Cricket and pure champagne
Written with rare flair and a wonderful knowledge of the game, Rahul Bhattacharya's book is a display of high performance under pressure.
EXCITEMENT AND DOUBT: An Indo-Pak match is a high voltage affair. PHOTO: S. SUBRAMANIUM
WHEN the first one-day match between India and Pakistan was about to start in Karachi last year, there was a lot of excitement in the air. But it was excitement mixed with various kinds of doubt.
In his detailed, delightful report on the tour, Rahul Bhattacharya writes that the questions at the press conference before the match focused on this fact: "How much pressure is there (answer in Pascals please)? Is there more pressure than a usual India-Pakistan match? Is there more pressure because the one-dayers are before the Tests? Is there more pressure because the match is at Karachi? Is there leftover pressure from the 1999 series? Is there political pressure? Is there security pressure? Is there goodwill pressure? How to deal with such pressure? But, hang on, is pressure really a bad thing?"
Freedom from fear
The last question above could have come from Bhattacharya himself. It is also the only question to which the answer, if we take the example of his own book, is an unequivocal no. Whatever his subject, Bhattacharya's main move is to celebrate the triumph over anxiety. And this does not apply to cricket alone. Even when commenting on the relationship between India and Pakistan, and the doubts that had been raised prior to the tour, he asks: "How frozen could we remain by fear? Could we so easily stop playing? Could we so easily stop living?"
In a moment, I will tell you what such an approach makes possible in the portrayal of the players and the game that they play. Let me say a word first about Bhattacharya's language. His pen, like V.V.S. Laxman's bat, "describes curves where others make straight lines." There is such sweet timing in the delivery of his sentences. As a result, the writing seems to have shed all traces of awkwardness and found belief in freedom.
MATURE WRITING: Rahul Bhattacharya. PHOTO: K. MURALI KUMAR
Written with a rare flair and a wonderful knowledge of the game, Pundits from Pakistan is a display of high performance under pressure. Bhattacharya notes at one point that the two teams, recognising the demands of the one-day games, were "compelled to shed their inhibitions, and express themselves." The same is true of Bhattacharya himself. I expect the decision of the jury to be easily unanimous in this case. One half of the book is made up of cricket. The other half is pure champagne.
Here is Bhattacharya's description of someone else who appears to have bid goodbye to fear, Virender Sehwag. "`He was not in any way inhibited,' C.L.R. James has written of W.G. Grace. `What he lacked he would not need. All that he had he could use.' Sehwag never obstructs himself. All he has he uses. He has nothing of the image of the thinking cricketer. Secretly, everybody wishes they could think like him. His clarity I have not seen in an Indian batsman. Gavaskar, I imagine, must have had the same awesome quality."
There it is, in a nutshell.
I got in touch with Rahul Bhattacharya by e-mail and asked him to elaborate on that paragraph, which was a paean to the Indian opener's triple century in Multan. I had been struck by the maturity of those lines and their hard-edged beauty. I asked Bhattacharya to also explain the final sentence, which compared Sehwag to Gavaskar. I am quoting Bhattacharya's reply in full:
Pundits From Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04; Rahul Bhattacharya; Picador India, Rs. 275.
"A cricket writer once famously wrote of Sobers that nobody had ever seen him in obvious labour. The same could be said about Sehwag and doubt. I have rarely ever found him tentative at the crease. That he may play and miss is a different point. He doesn't get stuck in his own whirlpools, whether one considers the length of an innings or the span of a single delivery. In this he is different from all other members of the Indian line-up; only Dravid comes close, and he has worked hard on it. From what I have read and heard about Gavaskar, and the little I have seen, he had the same quality, expressed differently. Mukul Kesavan, for instance, has written about `the military snap with which he shouldered arms, both pads together, bat raised high. I can't recall him shaping to play and then withdrawing the bat...' Gavaskar has hit a Test century against the finest of the West Indian quartets in 94 balls faster, if I'm not mistaken, than any of Sehwag's first 100 runs. He has also batted for 60 overs of a one-day match for 36 runs. I imagine he was a batsman fully wedded to his purpose."
The reason, dear reader, Bhattacharya has seen so little of Gavaskar is that he is only 25 years old. This makes his achievement in this book all the more magnificent. When I began to exchange e-mail messages with Bhattacharya, I found out that he has lived most of his life in Bombay, in Churchgate. His father passed away about 10 years ago; the household is run by his mother. Bhattacharya has an elder sister, who is older to him by three years. When Bhattacharya was a student at St Xavier's College, he played in the cricket team as an all-rounder, bowling medium-pace and batting in different slots. Four years ago, when Wisden came to India, Bhattacharya joined them as a writer and editor.
Cricketers learn from older players, watching them play, and so I asked Bhattacharya to tell me how he writes. I wanted him to explain how Pundits in Pakistan was put together, so that other writers could learn from him. He wrote saying that he took notes during the matches because he was doing match reports for the Guardian. He also reviewed the games later by studying the ball-by-ball commentaries and the scorecards. Many of the details in his writing were culled from his notes as well as the match highlights pirated from Karachi. As to the actual writing, Bhattacharya summed it up with three words, "graft, graft, graft."
And below those words, he had added: "I find I have to work quite hard at composing sentences and paragraphs. A lot of my writing is full of dots and blanks or else words and lines that I know I will change, but it simply doesn't come so easily. So it's constantly going back to fill in, give body, and, then of course, fiddle.... By and large, it is always a matter of feeling the air before you, like a blind man, and then having got hold of something, going back again and grafting. Looking back now, the way this book was written was a right royal mess."
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