Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan – Peter Oborne

First a disclaimer. Just like me, most of you are probably Indians and cricket fans.  To appreciate this book fully, you will have to forget about the Indian part for a while and just be a true cricket fan.
For this book is about the history of cricket in Pakistan. Politically, they are our most bitter enemies. But their cricket is a thing of beauty, of raw talent and pure passion. With the decline of the West Indies, they are, quite unequivocally, to cricket, what Brazil are to football.
This book was destined to be a great one from the beginning.  It brings together a brilliant cricket writer and a fascinating subject, which surprisingly for cricket, was lacking in enough quality literature. Kind of reminds me of James Cameron and his story of the Titanic. You always knew that the movie was going to be something special. Like Cameron, Peter Oborne’s credentials are impeccable. His last cricket book told the amazing story of Basil D’Oliveira. It was well researched and a wonderful read, winning the prestigious William Hill Sports book of the year award in 2004.
Oborne’s has, to the great delight of every true cricket fan, delivered a great book. It provides everything that can be expected of such a book. There is very little that one can complain about.
It has a detailed chronological history, detailed portraits of the key characters, facts and anecdotes, a study of the game’s political, cultural, social and economic impact, mentions of all key events, an understanding of some unique traits and practises which make Pakistan cricket so special and finally a message of hope.  It even covers women’s cricket and the popularity and spread of the game in the Taliban ruled war zones.
Oborne’s research is thorough and the journey of Pakistan cricket is very well detailed. All the cricketing exploits are well chronicled. The book also covers cricket’s role in nation building and nationalism. How it put a young, fledgling country on the world map. And how it has always been inter-twined with power and politics. And all the madness that goes on.
The book is broadly divided into three parts. The first part is about its beginnings and early struggles and is centred on the era of AH Kardar, second only to Imran Khan in his contribution to Pakistan and Pakistan cricket. The second part covers the period in which Imran Khan strode like a colossus and the third one is about Pakistan post Imran. Oborne intelligently focusses all his energies on the first two parts. He is lavish in spending time on key characters like Imran, Kardar and Fazal Mehmood, notable events like the Umpire Baig fiasco and the military coups, major cricketing rivalries like Islamia and Government College and significant developments like county cricket and professional contracts which shaped the game in the country. This is perfect because this is the period about which most outside fans know very little.  We all know the corruption, infighting and match fixing laced part three and Oborne also seems to be in a hurry to run past these events.
Thanks to the millions of interviews with past players and administrators, Oborne also offers a wealth of anecdotes.  I was pleasantly surprised to read about AH Kardar’s role in uniting the Asian nations to break the white nations’ hegemony and his efforts in getting test status for Sri Lanka. He unearths some stories about Lala Amarnath which have never been talked about in India.
This book does a fine job in bringing out the beauty of Pakistan cricket and in the end you are besotted. The invention of the doosra and reverse swing, the romantic tradition of unknown players being put directly into the national side, its unique tape ball tournaments, the fascinating stories of the likes of Mushtaq Ahmed and Abdul Qadir, the extraordinary clan systems and the list goes on.
Oborne also writes about the resilience of cricket and the people who play it with passion all over the country. The game has survived everything and continues to spread and grow. It continues to give hope to its practitioners – an opportunity to rise above the troubles and shine in front of the world.
It is heartening to read about the spread of the game, even in the war zones.  Cricket is loved by both sides, who cooperate to organize twenty -20 matches as guns blaze and rockets fly. By the end of the book, as Oborne closes with a message of hope, you are converted into an admirer of Pakistan cricket. As a result it ends up doing a huge service to Pakistan cricket, which lacks enough friends and continues to struggle with matters beyond its control.
The book has some minor flaws. It meanders sometimes but more often than not Oborne recovers quickly. Sometimes the writing is biased, especially against India but I guess Oborne’s affection for Pakistan cricket just gets the better of him. There are a couple of factual errors but they are very trivial ones.
This book makes you wistful. You wish partition had never happened and we could have called these brilliant Pakistani cricketers our own. The combined talent pool would have created the most unstoppable force in world cricket.
This book is a 5 star one for me and a must read for every cricket fan. It makes you appreciate everything that Pakistan brings to cricket and how we can’t do without it.
Oborne’s book is heavy but you just can’t put it down.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Harold Larwood - Duncan Hamilton

This book won the William Hill Sports Book of Year in 2009 and is one of the worthiest winners of the award.
The Bodyline cricket series is remembered as the only aberration to the greatness and near immortality of Donald Bradman ostensibly brought about by unfair means of bodyline bowling. The culpable men – Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood.

