Review: The Great Tamasha August 24, 2013

India via its cricket

A new book by a foreign correspondent based in the country offers a wide range of voices, if not much in terms of fresh perspective

Entirely unintended, one of the effects of The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India is a gentle meditation on the place of the foreign correspondent in modern-day journalism. They are not what they used to be, and neither any longer as many as they used to be. In one sense, being a foreign correspondent has always had the in-built limitation that the equally inherent romanticism of the role has swept aside, the one that veteran Pamela Constable once articulated.

"I have always been acutely aware," she confessed, having ticked off over 35 countries in her tour of duty, "that no matter how deeply I burrowed into a society or how many people I interviewed, I was only peeling back the most superficial layers of complex, murky worlds in which people routinely lied, every incident had a contradictory version, and no 1500-word article could possibly do justice to the truth."

Constable operated in a different world. Today, the wandering hack is further emaciated, not least because countries now do a pretty good job of corresponding about themselves. India especially, Pakistan increasingly, now communicate to the world on their own; should you have an internet connection, they are waiting online for you to discover what you want about them.

The deeper picture that once emerged from the vast sweeps of Emma Duncan's Breaking the Curfew or Mark Tully's No Full Stops in India can now be pieced together, local news report by local news report, feature by feature, essay by essay, academic paper by academic paper, tweet by tweet, novel by novel, through the countries' traditional and non-traditional media. So much, in fact, is already out there that books by foreign correspondents about the countries they are stationed in are condemned by a kind of sneering, live-there-know-that wariness: how much did they really get the country they are in?

James Astill was for four years the Economist's South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi, a stint that coincided with the birth, rise and stumbling of the Indian Premier League. That momentous and sudden arrival underpins The Great Tamasha, an entrepreneurial tale as purposely observant of Indian cricket as it is of India; India is, therefore is Indian cricket. The scope is wide, Astill arching back and arriving at the IPL, this Indian tamasha, from that English sport.

Much of this territory is as well trodden as a Delhi footpath. Nattily written as it is, Astill's promenading into caste and social class, nationalism and religion is of the sort that has been accomplished with much greater depth and care in Ramachandra Guha's magnificent A Corner of a Foreign Field or Mihir Bose's History of Indian Cricket. In a very different style, Richard Cashman's lesser-cited Patrons, Players, and the Crowd: The Phenomenon of Indian Cricket was a vital study (and surprisingly evocative, somehow, for such a studied, serious text of Hrishikesh Mukherjee's India).

But foreign correspondents retain benefits, particularly in the degree of relatively unfettered access they are sometimes granted. This malaise still hangs over India-Pakistan officialdom that the more foreign the journalist, the more unguardedly they talk. So as Astill moves to more contemporary history he peppers it with some compelling, revealing conversations. Here is Niranjan Shah, kingpin of Saurashtra cricket, and more importantly BCCI vice-president, speaking as dismissively of international cricket - and the ICC - as any current administrator has: "Like in baseball, America is not worried whether other country is playing or not," he tells Astill.

There is PB Vanchi, head of GMR Sports, owners of the Delhi Daredevils, breathing fire on the city of his franchise and the fans it targets. "I've never loved Delhi," Vanchi confides, before concluding that building a fan base in the capital "is very difficult because there is no factor like loyalty in Delhi".

It is in these modern explorations that Astill is most adept and revelatory, in laying bare the disdain the BCCI holds the rest of the world in, or the broader fickleness of the IPL. Would either Shah or Vanchi have spoken so candidly to a local journalist? Unimaginable.

At every step Astill stays apace with the story of India as well, a story he is well placed to recount. But it is mostly a recounting rather than new insight or fresh perspective, though there is an admirably wide range of voices (including a slightly delusional Preity Zinta). And there are just enough errors to reinforce Constable's fears, especially frustrating from a political editor of the Economist with experience in the region: Indira Gandhi's Emergency was imposed in 1975 not 1977, and Lahore's Gaddafi stadium was not named thus in the time of General Zia-ul-Haq but by the leader Zia sent to the noose, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Apolitical cricket buffs will also wait in line with their aha's. Some might even argue that the use of "tamasha" in the title and as a running theme - "Indians want more tamasha," Astill writes towards the end - is mildly condescending, implying that Indians can only appreciate cricket as some simple, hard-hitting, loud, raucous spectacle.

The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India
by James Astill
307 pages (hardback)

Osman Samiuddin is a writer based in the UAE

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Venkat on August 26, 2013, 22:20 GMT

    Some writing here on "slash and burn "( pun intended) cricket, I wish to ask , how many of you have traveled to India?. Or , how many of you are aware of last season's Ranji trophy winners. Let alone that, how many teams play in the ranji trophy?, how long does it span, what are the different conditions they are played under?, The answer to these questions, India has the longest and the largest First class structure in the world. Now, how come India is neglecting Test cricket?.

