A rare gem of Indian trivia from James Astill’s The Great Tamasha is the tidbit that the great Hindustani vocalist Hirabai Barodekar entertained those celebrating the victory of The Hindus over the first MCC team to tour India at the Bombay Gymkhana ground, where CK Nayudu hit the author’s ancestor Ewart Astill for four of his world-record eleven sixes in his historic innings of 153 in 116 minutes. “The Colonel” was to receive a gold medal at another celebratory bash whose highlight was a performance of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew — in Marathi.
“Elite and popular, unifying and exclusionary, polite and uproarious, Indian cricket is as contradictory in nature as India itself,” says Astill, for four years the New Delhi correspondent of The Economist. “For a cricket-loving foreign correspondent, this offers rich pickings. 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. He illustrates this claim with an account of Sudhir Gautum, “India's best-known 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 Hindu caste and religion”, he says, find national unity in cricket. He also finds pathos in India’s poverty, which allows the vast majority of its children no avenue for pursuing their passion for the game and emulating their national heroes. The Great Tamasha is about “the conquest of India by cricket,” in the author’s own words. The first three chapters offer an excellent capsule 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 are about the politics behind Indian cricket and the domination of several state cricket associations by politicians. 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 unravelling of the razzmatazz of IPL, “the biggest trauma to strike cricket in decades,” and striking pen portraits of the personalities and players behind it, from Lalit Modi to Shane Warne.
In tracing Indian cricket’s 19 century origins to British rule and its subsequent development — with Nayudu’s blitzkrieg during the 1926-27 season hastening its elevation to international status — the author has done extensive reading as well interviews with several stakeholders in the game, from administrators through historians to players. While his research seems admirably painstaking, the tone of the book sometimes tends to be patronising. It is tempting to bracket this with the majority of ‘foreign’ (read English and Australian) writing on Indian cricket, but that would amount to a sweeping generalisation, something Tamasha is itself guilty of, when it comes to dissecting the many ills of the game in India.
One chapter entitled The Pawar and the Glory takes a few rather tactless swipes at the expense of Sharad Pawar, at the time India’s representative in the ICC. Example: “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’.)” Astill of course makes amends with a left-handed compliment: “He was also the first Indian politician I had ever heard say ‘thank you’ to the peon who brought his tea.” (An even more unfortunate chapter heading of the book is ‘In the Land of the Blind.’ The chapter opens with the following words from an interview with MAK Pataudi: “The Nawab surveyed me with his good eye.”)
There are more generalisations. About Tamil Nadu cricket, Astill says, “Almost all the state’s first class players were, until recently, Brahmins, mostly recruited from a handful of Brahmin schools. It 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 last forty 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. (To look at some more random samples, the 1999 Tamil Nadu team had seven non-Brahmins in the side, while today, it has five or six on an average). While yes, Brahmins have dominated Tamil Nadu cricket over the decades, caste cannot be said to have significantly influenced team selection.
While expressing his worry over the crisis engulfing Indian cricket today, post IPL-VI and the shocking revelations of corruption around it, Astill 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.”
The book thus rises above being a searing indictment of the status quo to an expression of a glimmer of hope for the future. It is a very readable, concise history of Indian cricket, closely intertwined with the story of the rise of contemporary India on the world stage.