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PLAYING ON A DIFFICULT PITCH

Cricket cauldron: The turbulent politics of sport in Pakistan By Shaharyar M. Khan and Ali Khan, Harper, Rs 699

It does not require a distinguished diplomat and able raconteur to team up with an anthropologist to enquire whether sport, in this instance cricket, “is reflective of society”. Other notable commentators — C.L.R. James, Ramachandra Guha, Derek Birley — have recognized and comprehensively established cricket’s umbilical cord with society, history, politics, popular culture and inequality. But what makes Cricket Cauldron enjoyable is the manner in which Shaharyar Khan, with able assistance from his academic son, dispels certain ideas that have been long accepted about cricket in Pakistan. The years spent as a former chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board helped Khan gain unprecedented insights into how cricket functions in that country. Blood ties — Khan is related to the Pataudis — too, have fashioned his understanding of cricket. Khan deftly combines his experience as a top administrator with his love for cricket to not just present illuminating hypotheses but also analyse, among other things, the role played by cricket in Pakistan, the challenges confronting the game and their possible resolutions, as well as murky episodes that have tarnished Pakistani cricket in the eyes of the world.

How does the reader gain from Khan’s inferences? The opening chapter provides a perfect example of some of the ironies that Khan retrieves from cricketing annals. Those with a serious interest in subcontinental cricket are familiar with the Bombay Pentangular, an annual tournament in pre-Independent India supported by such princely patrons as Gwalior, Patiala, Mysore, Bhopal, Dungarpur, Pataudi, to name a few. The tournament witnessed fiercely competitive contests among teams that were selected on strictly sectarian lines. Nationalist historians have glorified the Pentangular as a platform on which the colony turned the tables on its imperial master because famed British teams were regularly drubbed by their Hindu, Muslim and Parsi rivals. Between 1934 and 1945, in spite of the Congress’s spirited opposition to the Pentangular, 11 editions of the tournament were held without a single incident of the partisan crowds turning violent. The irony is fairly discernible. Cricket, today, is touted as a potion to unite a fragmented nation by its corporate benefactors in both Pakistan and India. But it had, in fact, been transformed into a mass sport on account of its communal underpinnings. Yet, the Pentangular, while holding up a mirror to existing religious divisions, remained curiously immune to violence because of sport’s unique ability to bridge chasms. What worries Khan, legitimately, is the fact that the modern game has been singed on several occasions: Shiv Sainiks have routinely vandalized cricket pitches to protest against the visitors from across the border. This can only point to a steady weakening of the secular fabric that is reflected in subcontinental society and sport.

Khan’s references to the Pentangular are significant because of two other legacies. The Pentangular, given the support of regional satraps, unknowingly experimented with the idea of exploiting provincial sentiments to achieve popularity. In this respect, it was not very different from the Indian Premier League, which, too, thrives on the notion of regional rivalry. The success of the Pentangular then and the IPL now will make readers in India and Pakistan — two nations struggling to contain secessionist movements — ponder the fragility of the idea of the nation. The Pentangular also revealed the hold of commerce on the game. One of the reasons behind the Hindu players, including C.K. Nayudu and Vijay Merchant, opposing the boycott call from the Congress was that the Pentangular provided a steady source of income for players and organizers.

Khan is equally competent while dealing with some of the vexing questions that plague contemporary cricket, especially in Pakistan. For instance, much is being said, and done, to democratize cricket. But the agencies tasked with executing this noble task are far from democratic. The PCB is usually headed by puppets nominated by their respective Patrons. (Khan, a rare civilian to hold the post of PCB chairman, describes his own appointment by Pervez Musharraf as a “sop to public opinion”.) But he argues that democratization is fraught with its own perils. The PCB’s metamorphosis into an inclusive and representative organ would risk opening its doors to corrupt politicians. Indian readers, used to the antics of BCCI officials, would agree with Khan wholeheartedly.

Illiteracy, poverty, religious conservatism, terrorism — the forces that need to be quelled for cricket to survive in Pakistan — have been closely examined by Khan in the light of such controversial episodes as the ignominious Oval Test, the spot-fixing scandal and Bob Woolmer’s death. What differentiates Khan from lay observers is his ability to understand how each of these factors has combined to vitiate the environment, thereby jeopardizing promising careers.

It is good to see that Khan’s sense of humour has survived the trying years. Among other anecdotes, he cites one involving ‘Gussy’ Hyder, a polo player nominated manager on the English tour of 1962, who startled the British press by answering their questions in Polo terminology.