50 summers have passed since C.L.R. James asked, ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’ James’s belief, that this quaint game reveals profound truths of those who play and love it, is alive and well: evident in The Great Tamasha by James Astill, which describes India, and Cricket Cauldron by Shaharyar M. Khan, which fumigates Pakistan.
Astill, who is a Raja at The Economist, tells the story of India’s turbulent rise with reference to the history of cricket in India, where the sport is a form of entertainment – or tamasha, as numerous sub-continental languages have it.
Astill is a self-confessed ‘cricket tragic’ but he is good company nonetheless, with an eye for an anecdote and an ear for a joke. He is a daring story-teller: the book changes course with the regularity of the Brahmaputra, turning between politics, culture, crime, economics, celebrity and sport.
Astill can please those who are enthralled by the derring-do of India’s cricketing heroes, and he can grip those with an interest in the growth of Indian TV ownership. He explains that TV brought the stars into the lives of hundreds of millions of people, which turned a popular game into an economic and cultural phenomenon. Whatever cricket meant to Indians under the Raj (and it appears to have been a way to ‘get on’ or entertain religious and caste identities), it has become an expression of national confidence. Yet it can be surprisingly insular. Astill’s great strength is to be at ease both with nabobs and chai wallahs. Through his interviews and reportage, you get an impression of Indian society, its people and their concerns. Many Indians, of all castes and creeds, love only Indian cricket. The Ashes, for instance, is not tamasha.
The star of Astill’s drama is the Indian Premier League (IPL), because it is ‘emblematic of a great nation’s thrilling, yet fatefully turbulent rise.’ The IPL’s multi-million dollar revenues have transformed the lot of some professional cricketers. If properly managed, the league could bankroll the international game for decades. Astill, though, sounds a warning bell. The product is lousy, so the shekels cannot be taken for granted. And the market in players is skewed towards Indians and favourites of team managers, money men and national power brokers.
That unholy trinity often becomes one in the person of a plutocrat. Indian cricket, like Indian politics, is (and always has been) run by invariably pernicious elites, each one coloured by the country’s ancient enmities. Corrupt governments’ inept governance allows human tragedy to resist India’s great leap forward. Astill reports on many games of shanty town cricket played by illiterate, unkempt boys who live far from the plush grounds of Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai. Girls, of course, barely feature.
Notwithstanding these iniquities and inequalities, India’s great tamasha is something to behold. Yet, with each thundering six and with every leer at the IPL’s cheerleaders, something is lost. As Ashis Nandy, the curmudgeonly author of The Tao of Cricket, which argues that Indians took to cricket because it suits the Hindu temperament, put it to Astill: ‘I don’t see much of cricket in this IPL business’. Indeed, and perhaps the India of Nandy’s memory too?
Cricket Cauldron is very different but equally revealing. Shaharyar M. Khan was Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) between 2003-06, but before that he was Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK, Ambassador to France and Jordan, Foreign Secretary and the UN Security Council’s Special Representative to Rwanda. He writes, with compelling understanding, of the conceits of power in a dysfunctional country.
Cricket is politics in Pakistan. Khan says that he was appointed chairman of the PCB as a ‘sop to public opinion’ by General Musharraf. The general commanded Khan to win the 2007 World Cup (that’s where British politicians have been going wrong with our hapless footballers). Political oversight was such that Khan sometimes referred his decisions up the chain of command. For instance, the sacking of Javed Miandad, a Pakistani cricket-legend, as team coach was carried out with Musharraf’s blessing. And the team (a strange if beguiling beast) was often suborned to the regime’s will. President George W. Bush was treated to a net with Inzy and the boys in 2006. The photos are cracking:
Khan is not in the same league as Astill as a writer, but he must have been one hell of a diplomat. He shifts around dictators, terrorists, regional factions, ethnic and religious rivalries, the crooks, cowards and villains, but he never quite lets fly. He leaves that to another Khan, the great Imran, who laments in the foreword:
‘For me, the story of Pakistan cricket and the story of Pakistan today are one and the same – it is a story of unfulfilled promise.’
The waste runs thicker than the blood spilled in Lahore, Karachi and the Swat Valley.
The Great Tamasha by James Astill is published by Wisden Sports Writing, an imprint of Bloomsbury. (£18.99)
Cricket Cauldron by Shaharyar M. Khan is published by I.B. Tauris. (£19.99)