James Astill, the political editor of The Economist and former bureau chief in New Delhi, is a big cricket fan. That is palpable from reading the first few pages of his latest book, The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India, in which he likens himself to John Howard about whom the phrase 'cricket tragic' was coined and describes, with a clarity that binds this engaging book together, the various shades of a rag-tag cricket match played between servant-class children as viewed from a window in his home. What is also clear is his sense of history, as well as the appreciation of India, the country he lived and worked in for four years. What is most clear at the end of Astill's chronicling of modern India told through the rise of the Indian Premier League (IPL), and this is paramount when you consider the book as a historical narrative which could and should be used as material for anyone seeking to understand the India of today - and indeed Indian cricket.
Astill's tamasha is part social history, part cricketing commentary. It examines not just how cricket allowed the IPL to be formed, but a dramatically evolving country. For those who cover cricket and have seen first hand the changes India has gone through since it opened its doors to liberalisation in the early 1990s, not all of what is in this book will come as a surprise. But as a book trained at informing and educating - and here his interviews with the likes of the exiled former IPL head honcho Lalit Modi, liquor baron and IPL franchise owner Vijay Mallya and Shane Warne add real value to the narrative - those not necessarily linked to the game or country, The Great Tamasha succeeds because it explains India's economic surge and obsession with the sport made it the dominant force in international cricket. Most pertinently, it shows how this happened more because of what transpired off the field rather than on it.
Money, greed, idols, sex appeal, stardom appear much more than talk of bat hitting ball does, but such is the subject of Astill's fascination. Beyond the glitz and scandals of the lucrative Twenty20 tournament, Astill attempts to dig deeper into the psyche of what attracts the rich and famous and the common man to cricket - and how the former uses the latter. In engaging manner, Astill captures the emergence of India through its greatest national obsession. He travels across the country to meet former players, administrators, journalists, corporate bigwigs, former royalty, current billionaires, Hindi film stars, shady bookmakers and the poor and under-privileged to get an understanding of what drives them and what drives cricket. He spends time in slums in Mumbai and a rural village in Uttar Pradesh, trying to capture the dreams of obscure young men - Chetan Jaiswal, a Dharavi "slumdog" is one such character - and touches a chord. He traces how satellite television played a role in cricket's rise as an economic force, and how through this the BCCI became the beast it is today. The resultant chart marked out is engaging and surprisingly, at times. It is an unfortunate truth that of the many voices in Astill's book, the ones in small towns and by lanes and villages and slums, are the ones that none at the top of the food chain probably care about.
Astill admits that he had to do a lot of reading up on the IPL - and in truth a lot of what he writes of was already known via the Indian media's reportage - but what gives the book real strength is the author's first-hand reporting. There are strikingly insightful passages, such as when Astill sits down the former BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah and gets him to reveal how the men running Indian cricket apparently think. "International cricket, that is OK. As long as people like it. But it should not be our core thing because at the moment all our earning is through international cricket only. No earning in through our local competition. That's why we are losing a lot of money," says Shah. "Cricket the only market is India. The market is here. So we will control cricket, naturally." You can only but cringe a little.
Preity Zinta, fading Bollywood star and co-owner of Kings XI Punjab, replies pat when asked what she brings to her IPL team: "Bums on seats. People come to the stadium to see me, even when we are losing." Cricket and Hindi cinema have long been entwined; the IPL took it up ten notches and then some. Mallya, in a hotel bar, terms the IPL business model as "sound" simply because it links cricket with entertainment. Modi, over lunch in London, hardly looks up from is Blackberry as he tells Astill that Bollywood was always the key to the IPL's success.
All this captures the tamasha that is the IPL, Bollywood and to a degree the modern India we see today - replete with Congress v BJP battles, telecom scams, crony capitalism and layer of corruption that is too deep, all against the backdrop of a burgeoning class of citizens who are fueling Indian cricket (read the IPL's) revolution. One of the most succinct observations from Astill's book is that "India is becoming powerful" and that "it will be a long time before it forgets how it felt to be weak".
His work is a fascinating examination of the most radical development in cricket, but also sounds an ominous warning: that Indian cricket could well sound the death of traditional values of this great game. Is it a bad thing? Those whom Astill interviewed probably don't think so, and that there is one of the reasons The Great Tamasha makes for solid journalism.
Title: The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India;Author: James Astill;Publisher: Bloomsbury India;Pages: 290;Price: Rs 399
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