Books – recent titles reviewed

India-Pakistan cricket isn’t war by other means – it’s much more important 

The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India

James Astill, Wisden Sports Writing, (Bloomsbury), 2013, 293pp, ISBN 978-1408156926 

Cricket Cauldron: The Turbulent Politics of Sport in Pakistan

Shaharyar M. Khan & Ali Khan, I. B. Tauris, 2013, 300pp, ISBN 978-780760834 

When discussing cricket matches between India and Pakistan, one should make it clear right at the outset that these contests are not substitutes for war – and there have been a few between the two Commonwealth neighbours. 

They are far more important. 

So much is clear from James Astill’s book on India and Shaharyar Khan’s on Pakistan. As to why, the simple answer is that the results affect the national mood in India and in Pakistan like nothing else. The people are ‘cricket crazy’. Another cliché is that ‘cricket is a religion in India’, with the great Sachin Tendulkar almost worshipped as a god. 

These two engrossing books provide an insight into why encounters between these two historic rivals are more dramatic than anything witnessed either at Lord’s or the Oval, even during an Ashes series between England and Australia. 

Pakistan, an Islamic state carved out of India in 1947, has a population of 182 million. India, a secular republic, has nearly as many Muslims in a population of 1.2 billion. Occasionally, Muslims who play for India – Ghulam Ahmed, the Nawab of Pataudi and Mohammed Azharuddin, have been captains – have been subjected to the subcontinental equivalent of the ‘(Norman) Tebbit test’ for loyalty in Britain. 

These books are gripping enough for anyone who likes cricket. But they are not only about cricket and crammed with statistics and who scored the runs or took the wickets. Instead, Astill and Shaharyar have attempted something a lot more ambitious – and, on the whole, it comes off. Shaharyar puts it better when he says he has “written about Pakistan through the prism of cricket”. Astill has written about the new India using cricket as the vehicle. 

It is quite a coincidence that both books have the word “turbulent” in the title: Astill’s is called The Great Tamasha:

Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India. Shaharyar, who has written the book with his son, anthropologist Ali Khan, both father and son were educated at Cambridge – has called his book, Cricket Cauldron: The Turbulent Politics of Sports in Pakistan. Astill is in the fine tradition of English foreign correspondents who make it a point to travel to remote places, see things for themselves and personally interview the characters about whom they write. Astill, currently political editor of The Economist, was his magazine’s South-East Asia bureau chief based in the Indian capital, Delhi, from 2007-10. For ten years he has also been going to Pakistan, his “favourite country”. 

“Cricket, the shared inheritance of the British Commonwealth, is how I have got closest to India,” he confides. But Indian readers had better be warned that when an Englishman professes love for India, he can be relied upon to put a polished brogue in. 

Meanwhile, at the age of 79, Shaharyar, who has been at the centre of events in Pakistan, didn’t need to do any interviewing. An urbane diplomat, who was born into the Bhopal royal family in pre-partition India, he has served as Pakistan’s Ambassador in Jordan and France and High Commissioner in London and been his country’s Foreign Secretary. He was recently appointed special peace envoy to India by Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister. 

In 2003, General Pervez Musharraf, the country’s military ruler, asked Shaharyar to become chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board and then relieved him of the post in 2006. 

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, a legend because Pakistan won a World Cup under his captaincy in 1992, sums up the ethos of the book by writing in the introduction: “For me, the story of Pakistan cricket and the story of Pakistan today are one and the same – it is a story of unfulfilled promise… what ails Pakistan cricket in specific terms ails Pakistan generally… lack of accountability, corruption, dishonesty, a broken education system.” 

Shaharyar provides a gripping insider’s account of the poisonous ball-tampering row at the Oval cricket ground in August 2006, when the Pakistani captain Inzamam-ul-Haq refused to take the field after his side was accused (falsely) by the Australian umpire Darrell Hair of deliberately roughing up the ball to gain unfair advantage. The BBC or Channel 4 really should take Shaharyar’s blow-by-blow account and turn it into a 90-minute docudrama. 

We learn that Inzamam was a poorly educated, but devout, Muslim who was virtually a mullah with pads on. The patrician Shaharyar had to squat down on the carpet and join his hugely talented but uncouth ‘boys’ in their nightly namaz. Under Inzamam, the team had become prone to excessive ‘religiosity’ and fits of onfield praying. 

However, reading Shaharyar’s account of the Oval Test, when even Pakistan’s military ruler was sucked into the deliberations, the neutral reader can come to only one conclusion: the intransigent Hair was as much to blame. 

Shaharyar writes, too, of a worse crisis that broke in March 2007. The Pakistan team coach, Bob Woolmer, a former England player, was found dead in his hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica. There was lurid speculation he had been bumped off by a Pakistan player or players (using Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express collective responsibility principle) because he was about to blow the whistle on match-fixing by his own team. In reality the overweight Woolmer had a weak heart. 

