July 5, 2013 6:20 pm

Beyond a boundary

A study of cricket in India offers a broader portrait of the nation

The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India, by James Astill, Wisden Sports Writing, RRP£18.99, 304 pages

 

When James Astill set out to write about Indian cricket, he intended an investigation of the riotous Indian Premier League.

A show like no other, this annual eight-week championship is a carnival drawing in Bollywood stars, business tycoons, venal administrators and mounds of money. Its blockbuster narrative has it all: political scheming, match-fixing, tax-dodging and forced exile alongside “punched” fours and “smashed” sixes.

For the sports-lover, the IPL, now in its sixth year, symbolises India’s rise to pre-eminence in global cricket. For the social scientist, the tournament is a byword for the fastest growing large economy after China and the exuberance of its middle class.

Astill, a journalist at The Economist who worked in India from 2007-2010, recognised the possibilities. Yet his focus was to change, and in The Great Tamasha the IPL is confined to the final three chapters. Like many followers of cricket, Astill may have found the limited-over Twenty20 format lacking in seriousness, its commercial gyrations a distraction from the Indian game’s deep undertones.

Instead, he has chosen to write a more ambitious book – one that sets the IPL against the full sweep of India’s cricketing history. Starting with the game’s adoption under British rule, he takes readers through its evolution on the “maidans” of Bombay and the era of princely patronage to the glitz of today’s Chennai Super Kings, Delhi Dare-devils and Kolkata Knight Riders. Along the way, he explores the near-universal appeal cricket holds in this nation of 1.2bn.

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Astill introduces some of India’s cricketing greats, from the England-educated KS Ranjitsinhji and Nawab “Tiger” Pataudi to the modern-day Sachin Tendulkar. Then he dives into India’s cricketing hinterland, discovering unsung heroes such as a polio-struck player in Patna, Bihar and a determined coach in the Indian Railways nets in Rajkot.

Cricket is the lens through which Astill studies India’s themes and contradictions: the Hindu/Muslim divide, caste, poverty, abuse of power and the complicated relationship with Britain. Some of the conclusions are stark if familiar, notably just how little India invests in itself and how hard it is for individual endeavour to triumph over immense obstacles.

Throughout, Astill weaves in his own experiences in slums, stands and VIP boxes. The combination of reporter’s notebook, sporting history and a descriptive style makes The Great Tamasha compelling reading. It will resonate with anyone who has felt the intensity of the crowd when Tendulkar walks out or when the home team meets arch-rival Pakistan.

Interviews with Sharad Pawar, one of India’s most influential politicians, Vijay Mallya, the beverages-to-airlines tycoon, and powerful cricket administrator Niranjan Shah are priceless. Astill lets the obfuscations and deflections hang on the page without comment; they speak for themselves.

Lalit Modi, the architect of the IPL whose vaunting ambitions fell apart after a tax investigation banished him to London, rightly gets a chapter to himself. Astill calls Modi the “Icarus of Indian cricket”. Yet the moral of the story is not entirely clear. The show, or “tamasha” of the title, lurches on without him.

Writing about Indian cricket takes courage, especially for an outsider. Many Indians from all walks of life have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game, and take it seriously. A clumsy description of the batting style of Gundappa Viswanath, as much as a patronising tone, could undermine an author’s credibility.

Astill avoids such pitfalls. His deft observations of Indian society are an even harder target, and leave the forensic, barnstorming book on the IPL’s countless intrigues still to be written.

James Lamont is managing editor of the Financial Times and a former New Delhi bureau chief

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Letters in response to this report:

The core of Indian cricket remains intact / From Mr DJ Madan

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