If only he had not been a shade too patronising and even unfair in his attitude towards his theme and the people associated with it, James Astill’s effort on India’s abiding love affair with cricket would have been more worthwhile. But, maybe it is because he is often irreverent to the point of being mean that provides the book with its cutting edge. Astill, for four years the New Delhi correspondent of The Economist, obviously loves his cricket. The book, though written with great panache, is extremely subjective in tone and content, and one has the sneaking feeling that Astill is right through aware of what he is doing.
Cricket signifies a world of seemingly irreconciliable contrasts. It is at once a fad of the rich as it is a passion with the masses. “Elite and popular, unifying and exclusionary, polite and uproarious, Indian cricket is as contradictory in nature as India itself,” writes Astill. He delves into the philosophy that informs the game in India, and he obviously enjoys talking about the game. He writes, “Watching, playing and, more often these days, talking about cricket are among my greatest pleasures, and India has provided unrivalled opportunity to indulge them.”
Astill describes cricket as India’s national theatre — its great tamasha. The manner in which the game is able to express the sentiments of the people and acts as an antidote to the humdrum of ordinary lives has been effectively brought out. People from different regions, speaking different languages, are drawn together by a game that has come to mean so much to them. There are some interesting anecdotes and profiles. Astill is obviously delighted to have come across Sudhir Gautum, “India’s bestknown cricketing mendicant”, the Bihari fan who travels everywhere to watch Sachin Tendulkar play, with his body painted in the Indian tricolour and Tendulkar’s name. Indians, “segregated by class and divided by… caste and religion”, he says, find national unity in cricket.
Astill knows that the vast majority of India’s children, undone as they are by poverty and worse, have no avenue for pursuing their passion for the game and emulating their national heroes. Therefore, they settle for the next best thing: adopting the game and appropriating its pleasures by turning their heroes into cult figures as popular and more real than Bollywood stars. The Great Tamasha is about “the conquest of India by cricket”, and in the first three chapters, Astill offers an excellent account of the history of the game in India “from its genesis on the maidans of Victorian Bombay” to the explosive growth of the TV-cricket economy.
The next three chapters, which are about the politics behind Indian cricket and the domination of several state cricket associations by politicians, are also marked by some rare insights. Astill shows not only a keen understanding of the politics of Indian cricket, but also a nuanced appreciation of its finer points, thanks to his genuine love for the game. The last three chapters of the book are devoted to the razzmatazz of the Indian Premier League (IPL), which he describes as the “biggest trauma to strike cricket in decades”. One can easily agree with Astill on this, because the IPL, for all that it has done to line up the pockets of fatcats, has at the same time been quite an atrocity inflicted on the game’s once fair name. Astill also sketches profiles of the personalities and players behind it, from Lalit Modi to Shane Warne.
Astill shows good command over interpreting facts as he traces Indian cricket’s 19th-century origins and its subsequent spread — with CK Nayudu’s blitzkrieg during the 1926-27 season hastening its elevation to international status. Astill has done extensive reading as well as interviews with several stakeholders in the game, from administrators through historians and down to the players.
While he is perfectly entitled to have the freedom to express himself, the same facility should not be used to subjectively criticise and at places even ridicule people for certain traits that they may have. Similarly, for someone who lays so much emphasis on research, sweeping generalisations often mar the value of the book.
The chapter titled ‘The Pawar and the Glory’ takes a few rather tasteless swipes at the expense of Sharad Pawar, who was at one time India’s representative at the International Cricket Council. One is shocked to come across this formulation about Pawar: “He was hard to understand. This was because his English was accident-prone, but mainly because cancer had left half his face paralysed. He had therefore to squeeze his speech out of the right side of his mouth. (When he said ‘Test matches’, I at first thought he was saying ‘chess matches’.)” One can legitimately criticise Pawar on many counts, but picking on his afflictions leaves a bad taste. Similarly, both the heading and the contents of the chapter ‘In the Land of the Blind’ are debatable. The chapter opens with the following words from an interview with MAK Pataudi: “The Nawab surveyed me with his good eye.”
How one wishes Astill had avoided recourse to glib generalisations. Contemporary critics have correctly pointed out the gross over-simplifications and plain and simple ignorance that, at times, dogs the narrative. About Tamil Nadu cricket, Astill writes, “Almost all the state’s first-class players were, until recently, Brahmins, mostly recruited from a handful of Brahmin schools.” He also claims that “the Brahmin grip is weakening”. Actually, to charge the Tamil Nadu selectors with playing caste politics is a rather hasty conclusion, not based on fact. The Tamil Nadu cricket team actually had fewer Brahmin players in the early years than in the past 40 or so years. The Balu Alaganan-led champion team of 1954-56, for instance, was made up almost entirely of non-Brahmins; and the picture actually changed gradually thereafter, to include more and more Brahmins. While Brahmins have dominated Tamil Nadu cricket over the decades, caste cannot be said to have significantly influenced team selection, the critics aver.
Astill dons his thinking cap while expressing worry over the crisis engulfing Indian cricket today, post-IPL-6 and the shocking revelations of corruption around it. At the same time, he does not fail to highlight the game’s positives. His admiration for the work ethic of the likes of the accomplished batsman Cheteshwar Pujara and the nurturing role played by his father Arvind; and his empathy with the denizens of Dharavi, the vast Mumbai slum, aspiring to a future in cricket via T20, hint at a genuine understanding on his part of Indian cricket and what it means to people whose lives can be otherwise drab and demanding. “Here, in the slums and villages, what was once an English game thrills and unites millions… Cricket is their relief, their excitement, the main ingredient of national culture that they have embraced. It belongs to them, too,” he writes.
The book thus raises visions of going beyond an unambiguous indictment of the status quo but does not quite succeed in providing a glimmer of hope for the future. On a rainy day, this highly readable and concise take on Indian cricket can be fun indeed, if only one is generous towards the author — something which he himself has not consistently been. This could also be seen as a story of the rise of contemporary India on the world stage, and the role cricket, as India’s premier sport, has played in it.