The beauty of Astill’s elegantly written book is that the reader can dip into it on any page. It is full of richly entertaining anecdotes from his meeting with an illegal but garrulous bookie (who later apparently had his throat slit) to bedding down with easily made mates in the sprawling Dharavi slums in Mumbai. 

He sees the Indian Premier League, with its million dollar cricketers, Bollywood stars, scantily clad white cheerleaders waving pompoms and “venal” politicians and administrators as a metaphor for the dynamic and successful new India. 

His thesis, which is not altogether inaccurate, is that new money is corrupting the old more spiritual India. Astill would be the first to recognise India is like this. 

Test cricket is declining in India and the generation growing up now, who know nothing of the five-day game, are, for better or worse, besotted with the Indian Premier League. Meanwhile, next door, for all its ills, Pakistan is strangely continuing to produce some of the world’s most dazzling cricketers. As Shaharyar explains in Cricket Cauldron, this is due to “natural talent”. He also reveals that at a personal level Pakistani and Indian cricketers are the best of friends. 

Amit Roy is president of the Indian Journalists’ Association. He is the London correspondent of The Telegraph, India, and a columnist on Eastern Eye, UK


Drones: cutting-edge military technology or a cheap way to wage war?

The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam

Akbar Ahmed, Brookings Institution, Washington DC, 2013, 400pp, ISBN 978-0815723783 

If the cruise missile was the icon of late 20th-century war, the drone is surely its counterpart in the 21st. On the surface, it encapsulates the modern military trend toward remoteness, precision, sophistication and porousness of borders. 

Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani civil servant and academic, is interested in the seamier side of the technology. He views drones as little more than a weapon of convenience against what he calls, with infuriating generalisation, “Muslim tribal groups”. He includes in this category the “Pukhtun tribes of Afghanistan”, though the Afghan insurgency transcends the ethnic and tribal categories Ahmed tries to impose on it. 

Ahmed insists that drone operators are “ignoring the moral debate” and are instead “infatuated with the weapon and the sense of power it gives them”. 

Yet every first-hand account I have seen suggests that drones’ powerful sensors and their loiter time allows drone pilots to become more, not less, acquainted with the enemy, and for the grisly mechanics of a kill to be seen with greater clarity than would be the case for an F-16 pilot hurtling past their smouldering targets. The notion of remoteness as inhumanity is a bizarre one. Artillery is more remote than bullets, and bullets more than swords, yet who seriously thinks that these military advances should be reversed or abjured? 

In truth, the drone debate suffers from a serious conceptual confusion. Drone strikes are not some radically novel phenomenon made possible by pilotless aircraft. They represent just one more weapon in the arsenal of modern military equipment, sharing more similarities than differences to other weapons like cruise missiles. They rely on a sprawling apparatus of airbases, human spies and eavesdropping capability. In this sense, drones are a false icon. They give both their proponents and opponents an exaggerated sense of the cheapness and ease of waging war, and lead to a fixation on the weapon rather than the strategy which it serves. 

Despite some superficial analysis of drones as a weapon – Ahmed even gives credence to the tenuous idea of nuclear-powered drones – The Thistle and the Drone does look at the strategy. Ahmed frames US attacks on Al Qaeda and affiliated groups as efforts to “civilise” Muslim tribal groups on the periphery of their respective countries, with the effect of shattering already strained tribal structures. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, Ahmed’s long professional experience in one of those tribal areas – Pakistan’s Waziristan region – there is more than a little romanticisation of those tribes: he speaks fondly of “identities that are centuries old”, “an ancient code of honour”, a “love of freedom” and “egalitarianism”. These are terms one might expect of a 19th-century British gazette, but not a critical modern account. 

For Ahmed, US-backed central governments “bomb, kidnap, humiliate and rape tribal members at will”, and drones merely exacerbate this inequity. 

Others might suggest that this is a tendentious interpretation – that militant Islamists, especially the Taliban in Afghanistan, destroyed their own tribal structures before American intercession (see, for example, the work of LSE Professor Antonio Giustozzi); that drones are a response to, rather than cause of, militancy within Pakistan’s tribal regions; that the much-touted opposition to drones may be more widespread in Pakistan’s urban centres than in the targeted areas themselves (see research by Georgetown Professor Christine Fair); and so on. 

The Thistle and the Drone exemplifies a dangerously widening gulf between how the campaign formerly known as the War on Terror is viewed by practitioners – both Western and ‘local’ – as opposed to intellectuals, journalists and commentators. 

Practitioners increasingly acknowledge that drone strikes have been undertaken with poor intelligence, a lack of knowledge of local cultural conditions and without a broader political strategy – but they nevertheless see targeted killings as preferable to larger wars on the one hand. Nearly half of all casualties from Pakistani ground offensives are civilians, a far greater proportion than the drone equivalent. 

Ahmed’s erudite book will rouse the already-converted, those who are persuaded that war can never bring lasting peace, but it simply doesn’t engage its critics directly enough to change the minds of those on the other side of the debate. For those seeking a critical and engaged account of US counterterrorism, I would point them to the American journalist Jeremy Scahill’s long and richly detailed volume Dirty Wars. 

Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute


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