Few of us who saw it,” wrote Captain Philip Trevor, “will forget that surging, lowing multicoloured throng. Its reproduction defied the pen and brush. But the faces of those who composed it wore an ugly expression. Of that vast multitude not a thousand knew the name of the thing at which they were looking, not a hundred had even the elementary knowledge of the game of cricket. But they were dimly conscious that in some particular or another the black man had triumphed over the white man, and they ran hither and thither, gibbering and chattering and muttering vague words of evil omen.”
In many ways, Trevor’s description of the crowd of over 12,000 at the Bombay Gymkhana, who witnessed the Parsis beat a touring English side in 1889, is representative of how the cricketing world has viewed the rise of India. The adoption of a bona fide aristocratic game by the working classes as a national religion is as inexplicable as it is curious, and there has been not a little elitist handwringing at the new order’s abandonment of the heritage of the game for the instant gratification of a hitting contest, at the great unwashed and their cults of personality that demonstrate a disregard for cricket’s public-school values, at the black man rising above his station and taking over the white man’s preserve. Obituaries of Test cricket are a dime a dozen; an article or three comparing county cricket and the Indian Premier League (IPL) is de rigueur every May.
James Astill, political editor of The Economist and author of The Great Tamasha, a well-crafted account of Indian cricket, isn’t your typical handwringing elitist. Yes, he bemoans the impending death of Test cricket, a format he “cares about almost to the exclusion of any other”. Yes, he blames the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) capitulation to commercial interests for the format’s decline (“I don’t think the BCCI cares about cricket in any deep way at all”). He also sees in the BCCI’s muscle-flexing the decline of the international game, deploring how the IPL “cannibalised the West Indian cricket team” by offering its players more money than they ever dreamt of. But there is a spirit of enquiry, a desire to understand the real nature of the beast, that sets his book apart. This desire is evident in the various interviews with the various stakeholders in the game: from officials and other profiteers to the people actually working for the improvement of the game. There is much to learn about India, after all, through its national pastime.
“Cricket administration,” Astill writes, “is a study in how power operates in India. It is as revealing of India’s corrupt, combative politics… as party politics, the usual prism through which Indian democracy is understood. It is hard to see how cricket will win from this. Yet for anyone who cares for India, as well as for its favourite game, the explosion of the cricket economy is an uplifting parable, representative — emblematic even — of India’s wider progress.” Representing a publication that has been a cheerleader for that progress, Astill doesn’t pass judgement on the influx of money into the game (which has helped and hurt in almost equal measure). But he is at his vitriolic best when excoriating the men running Indian cricket. Not that it’s particularly hard; one need only turn on the TV to conclude that cricket administrators are narrow-minded, self-serving, brazen authority figures.
And that is, in a sense, the problem with The Great Tamasha. The last few years have hammered the point home incessantly that our sports administrators, even those not sitting on a $1.5 billion war chest, are corrupt; one hardly needs another book to prove that. Astill’s interviews with the game’s satraps, however entertaining, don’t elicit much by way of introspection. The book, and Astill himself, has little by way of solutions beyond the usual call for reforms, which is about par for the course when it comes to issues of misgovernance in India. As an eloquent statement on the ills that plague Indian cricket and a superficial explanation for how we got here, The Great Tamasha is a great read. It’s a pity it doesn’t do more.