Shadows Across the Playing Field: 60 Years of India-Pakistan Cricket by Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan

Shadows Across the Playing Field: 60 Years of India-Pakistan Cricket by Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan

Shadows Across the Playing Field: 60 Years of India-Pakistan Cricket – Two political diplomats and administrators of the game, one Indian and the other Pakistani, compare perspectives on the cricketing relations between the two countries, reviewed by Kamran Abbasi

Kamran Abbasi reviews:

Shadows Across the Playing Field: 60 Years of India-Pakistan Cricket by Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan (Roli Books, hb 189pp)

Sport used to ease conflict, restore trust and open dialogue between fractious neighbours. Friendship between nations, though, has been rare and discord common. Cricket has been an instrument of conciliation but it is an equally potent weapon of separation, teaching the other combatant a lesson. We are living through one such period, in which the Mumbai attacks have persuaded India to break off bilateral cricket ties with Pakistan and exclude its players from the Indian Premier League.

Emotions run deep and erupt frequently. Each view has an opposing one, backed by many millions of voices. Each cataclysmic moment in the cricket relations between the two countries has a diametrically opposed interpretation. Increasingly, though, sensible voices from either side of the divide search for common ground as befits a common heritage, culture and spoken language.

It is into this generally unforgiving territory that Shashi Tharoor and Shaharyar Khan have made a fearless advance, trading perspectives on the cricket relations between the two countries. This pair of essays is a noble concept, most fascinating for recollections on the game in pre-partition India and the early days of the cricket world’s biggest rivalry.

Tharoor is an Indian and a career bureaucrat turned politician. He has represented India at the United Nations and served as an under-secretary general to Kofi Annan. He recently resigned his post as an Indian minister due to a conflict of interest over a new IPL franchise. He loves cricket and is hooked on the romantic notion of a combined India-Pakistan team, an irresistible force the world saw only once when the two countries demonstrated their solidarity with Sri Lanka, engulfed by civil war, at the start of the 1996 World Cup.

Tharoor sees Pakistan as a mistake and wishes the whole region was the secular nirvana of Nehru’s dreams. This perspective colours his analysis of cricket relations between the countries. But he clearly feels pain and his discomfort is not malicious, simply prolonged.

He begins well with his views on cricket in pre-partition India, an enthralling realm of symbolic matches between Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and Europeans, otherwise known as the Bombay Quadrangular. It became the Pentangular when the Rest, mainly Christians, entered the fray. Unlike Khan, Tharoor does not see these encounters as the natural predecessors to the contests between India and Pakistan; India is secular, so how could they be?

Tharoor’s reflections and analyses will be hard to digest for many readers on both sides of the Radcliffe Line but they are compelling, a perspective worth engaging with despite disagreement. He is a secular romanticist not a rabid nationalist. Had Tharoor stuck to analysis, his essay might have become a memorable one. But for some reason – probably a bureaucrat’s obsession – he feels compelled to document the key points from every single Indo-Pak series ever played. More is the pity for, despite this descent into tedium, Tharoor’s essay is the more meaningful contribution of the two.

Khan is the son of a princess of Bhopal and a career diplomat. He loves cricket and he loves Pakistan. He managed Pakistan on the sensitive and successful 1999 tour of India and is a former chairman of the board. He has first-hand experience of the machinations of Pakistan cricket as well as the pre-partition days in India. Yet his essay is a disappointment for the details he has chosen to lock away in his head. Indeed, it is a triumph of diplomacy: many decent words adding up to not very much.


Kamran Abbasi is editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and writes on cricket for