A third of the way into this uneven, discursive book, James Astill interviews Sharad Pawar, whom he calls the “ruler of world cricket”.
Title: The Great Tamasha
Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India
Author: James Astill
Publisher: Bloomsbury India
• Rs. 399 • 290 pp
Astill faithfully renders the conversation, even conveying the interviewee’s tic of dropping definite and indefinite articles from sentences. The result is enjoyable and wry, showing the author — the political editor of The Economist and its former Delhi-based South Asia Bureau Chief — at his best.
“You are often said to be the richest politician in India.”
“I also read and I enjoy that,” said Pawar, just perceptibly smiling on the unfrozen side of his face.
“You don’t deny it?”
“Why should I challenge anyone making foolish statement? Why challenge? Let’s enjoy.”
“You mean it’s not true?”
“I said it’s a foolish statement. Let’s just enjoy.”
Astill is very good at nosing around in the murky interstices of cricket and politics, in shining a light on the obscene amounts of money, skulduggery, shrewd business sense and almost imperialist interventionism at the heart of cricket administration — and, therefore, a lot of cricket — in India.
If only the book had more of this sort of stuff. In his introduction, Astill lays out the raison d’etre of The Great Tamasha: it is the story of “the conquest of India by cricket”.All the elements of that particular story have already been dwelt upon at length in cricket-related literature: how satellite TV spread the game in India and brought in huge amounts of money to the sport; how cricket, more than even Hindi films, unites India today; how the game has become an exemplar of national identity; and how, because of that, and also because of a burgeoning, aspirational, aggressively consumerist middle class, being an Indian cricket fan has often become synonymous with a great deal of triumphalism, jingoism and sense of entitlement.
Astill unearths nothing new; nor does his elaboration of those themes offer any fresh insight.
He rarely puts a foot wrong in the chapters that deal with the dramatic story of the domestic Twenty20 tournament, the Indian Premier League (IPL). His reporting is as intrepid as it is rigorous.
He tracks down and interviews Lalit Modi in a posh restaurant in London’s Mayfair; he drinks with Vijay Mallya in a hotel bar; he elicits from a Benson-&-Hedges-smoking Shane Warne a thoughtful and enlightening exegesis about T20 and the IPL at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace Hotel; he catches up with Preity Zinta for an entertaining chat in the dressing room of her King’s XI team after a game in Dharamshala; and in the 2011 season of the tournament, he follows the Delhi Daredevils around to try and understand if the standard of play in the IPL is really any good and to assess if the tournament is here to stay.
“There was probably no bigger question in cricket.”
I cannot recall a book-length exposition of the many-faceted story of the IPL, its intriguing allure, its positioning at the cusp of cricket, celebrity and staggering wealth.
The Great Tamasha could have been that book. It very nearly was. In the ‘Acknowledgements’ section, Astill tells us that he had initially “resolved to write the story of the IPL”, but abandoned it because he could not bear to attempt “so narrow a book”.
As it turns out, he spread himself too thin. Had Astill stuck to his resolve of writing a “narrow book”, The Great Tamasha would have been tighter, sharper and more enjoyable.