Unfortunately for Harold Larwood, Bodyline is all most cricket fans associate him with and remember him for. Well not anymore. All thanks to his fellow Nottingham man, Duncan Hamilton.
In this meticulously researched and beautifully crafted book, Hamilton gives us a biography that a cricketer of Larwood’s stature truly deserves. Not only does he detail the pacer’s life before and after the cricket series, he also builds a convincing portrayal of what Bodyline truly was – a gladiatorial contest between a great batsman and a great fast bowler where the honours went to the latter. In doing so he debunks the commonly held belief that Jardine, Larwood and company used unfair means to stop the Don. The hero-villain depiction was also created because of what happened after the series – Bradman went on to become the greatest batman in the game while the English cricket mandarins did a quick about turn and banished Jardine and Larwood from the game, finding them guilty of tarnishing the game.

The passing years cemented this belief and the genuinely great quick bowling exploits of Larwood were lost and forgotten. Luckily, Larwood’s feats were recognized and applauded by most of the Aussies who played in the historic series. And that remains the greatest proof that Larwood was one of the greatest who delivered a performance for the ages.

The book traces Larwood’s journey from being a young Nottinghamshire miner to becoming the fastest and most feared bowler in the world, whose career and honour are ruined by injury, politics and an ungrateful cricket establishment, before he finds redemption and peace in Australia and amongst Aussies.

The book is full of wonderful anecdotes which make for fascinating reading.

 Duncan Hamilton is at times a little too sympathetic to Harold, but we can allow him a little leeway given that he is restoring the glory of a cricketer who got more than his fair share of bad luck.
He played a cerebral role in finding a chink in Bradman’s armour and creating a weapon to exploit it. This helps correct his historic portrayal as a dim lad who was Jardine’s lackey. The two shared a great relationship till the very end. Larwood had the highest regard for his captain and never blamed him for his miseries.

The two have never been given their due for being so far ahead of their time and doing something which has become an industry in itself today – detailed video analysis to study opponents and prepare for games.

One of the strengths of this book is Larwood’s detailed character sketch which paints Larwood as a proud and honourable man who always gave his best for king, captain and country in the most difficult circumstances. He was a principled man who refused to take the chance to resurrect his cricket career at the cost of his honour.

The study of Larwood’s post bodyline trauma is touching. He is completely overcome with a deep sense of extreme injustice and unable to come to terms with it. He shuns the world of cricket and is afraid of facing his past colleagues.    

His redemption is equally heart warming. He finds a new life in Australia and slowly reconnects with cricket and cricketers. The respect and admiration that he receives from his fellow cricketers does most of the healing.

Larwood was the worthiest adversary Bradman had and he was arguably the greatest fast bowler of his generation. In purely cricketing terms, he got the better of Bradman.  He stuck to his principals in spite of his hardships and will never get the recognition he deserved. Bradman got fame and used it to make money.  Duncan Hamilton has done his bit to make the long departed Larwood feel less aggrieved about life. He has done so by writing for Harold Larwood one of the greatest cricketing biographies if not the greatest cricket book of all time.  

Rating – This is a great book which deserves nothing less than five out of five.

Where you can buy – The hardcopy can be ordered from  It is fairly inexpensive.

Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer - David Winner

First a list of all the things this book is not about

This won’t give you all the records and statistics of Dutch football.

Doesn’t have a chronological history of the game in the country. Doesn’t talk in detail about all their great players, great matches or great clubs. To sum it up, this book isn’t the best preparatory material for a quiz on Dutch football. You might even end up in last place.

In that sense, it is quite unlike most of the books written about a country or a club’s football history and culture. In fact, the writer often goes on for pages without even talking about football, forget Dutch football. And yet, it is in my humble opinion ( as well as that of most people who write reviews on and quite easily the best book on Dutch football.

Because David Winner’s book deals with something much more profound and goes much deeper in its investigation.

It talks about the mental makeup of the Dutch nation – why they are what they are?

