In­dian pitch full of bounce

The Great Ta­masha: Cricket, Cor­rup­tion and the Tur­bu­lent Rise of Mod­ern In­dia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gideon Haigh

By James Astill Wis­den, 272pp, $35 (HB)

FOR most Aus­tralian cricket fans, the In­dian Pre­mier League seems far off, a shrill, ex­otic Twenty20 sideshow of con­se­quence only to the truly tragic. Not one in a hun­dred, I fancy, could tell you who won it this year, or name most of its teams.

Yet in the past five years, the IPL has changed global cricket be­yond recog­ni­tion at al­most ev­ery level, even if its in­flu­ence is some­times not man­i­fest.

With its bil­lions in tele­vi­sion rights and brand value, and tens of mil­lions in player pay­ments, it has turned the Board of Con­trol for Cricket in In­dia into the game’s de facto world govern­ment — and a capri­cious and petu­lant ruler it has turned out to be.

This phe­nom­e­non has cried out for an in­ter­preter, and in James Astill it has found a skill­ful, read­able and, most im­por­tant, dis­in­ter­ested one: for­merly South Asia bureau chief of The Econ­o­mist, he is in­de­pen­dent of the sport-in­dus­trial com­plex. The Great Ta­masha is a kalei­do­scopic work of re­portage full of rel­ish for its sub­ject, art­fully con­structed and paced, teem­ing with sto­ries, char­ac­ters and in­sights — a book of In­dia ev­ery bit as much as it is a book of cricket.

Astill draws us to the flood­lit sta­di­ums and plush purlieus of the IPL via games of vil­lage cricket on a ‘‘ rusted waste­land’’ in Ut­tar Pradesh, sprawl­ing slum cricket in Mum­bai’s Dharavi, and ebul­lient youth cricket at Patna’s San­jay Gandhi Sta­dium. He sub­tly sends up the lo­cal pooh-bahs and po­lit­i­cal point men who rule the game at re­gional and zonal level, while ad­mit­ting their strange ef­fi­cacy in a land of home­spun ad­min­is­tra­tive prac­tices.

‘‘ There is a lot wrong with how In­dian cricket is run,’’ Astill ob­serves. ‘‘ Yet In­dia is run even worse.’’

Some­times the con­trasts are richer and stranger than fic­tion. One day Astill in­ter­views the vain­glo­ri­ous nin­com­poop in charge of cricket in the ves­ti­gial re­gion of Saurash­tra, Ni­ran­jan Shah, who by sheer longevity wields out­sized in­flu­ence within the BCCI and whose medi­ocre son has an un­canny knack of pick­ing up IPL con­tracts with­out play­ing any games.

Shah air­ily dis­misses in­ter­na­tional cricket. By the IPL, he says, In­dia will boss the cricket world, re­ceiv­ing other coun­tries merely as sup­pli­cants: ‘‘ The mar­ket is here. So we will con­trol cricket, nat­u­rally.’’

The next day, Astill watches at work Arvind Pu­jara, a pen­ni­less rail­way clerk turned

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