomes apparent in the book, it is somewhat surprising then that both writers are unable to overcome the nationalist tendencies that have derailed cricketing relations between India and Pakistan.

The book’s greatest weakness is that it is divided into two sections, one written by Tharoor and the other by Khan, with seemingly no communication between the authors. As a result, there is a great deal of repetition, with the same events detailed twice.

But this approach, in certain instances, also provides some interesting insight into the mindsets of Tharoor and Khan. When discussing an injury sustained by Hanif Mohammed while he was on tour in India, Tharoor says that the Little Master’s finger was cut after he shook hands with a spectator “wearing a sharp ring.” Khan has a different take on the matter. He insists that the spectators’ motives were less than pure. According to him, the spectator “lacerated his [Hanif Mohammed’s] middle finger with a sharp instrument — probably a razor blade — that he had hidden in the palm of his hand.”

In other instances too, nationalist fervour seems to come in the way of good judgement. When discussing the pressures minorities face in both teams, Tharoor maintains that the situation is far worse for those in the Pakistan team. He maintains that Yousuf Youhana, even after converting to Islam and becoming Mohammed Yousuf, wasn’t given a long run as captain because of religion, an assertion that cannot be backed up with evidence. Khan, predictably, frames the issue in a different manner. He believes that it is to Pakistan’s credit that they immediately replaced Yousuf as captain with Younus Khan despite Yousuf having converted to Islam. For Khan, this is proof that such matters are decided on merit, not religion, and that minorities in the Indian team face far more pressure than those who play for Pakistan.

Nationalism, and suspicion of the other country, colour seemingly every chapter of the book. When discussing the 1960 Pakistan tour to India, Tharoor suffers a lapse of logic in his analysis of the situation that arose concerning Abbas Ali Baig, the only Muslim in the Indian team. Baig had a very poor series and was accused by many Indians of throwing his wicket away because he secretly wanted Pakistan to win. Somehow, Tharoor makes this out to be Pakistan’s fault. He says, “Many thoughtful Indians lamented the whisper campaign against him; but with Pakistan overtly identifying its cricketing fortunes with Islamic pride, the lot of a Muslim player on the other side, just thirteen years after Partition, had become invidious indeed.” It takes a great leap of logic to blame Pakistan for a situation that involved an Indian cricketer and the Indian public.

Tharoor’s analysis of India’s 1989/90 tour of Pakistan is similarly flawed. The series was a major letdown with the teams content to play out one draw after the other on flat, benign pitches, as they had done through much of the 1970s. Earlier in the book, Tharoor had incisively analysed why both Pakistan and India were so afraid to go for victory. In his interpretation, given the political tensions between the two countries, too much was at stake for captains and players, who would certainly be sacked if their team lost, that this negativity seeped into the performances. With the Indian and Pakistanis battling over Siachen at the time, it is not too much of a stretch to use this same analysis to explain the torpor of the cricket in the series. But Tharoor sees it differently. He blames Zia-ul-Haq, who had died the previous year, for the dullness of the cricket. Zia, according to him, through his policy of Islamisation had drained all colour and life out of Pakistan and this seeped through to affect the cricket.

In fact, Tharoor sees a conspiracy at every turn. When talking about the regular ODI matches Pakistan and India played at Sharjah, it is not explanation enough for Tharoor that the Pakistani team was superior to India. He casts a wide net trying to explain away India’s poor performances. Among his excuses are the malign presence of Dawood Ibrahim at the matches, the two-hour prayer break on Friday that he believes invigorated the Pakistan team and the neutral umpires who were supposedly not as neutral as Tharoor would have liked.

All that said, Tharoor does have a genuine love of cricket and, on occasion, he does criticise his own side for its shortcomings. He is absolutely opposed to the Shiv Sena and decries their thuggish tactics. He also goes after crowds in Calcutta that are more concerned with their team winning than celebrating the quality of play on offer.

Of the two sections, Khan’s is more interesting, primarily because he was intimately involved in Pakistani cricketing affairs at the start of the 21st century. Thus, he is able to provide intimate details of the negotiations and behind-the-scene activities that led to a resumption of cricket ties between the two countries. He reveals many interesting anecdotes, among them the resolution of a potential controversy that arose when the Indian government decided that the Dalai Lama would attend a match and bless both teams. Khan, ever the canny diplomat, realised that this would not be acceptable to Pakistan’s staunch ally, China. So he was able, in his negotiations with the Indians, to ensure that the Dalai Lama was kept away from the match.

Although always fascinating, Khan’s accounts are also a touch self-serving, always seeking to put himself in the centre of every controversy, with him the hero who saves the day. This happens time and again, such as when he personally ensured that India would play in Karachi in 2004. If Khan is to be believed, then he is also the man most responsible for the World Cup being held in the subcontinent in 2011. The Indian board, meanwhile, is portrayed as a bunch of ideologues and he gives the impression that chairman Sharad Pawar was only moderated thanks to Khan’s influence.

There is no doubt that the history of Indo-Pak cricket is a fertile field, where sports and politics co-mingle, and there is a great need for an authoritative book on this topic. Shadows Across the Playing Field, unfortunately, will not be the final word on the subject.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.