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Britain's day out in Bengal

Boris big with bat & words

By Subhankar Chowdhury, Rith Basu & Debraj Mitra
  • Published 20.01.17
All in a day’s work: pull, politics & presidency
Boris Johnson responds to questions from participants at the International University Students Parliament, presented by the Calcutta Debating Circle, in association with The Telegraph, at Derozio Hall, Presidency University on Thursday. Picture by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya 

Jan. 19: Cricket, debate and Boris Johnson go back a long way.

A cricket match that the secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in the UK had organised in his country home after the Brexit vote so miffed his former aide, Michael Gove, that he was convinced Johnson was not serious about leading the country.

Debate is a familiar pitch too. As a student at Balliol College, Johnson had been president of the Oxford Union in 1986.

In the few hours that he spent in Calcutta today, Johnson found time to face a few balls at former Test player Arun Lal's cricket camp and participate in a debate at Presidency University. He was a runaway hit at both the places.

In between, he met chief minister Mamata Banerjee at Nabanna. "We discussed areas such as education, health and industry," Johnson said on his way out of the state secretariat.

Metro tracked the Brexit man with the blonde mop during his sojourn in the city.

The cricketer

A bottom-handed grip and a reasonably high backlift - Johnson wasn't quite copybook at the nets during his visit to the Arun Lal Bournvita Cricket Academy. He heaved a couple on the leg side before being bowled off the third delivery. Undaunted, he continued batting till he had played a few decent shots.

In his interaction with the trainees, Virat Kohli became the topic of discussion when young Nivedit Singh asked: "Do you like Virat Kohli?"

"Yes, I do. I think he is a very talented cricketer," Johnson responded.

"But he got dismissed cheaply today (in the Cuttack ODI)," quipped Arun Lal. "Oh! That's wonderful!" said Johnson, quite the English fan.

Boris Johnson prepares to play a pull at the Arun Lal Bournvita Cricket Academy. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

The cyclist

Johnson offered a suggestion to chief minister Mamata: have more cycles on the streets of Calcutta. "One thing that I did suggest - I don't know whether she did like it - is that she should introduce separate cycle lanes on the main road as well. I am myself a passionate cyclist," he said while interacting with students of Presidency University at Derozio Hall on the College Street campus.

One of the moderators had read out a question by an undergraduate student, who wanted to know if Johnson had any suggestion for the city on the lines of what he had done in London as mayor.

During his stint as mayor, Johnson had initiated measures to encourage urban biking as a "sensible" mode of transport. He even introduced a cycle-hire programme called "Boris Bikes" in 2010.

UK’s secretary of foreign and Commonwealth affairs Boris Johnson with chief minister Mamata Banerjee at Nabanna on Thursday

Brexit champ

A debater at Presidency asked Johnson how realistic his vision of the UK as a higher education destination was in the post-Brexit environment. He was caught off guard, but said the UK was still open to talent and would remain so.

The bouncer came minutes after Johnson had spoken about his vision of a higher education bridge between India and the UK. Shrishti, a Cambridge student and one of the speakers, spoke about "pre-emptive criminalisation" in the garb of increasingly harsh visa penalties and work restrictions.

As the audience cheered, Johnson the consummate orator paused to think for the first time. He ran his hands through his blonde mop. He acknowledged that someone had told him before coming to Calcutta that "this is a live issue here".

Johnson sought to convince the audience that policymakers in the UK knew they must "remain open to talent". He said the student applications from India did go through a "flat period", but now "they are back up".

The Presidency fan

The proud Oxonian - he mentioned his alma mater more than once during the programme - called Presidency "an astonishing university". At Derozio Hall, he said: "Presidency over the years has produced distinguished alumni. Satyajit Ray, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose - a tall order. Amartya Sen, one of the cleverest men on the planet."

The hall broke into rapturous applause.

Johnson recalled that as an undergraduate student at Oxford, he had the pleasure of reading books by Nobel laureate Sen, who until 2004 was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Additional reporting by Meghdeep Bhattacharyya