Ping-pong Diplomacy by Nicholas Griffin. An engrossing read on table tennis and political intrigue, but falters briefly when it talks about cricket.
Ping-pong Diplomacy by Nicholas Griffin. An engrossing read on table tennis and political intrigue, but falters briefly when it talks about cricket. Photo Courtesy: www.nicholasgriffin.com

‘Ping-pong Diplomacy’ by Nicholas Griffin is an absorbing book about table tennis and the maze of political intrigue that surrounded it during the Cold War. Arunabha Sengupta plays the part of the cricket-obsessed as he points out a small cricket-related error in the work.

An innocuous game that started in fraternity houses and suburban basements — that, according to a curious ditty, supposedly ‘looks like tennis, feels like golf and sounds like Cantonese’.

It could be played on tables, at parties, picnics, often with men on their haunches and girls on their knees searching for balls under sofas and side tables.

And somewhere along the line, one learns this game of ping-pong or table tennis became a form of war waged for world revolution. As it became increasingly popular in the world, it was marketed with zeal and purpose. It was soon a conduit between East and West, between capitalist America and communist China. The first official American delegation to visit China since Mao Zedong had assumed power in 1949 was the table-tennis team of 1971. All this and more.

Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World is an intriguing work by Nicholas Griffin, detailing the cloak and dagger that accompanied the paddles and balls as table tennis was played for most of the 20th century. And much of the book traces the life and career of the fascinating Ivor Montagu, a scion of the British nobility and a secret Communist spy, the man who founded the International Table Tennis Federation and introduced the sport in China for purely political reasons.

Apart from his role in table tennis and politics, Montagu was also a key figure in the history of the film industry, a movie critic and producer who worked with Hitchcockian thrillers and political films, a covert spy in World War Two, a journalist, a wildlife and conservation enthusiast and a zoologist who  visited Russia to supposedly look for voles. In all he was a thoroughly fascinating character.

The book by Griffin is brisk and entertaining, its domain an enthralling intersection of Cold War, sport, history and politics with a curiously engrossing cast of characters. Yet, it does stumble on a tiny divot, surprisingly on the cricket field. However insignificantly, this does take a bit of the shine off the painstaking research, the hallmark of the historical work.

Montagu was born in 1904, the second son of Louis Montagu, the second Baron Swaythling. A prominent man of the Jewish community, Louis had inherited plenty from the first baron and had connections with Downing Street and other houses of power, glory and riches.

The book describes Montagu as a disinterested cricketer, fielding at long-stop among the daisies as his brothers piled on the runs in the middle during their annual match between the two Montagu houses of Townhill and South Stoneham.  Perhaps that is accurate. It is, however, in the other reference to cricket that Griffin falters.

Ivor’s father, Louis Montagu, is described as a keen shot and a member of the famed Middlesex Cricket Club (MCC). Yes, to a cricket connoisseur this is unpardonable.

MCC and the Middlesex Cricket Club are two different establishments, although they share the premises of the Lord’s Cricket Ground. To be precise, Lord’s is owned by MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) and rented by Middlesex. Besides, the correct name would be Middlesex County Cricket Club and the correct abbreviation MCCC.

An obsessive strain, so pathologically compulsive in cricket addicts, made this writer go through the list of actual members of MCC in the library at Lord’s, with the MCC Library and Research Manager Neil Robinson for company. The splendidly bound red volumes listing the members of the august club revealed no Louis Montagu in their pages, neither was there any reference to Baron Swaythling. Hence Ivor Montagu’s father was not a member of the prestigious MCC. ALSO READ: Interview of Neil Robinson, Library and Research Manager at Lord’s

Of course there is every chance that he was indeed a member of MCCC. Unfortunately, even at Lord’s, the records of the members of Middlesex dating back to more than a century is rather difficult to unearth. That is perhaps beside the point.

The membership of Middlesex Cricket Club (MCC) was referred to, in all likelihood, for the purpose of highlighting the importance of Baron Swaythling, the reach of his money and influence, and his patronage of sports. While patronage of sports is not really in any doubt, the membership of the Middlesex Cricket Club, then as now, was nowhere near as difficult and the domain of the influential as the membership of the actual MCC. Hence, the point is not really made, and this tiny wrinkle remains a jarring distraction the midst of an absorbing read.

Griffin was born in London. Although he moved to New York when he was 18, it does seem a rather surprising error from someone who grew up in the city of Lord’s. Perhaps the influence of cricket-agnostic baseball-playing Americans is to be blamed.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)