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Cricket: a metaphor for what ails and heals India

Suresh Menon | | Updated: October 7, 2015, 4:20 PM IST

In an essay he wrote some years ago, Pico Iyer said, "In the mid-19th century, the British famously sent the Bible and Shakespeare and cricket round the world; now a more international kind of Empire is sending Madonna and the Simpsons and Brad Pitt."

Whatever the state of the Bible and Shakespeare in India, it is the audience that adores the Simpsons and Brad Pitt that flocks the cricket stadiums today. Seen in the context of India's growth, there is an inevitability about the IPL. It is this inevitability that James Astill, the political editor of The Economist and former bureau chief in New Delhi, captures while tracing the emergence of modern India through its greatest national obsession in The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India.

Once satellite television opened up the skies and the possibilities, cricket merely tapped into its huge, ready-made audience now able to watch its heroes from the comfort of the drawing rooms. TV rights for the biggest audience in the world made the BCCI the richest cricket board, and from there to dominating the world game was the inevitable step.

From interviews with the players to the officials to the media to Bollywood stars and corporate honchos the dots are connected to reveal a pattern that is both clear and occasionally surprising. Yet it is possible that if the author had spoken to another set of players and officials and media and corporate honchos, the new dots might have revealed a pattern diametrically opposite from the one he finished with. Whatever you say about India, the reverse is equally true.

"There is a great passion for cricket in this country," the late Tiger Pataudi told Astill, "but little knowledge."

Nothing exemplifies this better than the IPL. "The thrill of T20 is in the moment," writes Astill, "and as soon as it becomes clear who will win, the moment is past." Describing the crowd leaving the stadium after a match he says, "No one seemed angry, rowdy or drunk. But nor was anyone discussing the game. It was already gone and forgotten."

It was a while before Indian cricket shook off the need to imitate the game played in England. The IPL is an Indian game accidentally invented in England. It has imitators of its own across the world. But for the volume of money involved and  the sheer chutzpah of its organisers, the BCCI, it stands alone while reflecting the new India, confident (almost arrogant), corrupt, self-absorbed and with a fetish for making money, no matter what the means.

"India is becoming powerful," writes Astill. "It will be a long time before it forgets how it felt to be weak."

Yet, cricket, which was a class conscious sport evolved into the one area of human endeavor in India where merit alone mattered. This despite the  sport reflecting, in Astill's words, the "feudal, corrupt and vindictive" nature of politics in the country.

Astill tells the story of Shane Warne rejecting a player for Rajasthan Royals who came highly recommended by an influential gent. Yet even he, a paid-up member of the club with the one-point agenda to sing the IPL's praises, a club which includes the commentators, the players, the officials and fringe figures, confesses that Test cricket is what matters.

Does cricket really matter in the IPL? It seems incidental. It is a three-and-a-half hour reality show on TV where salaries matter, auctions matter, entertainment is key and everything is reduced to fours and sixes. Does that mean cricket is dying in India?

Astill does not think so. The book ends on a positive note. The real fans, he says, are elsewhere. After spending time slums of Dharavi, he writes, "Indian cricket resides far from the elite, the corrupt politicians, tycoons and turkey-cocking film stars who have laid claim to it. Here, in the slums and villages, what was once an English game thrills and unites millions - including those accelerating away from poverty, and many who have not yet made the break. Cricket is their relief, their excitement, the main ingredient of national culture that they have embraced. It belongs to them too."

T20 which began as an inclusive sport  has evolved into its opposite in the IPL.  It is tempting to think the average fan is preparing to reclaim his sport. To restore its primacy undistracted by money, fame and dancing girls.
First Published: July 31, 2013, 2:11 PM IST

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