James Astill's The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India is one of the best books on cricket that I have read. Perhaps it should not be called a book on cricket, because it is not. But cricket is a prism through which Astill attempts to comment on the transformation that has occurred, and is occurring, in India. He largely succeeds.
An obvious warmth and connection with cricket is reflected throughout the book. Astill is a brilliant writer and has enough attention to detail to make you feel present at his “interviews and investigations”. Whether deliberate or not, the tone and tenor of the book is that of watching a five-day Test match. Unlike “cricket tragics” like Astill (and myself), the beginning of a Test match is not of great interest to the aam aadmi. But Astill’s opening chapters should be. Before getting to the real stuff, one gets a good sense of the history of Indian cricket. The beginnings of Parsi and Indian cricket, and the matches between teams named “Hindu” and “Muslim”. That was earlier, and put a stop to by none other than Mahatma Gandhi.
An issue that Astill does not explicitly discuss, but is worth asking is: What happened to the Parsi cricket heritage? When I was growing up, my batting idol was Polly Umrigar, and the fielding guru was Rusi Surti, and I still very fondly remember how Farokh Engineer laid the foundation of the transformation of traditional, dull Indian cricket to the aggressive machine it is today. One explanation might be, and this fits in with the “turbulent change” in India, is that the baton, nee cricket bat, has been transferred from the gentlemen to the players. Modern India is much more about the upward mobility of the emerging middle class than about the static wealth of the elite. Players belong much more to aspirational India, and this comes out in their attitude and their cricket. The times they have changed, and for the better.
The larger picture that Astill is after is best reflected in two chapters: Boundaries of Belief and