It does a very good job of explaining a lot of other Dutch peculiarities – and I use that word because the Dutch are the antithesis of a conformist regular normal world. And in doing so it answers the questions about Dutch football. Why and how the Dutch came up with Total Football? Why the Dutch lose all the important matches? Why the players always get into fights? Why it is wrong to call the Netherlands the Brazil of Europe? The Dutch concept of nationalism and patriotism? And the Dutch definition of a good footballer?

If Dutch football was a living person then this book makes it very clear that the head is the most important organ; more valuable than the feet. And then it does what Freud would have tried to do – study the person’s head.

And that ways, the book is very aptly named. And David Winner has written a book unlike any other.
Two of the fascinating concepts that this book deals with are individualism and space – and explains that both are as much a part of the national fabric as of their approach to football. Individualism is not the freedom to do whatever he feels like but to retain a strong sense of the self while still keeping the collective in mind. And space is to create space where there is none – something the country below sea level does on an ongoing basis.

A special mention must be made of a very fine introduction by Franklin Foer who makes a very interesting analogy that the richness of football is like a cultural Galapagos.

This book is like a fine meal. You need to eat slowly and savor every morsel. It might bore the casual fan as he looks to read about the feats of the all conquering Ajax side of the early seventies. The least he is expecting is a chapter on the three consecutive European triumphs. But all he gets is bits and pieces, here and there.

But if he can soldier on, he will have the pleasure of reading one of finest books written on football. He will see the Dutch in a new light and might just become an Oranje supporter for life (The Dutch have been one of my favourite teams but after this book, I got an Orange jersey to wear during the World Cup)

You will not win the quiz but you will surely win the paper writing competition on Dutch football.
Rating – Five out of Five all the way.

An important anecdote. David Winner's book lost out in the 2000 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award to Lance Armstrong's, Its Not About The Bike. Given how things unraveled 12 years later leading to Armstrong's remarkable fall from grace, Winner probably deserves some sort of a consolation.

Where you can buy - This book is easily available with all the leading online retailers in India and not too expensive.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Book of Basketball - Bill Simmons

As articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in the introduction, Bill Simmons has the best job in the world – one that all of us would want to have.

He is a huge sports fan who watches sports for a living. That fan comes alive every now and then in his writings. He is not the high priest of sports writing. He is the kind of writer that sports fans want to be – one who creates hypothetical situations and debates them to death. If you have the remotest interest in basketball, American football, baseball or ice hockey, then you absolutely have to read his column. He is funny and witty and the likes of Ravi Shastri and Krish Srikkanth must thank their stars that he doesn’t follow cricket.

First the good stuff about the book.

The book is wonderful and gives you a lot of information about the NBA. Its a must have for any basketball fan. The foot notes are funny and there is enough content there to write a book on them. The three most interesting features of the book are the what-if debates ( almost all of them are here) , the pyramid of greatest players – which according to Simmons should replace the Hall of Fame because all players in the Hall of fame cannot be equal and there has to be different levels of greatness and finally the various all-time squads for different situations.

Simmons also does a good job of comparing different eras of the sport and that creates the ground for comparing players from different times. There is a lot of research which has gone into the book and it is advisable to read the book with YouTube as a constant reference tool. You will need to watch the videos to fully appreciate the point Simmons is trying to make.

Now for the criticism.

My favourite basketball writer lets us down with some of his arguments. He is continuously trying to prove that he is not a Boston homer but in the end he fails to do so.

The problem with his arguments is that he is not consistent in giving importance to the same parameters across the board.

An example to highlight the point. He argues that Wilt Chamberlain’s team mates were just as good as Bill Russell’s and hence the former Laker cannot be given the benefit of having inferior team mates. In comparing how good the players were, he looks at all-star appearances and hall of fame status.

But then he creates a new pyramid which debunks the logic used for hall of fame selections. Most of Russell’s team mates sit high up in the pyramid, whereas Wilt’s team mates are way below. If the Pyramid rankings are used to judge which superstar had better team mates, then Russell’s mates are way superior to that of Wilt. And that nullifies the arguments used by Simmons to settle that debate of ” which player was better” in Russell’s favour.

But in Simmons’ defense, it is his passion and his being a Boston homer which makes his writing so special. Therefore, it is worth bearing with the book’s weaknesses and cheering it for being a wonderful guide for any NBA fan.

Final Rating – Four out of Five