Book review: The Great Tamasha, By James Astill

The rupee rules at the wicket today. But can the old game survive in a new economic era?

The Indian word tamasha means fun, magic, live street theatre with totally unexpected twists, all rolled into one. For Indians, Bollywood films are tamasha and so is cricket.

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That India should have made cricket a tamasha is a familiar story of the world's great sponge absorbing a product, however foreign, and making it its own. But while it is remarkable that India should have done it with such a quintessentially English game and, arguably, the most structured of all ball games, it is not unique. Brazil, another emerging power, long ago took England's national game, football, and fashioned a very Brazilian version.

The crucial difference is that Brazil does not economically control football. It has to export its best players to Europe which remains in charge of the world game. In contrast, India is cricket's economic superpower, providing 80 per cent of world cricket's income. While English and Australian cricket followers are riveted by this summer's Ashes series, cricket administrators of both countries know they have to kowtow to India to generate the television income necessary to keep their cricket going.

India's rise has been helped by the odd nature of cricket. Unlike other team sports, where international matches provide the icing on a thriving domestic structure, cricket would die if there was no international competition. Even then this rupee take over of a Western sport is unprecedented. China used the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a giant coming-out party to mark the return of the Middle Kingdom to the top table. But the Olympics, like all other sports the world plays were not only created by the West, but remain firmly under Western control.

The Indian dominance of cricket has been reinforced by the Indian Premier League, a tournament of 20-over a side matches. Played for three hours in the evenings, it is cricket's version of a Bollywood movie and, exploiting the insatiable appetite of a youthful country of over 1.2 billion, it has, for the first time in the modern era, created a successful domestic cricket competition.

James Astill, the Economist's correspondent in India between 2007 and 2010, watched the rise of IPL and has used it to tell the wider story of modern India. Much of this story is known but while Astill relies on previously published material, what makes his book exceptional is his first-hand reporting.

We meet powerful Indian politicians from Sharad Power, who aspired to be prime minister and headed international cricket, to residents of Dharavi in Mumbai, one of the biggest slums in Asia. One of the most touching stories is of the railway clerk in Rajkot who, using a concrete pitch and tattered nets, has coached several first-class cricketers, including his son - now a leading light of India's Test team.

But this takeover of cricket cannot hide India's many problems: corruption, crony capitalism, a thriving democracy which has also made politics a family business and the tendency to talk about planning while refusing to plan. It is no surprise that IPL's creator, the businessman Lalit Modi, having fallen out with the establishment, is now in exile in London without a passport, the Indian government having revoked it. The rich Indian board spends so little on developing facilities that on the field India rarely performs like a superpower.

Astill relentlessly highlights all this and comes to the sad conclusion that India may end up killing the great traditions of cricket. The greater worry is that, with Indian politicians matching the short-sightedness of the cricket administrators, the country will never fulfil its desire to be a great power. China may not own a Western sport but it will always have the greater clout.

Mihir Bose's books include 'A History of Indian Cricket' (Andre Deutsch)