Indian pitch full of bounce
The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India
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