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 Cricket a la Modi. As someone who spends a lot of time choosing titles, I want to congratulate Astill for being among the best. Perhaps the best among the best is a chapter called In the Land of the Blind. The next unstated line is “a one-eyed man is king”, and the chapter is about the brilliance of Mansur Ali Khan, Nawab of Pataudi, a batsman who would easily be among the greatest if he had not lost one eye in a freak car accident.
Boundaries of Belief is about Hindus and Muslims, and about India and Pakistan. I will confess, there were times when I cried. Astill elicits genuine sympathy from the reader about the complexity of the relationship between twins separated at birth. There is the story of a small Pakistani boy asking Irfan Pathan why, being Muslim, he was not playing for Pakistan. And then there is the story of the extremely talented Pakistani bowler Mohammed Asif, who was arrested and convicted for spot-fixing. Astill implicitly suggests, and I fully agree, that the banning of Pakistani players from IPL provided an “incentive” for young, talented “players” from Pakistan to succumb to the money provided by match-fixing.
One of the major themes in subcontinental cricket is corruption and in his understated style, Astill provides enough evidence to suggest that cricket administration here is corrupt, very corrupt. But there is hope across the border. The respected and honest Najam Sethi has been appointed head of the Pakistan Cricket Board. We all know the depths to which Pakistani cricket had fallen, but there is hope with Sethi.
But can one say the same about India and the BCCI? Astill does not raise enough questions about cricket administration in India, though he is quite blunt about the nature of the administration: “the good of Indian cricket is not the chief priority of the politicians who run the BCCI. They are mainly concerned to perpetuate their power”. But why is corruption so rampant, allegedly, in the Indian body?
Could one explanation be that cricket administration in India has no players involved? Could another explanation be that only politicians are involved in the control of cricket? Third, given the equal opportunity employment practices of the BCCI (only Congress or BJP politicians need apply), is there any hope for reform? Fourth, could IPL be a sophisticated Ponzi scheme which has yet to make any owner any money, and has made many of them considerably less wealthy? Fifth, consider this example of the workings of the BCCI. One of its most important branches, the Delhi District Cricket Association, received more revenue from sales of empty liquor bottles in 1998 than it spent on coaching. The BCCI’s non-tax-paying NGO status was revoked only recently. But this politicians’ club is fighting attempts to peek into its expenses via the Right to Information Act.
In one sense, what I am asking for is another book from Astill. Having produced this superb analysis, yeh dil mange more. The rise of the emerging middle-class cricket player is the rise of India. And the lack of any checks and balances to the BCCI’s fiefdom is matched by the lack of any checks and balances to the near-feudal albeit democratic set-up that is modern India. When will this turbulent wave subside?
Surjit S Bhalla is chairman, Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior adviser to Blufin, a leading financial information company.
He can be followed on Twitter, @surjitbhalla