    Never generalize based on what is reported or what is seen on TV.

  • Anil on August 26, 2013, 20:06 GMT

    Osman, may it be your commentary on regular day-to-day cricket affairs, match analysis, year-end reviews (full of gut-churning satire), tour diaries or soulful, incisive reports on "cricketive" administrative and political matters, you are being missed on Cricinfo pages. This one is a very good one, offers glimpses into India from a different perspective, and allures me to get a copy. Still, I urge you to write more on these pages; I am sure many Cricinfo-visitors will agree! You are too good to be missed here!

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2013, 16:13 GMT

    There been a perception that the Younger Generation of India endorses and follows Slang-Bang Version of 20-20 Cricket, which is really not the case. Indian Youths follow all the three versions and love to see their team faring well, be it any version of the three. They are more passionate and likely to more critical about the teams performance than the other nations. I remember the response they gave to the IPL and the champion league tournaments which came up shortly after the disastrous tours of Australia and England. The responses were cold and it reflected in the TRP ratings too. The reality is majority of the Indians prefer to watch the action in the screens rather than in the stadiums, more so for test cricket the same being a 5 day affair. But you will always see a good crowd on weekends for test matches as well. Admit, Test attendance been a problem in the Metro cities on weekdays as people prefer to follow the game on electronic medias in between their official activities.

  • GAURAV on August 25, 2013, 7:08 GMT

    test cricket will be pumping blood in the big 4 but its awful to see abomination of test cricket in front of cricket paying public whose fault was nothing but to come and expect a contest.It is time for the decision makers of this game to come forward and tighten few things such as over rate,time delaying tactics and dull boring draws.Every test match should have an impact towards the points of test championship so that no team starts playing for draw from the first innings onwards.If fans are not taken seriously by players then the game will be threatened to slide for doom.

  • Dummy4 on August 24, 2013, 20:27 GMT

    Hmmm, and what about when you cant get an orange anymore? If the three formats went the way of witty's comment, and three separate teams played them, how long would the longest format last? For that matter, why stop there, call it all off in favour of a 20/20 league world wide, where all youngsters aim only to be able to hit 28 off 6 and be a handy bowler able to concentrate for 4 overs. Yes the history of cricket demanded some adjustments and the 1 day was born and later the t20. However at the rate the t20 leagues and internationals are going and with the cash involved, orange season might well no longer be an option. We will instead, be stuck with witty's apples only. Always like a healthy debate:) Cheers witty.

  • Ashok on August 24, 2013, 16:14 GMT

    Let us face it! Whenever there is a great "Tamasha" (Show), the whole world is interested in seeing what it is all about. If the "Tamasha" is good, it attracts crowd who stay with it. This is the very basis of IPL. They have combined the Hollywood magic with Cricket- both the top attractions in Indian masses. The very birth of IPL & its sustainance for 6 years is a stroke of luck & genius of entrepreanual abilities of the Indians. This is the greatest Tamasha at least on the Indian soil for most fans. It provides fun & enjoyment to millions on TV & online besides live show. This is Indian way to enjoy-alternate to Night Clubs, Casinos, Pubs & Bars. Despite all the inherent corruption, India has risen well above expectations of any western imaginations. It is competing strongly with G-8 Powers & will soon displace a few by its growing technology & innovative ideas. New forms of enjoyment such as IPL is one such innovation, even if it appears like a "Tamasha" to the Economist Astill!

  • Uday on August 24, 2013, 14:18 GMT

    Good Article. Do not agree with comments of "F" that smash'n'go cricket is detrimental and is today a sad state of affairs. A well fought century in tough conditions as well as 29 or 36 runs in 5 or 6 balls are equally creditworthy in different forms of cricket. If I like an Apple; does NOT mean that Orange is bad. It is just an individual choice especially in todays world compared to yester years where 5 days of boring test cricket draws did not allow the game of cricket to prosper at all. No game (one game) in any form of sports today lasts for 5 days (with a rest day in the past) and many turning into a draw. Cricket would have died by now if ODIs were not introduced about more than 2-3 decades ago or T20 introduced few years ago. Very soon we might have 3 diefferent national teams for 3 forms of cricket and "F" could watch only Test cricket if he/she choses to do so.

  • Android on August 24, 2013, 10:09 GMT

    smash'n'go cricket in on the rise which in my opinion is detrimental in so many ways...and no one has embraced it quiet like India, bar the Caribbean. Sad state of affairs when 29 off six balls is celebrated with more fervor than a well faught century in tough conditions.....

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