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The Great Tamasha:

Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India

James Astill

In his great book on nationalism, I magined Communities, Benedict Anderson asked what bound a country together. Moments of genuine communion, in which all the nation shares, were unimaginable until the modern media age and are rare even now. Governments and monarchs often stand in for the nation but more often than anything else the nation is represented by a sporting team.

James Astill, the political editor of The Economist, a former bureau chief in Delhi and a self-confessed “cricket tragic”, has written a book of national definition, a book about India, a book about cricket. He doesn’t make the big claim that India is constituted by cricket. No nation of a billion people can be reduced to the dimensions of a great game. But he does use cricket as allegory, to explain the characteristic defects that stand in the way of India’s more rapid development. This is very much the express aim of the imprint, Wisden Sports Writing: to “produce books that are not just about sport. They are about life.”

The concern with such a conceit is that it will not last through all its chapters. Is the great “tamasha” (a Hindu word meaning spectacle or drama) of Indian cricket really any more than a small fraction of, rather than a metaphor for, Indian identity? There is always the risk that, three chapters into a detailed account of the financial chicanery of the Indian Premier League, the book’s concept is flagging badly.

The best compliment I can pay is to say that the idea lasts. Astill has written a fascinating book about cricket, which sent me scurrying to Wisden to check Tiger Pataudi’s Test batting average (I’m still not sure if he should be in my all-time India XI). But he has also written a serious book about India whose problems are illuminated through an extended treatment of the national sporting obsession.

The central question of the book is also the defining question of India’s development. Given the size and potential of this nation of a billion people, why is it not doing better than it is? In both cases, the answer is the same. India has never yet found a way of enlisting all its citizens in the national effort. The labyrinth of Nehru’s “licence raj” in which companies had to apply to the government for permission to expand production was only dismantled, under conditions of duress, in the early 1990s, and then imperfectly. Meanwhile, a majority of Indians was unable to read. Agriculture, on which to this day the bulk of Indians are engaged, awaits a second productivity revolution. If the vital capital of the modern economy is the people who work in it, then India has done an appalling job of readying itself for modernity.

This was a story I knew from the growing library of Indian history, of which Ramachandra Guha’s monumental India after Gandhi is a recent distinguished example. But Astill tells a story I didn’t know and, in the process, illuminates the bigger question. Why, he asks, given that India is so large and obsessed with cricket to the exclusion of almost all other sports, is India not better at cricket than it is? Why did it take two decades to win a Test match and four decades to win a Test in England?

The answer starts with the formation of the Indian nation in 1947 and, specifically, with the bloody partition of the old kingdom into the two nations of India and Pakistan. It would be frivolous to suggest that the worst of the division was that Pakistan got all the fast bowlers but it is true. With the partial exception of Kapil Dev, India has never had a quick bowler of note.

There are, though, two other reasons which penetrate the mystery of Indian development more completely. The first is that, from the beginning, Indian cricket has been the preserve of an elite. From its origins as a game exported with the Empire, cricket was the game taken up by the Indian middle class. Even today, facilities in Indian schools are terrible and the club system is not extensive. Properly organised cricket, with all the right equipment, remains out of financial reach for the majority of indigent Indians. Astill’s conclusion on the cricket stands for the nation all told: “a poor record of harnessing the talent of its vast population”.

The second reason is brought out in Astill’s excellent chapters on the rise, fall and rebirth of the Indian Premier League, the short-form cricket tournament that has brought money into cricket on an unprecedented scale. This is the tale of power moving East, from the old world to the former colony. But it is, more than that, a story of corruption, a story of money talking and drowning out democratic voices. It is in these chapters that the allegory is most pertinent. Unless India cleans up its politics and takes out the deep corruption, its economy will always be held back.

It is ardently to be hoped that there is a large set of people who care just as much why Vinod Kambli only played a few Tests for India as why Manmohan Singh is one of the greatest finance ministers of any 20th-century nation. Calling all such people. James Astill has written a book for you.

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