The English language and cricket were Britain's two largest colonial legacies in India, says journalist James Astill, but it is the second of these bequests that is the subject of his important and incisive new book, The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, And the Turbulent Rise of Modern India. Astill is a former bureau chief for the Economist in New Delhi, and he notes the parallels between the country's control of cricket and its dramatic economic rise.
Cricket, for those who need an introduction, is similar to baseball — in that it has a batsman (batter), bowler (pitcher), fielder and stumps (bases). An engrossing game between two sides, it's as much a battle of wills as it is sporting acumen.
Astill traces cricket's history in India, starting with its introduction by English sailors and soldiers who brought it over in the late 18th century. They saw cricket as quintessentially English. Some early theorists of the game even suggested it was suited only to Anglo-Saxons. But in the 19th century, India's Westernized Parsis adopted it, hoping to impress their unimpressed British colonists. And when the British left India in 1947, cricket stayed behind.
As a fledgling nation, India's cricket skills were concomitantly limited. Except for brief flashes of individual brilliance, India was a cricketing backwater, and remained so for the next five decades — until an economic liberalization program in the early '90s allowed the sale of TV rights to foreign broadcasters. Then the game began to change — fast. India went from a country that suffered slights — real and perceived — from touring teams to becoming a major power, responsible for the overwhelming majority of revenues, TV audience and advertising.
The picture Astill paints is mostly not pretty. There are stories of corruption, nepotism, a lack of accountability and a genuine disregard for the idea of stewardship of cricket. And — perhaps to the chagrin of its millions of fans — despite being the world's undeniable cricketing power, the country's record in the game is still iffy at best (despite a recent victory in England).
But there is a relative success here. Despite the cricketing community's caviling and carping at the way India aggressively influences the game, the truth is that the Board of Cricket Control in India, which governs the sport in the country, is perhaps one of India's best-run public institutions. Merit holds greater sway in cricket than in the realms of politics, business or even Bollywood — no small feat for a country still in thrall to divisions of class, caste and religion. India's cricketers were once mainly college-educated middle class boys from the country's big cities. Now, players from working class backgrounds are more represented, the great beneficiaries of India's economic ascent.
Astill is not only aware of this, but it's one of the highlights of his book. He interviews players, officials and fans of the game. And he notes some transformations — in many ways, the old, elitist fans of the game have given way to the mass-market spectator.
The Great Tamasha is a timely book, given that it coincidentally comes amid another a betting scandal, which points an accusing finger at players as well as administrators. For cricketing traditionalists, the scandal is another example of the way India's control of the game has ruined cricket. But they should well remember that easy money in cricket wasn't an Indian invention. As Astill notes, in June 2008, a Texas billionaire landed at London's Lord's Cricket Ground, the spiritual home of the game, announcing a $20 million series between England and the West Indies. Four years later, that billionaire, Allen Stanford, was convicted of running a $7 billion Ponzi scheme.
India's pursuit of cricketing riches — and its often unorthodox means of achieving those riches — is no different from the actions of the other nations that previously controlled the game. Whether that's a justification is arguable. What isn't arguable though is that it's dramatically transforming not only cricket, but India itself.
Krishnadev Calamur is an editor at NPR.org and the author of the mystery novel Murder in Mumbai.