Since its inauguration in 2008, the Indian Premier League, India’s biggest sporting and television spectacle, has often been on the front rather than the sports page of Indian newspapers. “Rich, fast and powerful,” this abbreviated version of the British sport of cricket became “for many an image of the new India,” as James Astill writes in “The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India.” Intoxicating the country’s emerging middle class, it “also drew in a powerful horde of investors and chancers -- film stars, politicians and billionaire tycoons.”
Today, mismanaged finances, precariously leveraged corporate owners, players in cahoots with illegal gamblers and vulgarity in general characterize this upstart challenge to traditional cricket.
I write, of course, as a recent apostate from cricket, the fiercest of Indian religions, which is Britain’s strangest inheritance to the subcontinent (or, as Ashis Nandy, one of India’s leading public intellectuals, put it, an “Indian game accidentally discovered by the British”). I have seen players I once idolized for their skill and serene assurance turn into dissimulating minions of the IPL, whose “silence” over the steady undermining of Indian cricket “has been bought,” Astill writes. As bitterly as those whose god has failed, I monitor news reports of the IPL’s moral perdition, which I fervently hope against hope are also portents of its demise.
Two recent headlines in particular caught my eye. In May, a man allegedly kidnapped and killed his teenage cousin in a ransom plan gone wrong -- an attempt to pay off debts incurred while betting on Indian Premier League matches. Another man was caught impersonating an IPL official, duping small-town aspiring cricketers.
Certainly, the IPL arrived on a landscape of aspiration altered by India’s economic liberalization. This was a huge, and admirable, change in itself. Cricket once seemed a forbiddingly elite, metropolitan and upper-class club. If you lived in a poor state like Uttar Pradesh and aspired for cricketing glory -- I was one of these no-hopers -- your hopes were more likely to be dashed rather than advanced by a coach or cricket board official. These men would have their own progeny and nephews and nieces to promote up the long sporting hierarchy. At the very least, they would demand cash and an introduction to your sister, if not explicit sexual favors.
The iron doors to cricketing distinction were cracked open by, among many others, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, one of India’s richest cricketers, who comes from a small city called Ranchi. Cricketers from hardscrabble backgrounds can get wealthy overnight in the IPL; the bonanza from its television and advertising rights and endorsement deals has already shifted power in international cricket from the West -- formerly colonial countries such as England and Australia, in this instance -- to the East.
Some of the buccaneers running Indian cricket associations have used their newly found power very crudely against the former rulers of cricket, proving that anti-colonialism, as much as patriotism, can be the last refuge of the scoundrel. But the possibility of humiliation doesn’t deter the English and Australian cricketers, commentators and coaches who want to get their hands on Indian cricket’s honeypot. A ghostwriter for one of Australia’s most famous cricketers recently told me that his collaborator refused to disclose all he knew about Indian cricketers and match-fixing in his book as he still hopes for a lucrative job in India.
But more money and the enhanced capacity of the underprivileged to aspire -- a combination that in China is producing world-beating tennis and basketball players -- doesn’t translate into an enduring and broadened pool of achievers in India. With its 1 billion-plus population, Astill writes, “India is much less good at cricket than it should be,” still struggling to beat New Zealand, a country of 4 million people.
But then, India’s performance in cricket is only more evidence of shockingly underutilized potential in almost every realm of economy and culture. All the great talent, wealth and glamour of Mumbai have yet to result in a single film comparable to the best Iran has consistently offered during a decade of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and stifling Western sanctions. For that matter, no Indian company has come close to the international brand recognition of Hong Kong’s Haier Electronics Group Co. Ltd. and China’s Lenovo Group Ltd.
Seeking to figure out India’s “poor record of harnessing the talents of its vast population,” Astill deploys the unusual stratagem of watching and playing cricket matches in remote villages and towns, while looking at cricket association memberships and balance sheets.
A former correspondent for the Economist in India, Astill is an unusual sponsor of the cultural-studies view of South Asia. He also writes with solicitude -- relatively rare in recent books about “rising” India -- for the also-rans, the perennially disadvantaged and the utterly hopeless. He recognizes that for even the most fortunate of them, the dream of emancipation is fraught with the likelihood of severe self-diminution. One gifted cricketer he meets in a Mumbai slum is wary of the hard leather ball that “might injure his hands, which he used to make tiny stitches on silk saris.” Writing from that perspective allows him to quickly get beyond the obvious, avoiding a commonplace journalistic deference to India’s mightiest, and very smooth-tongued, businessmen and politicians.
In fact, Astill brings a divertingly caustic energy to his encounters with the successful. He seems to know that the rules of the game in India, in life as in cricket, are fixed against the underprivileged. Back in the 1950s and ’60s, he writes, “India was a democracy in which power and wealth was controlled by a tiny elite.” The elite has more members than before, and innumerable more beating on its doors. But a “closer look at the way power is actually wielded in India” will show that the country’s “rags-to-riches success stories, in cricket and otherwise, are still exceptional, and highlight just how hard it remains for most people to get on.”
Older hierarchies -- such as those of caste -- may have altered their character under the pressures of electoral democracy. But Brahminism -- the conviction of entitlement, above all -- reincarnates itself endlessly in India. “Most political parties are family-run businesses, passed from father to son or daughter.” Business families, who benefited from India’s protectionist economy, are also the primary exponents of crony capitalism today. Dynasties of the incorrigibly second-rate partly account for the badness of Bollywood.
It should be no surprise that two-thirds of India’s 27 cricket associations are run by politicians. The main cricket council in India, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, spends less than 8 percent of its fabulous revenue on developing the game in India. Astill explains that “the good of Indian cricket is not the chief priority of the politicians who run the BCCI. They are mainly concerned to perpetuate their power. That is why they devote so much time to fighting their nasty civil wars and building Ozymandian stadiums where there are no cricket pitches for the poor boys to play on.” More disturbing, there is “little resistance” to this rampant subversion of democratic values and assertion of private privilege.
Writing of this wildly successful revolution of the elites in Indian cricket, Astill manages to elucidate the larger gridlock in India today. Unlike China, South Korea or Israel -- to take three countries with very different political systems -- India has very rarely had elites with a shared consensus about modernizing their country. Lately, even their rhetoric about uprooting feudalism, nepotism, corruption and other forms of unjust hierarchy has been strangely muted. India’s sectarian-minded rulers, presiding over both a patrimonial state and a winner-takes-all economy, have been mostly busy feathering their own nests.
Nor has the country’s poor majority -- fragmented by caste and region, and lulled by the promise of routine elections -- been well-placed to demand better treatment. In this sense, cricket, once synonymous with fairness, has indeed turned into an Indian game. If some of us feel especially aggrieved about its unlamented capture by special interests, it is because the men on the cricket pitch once represented, more than anyone else in the new India, the promise and appeal of egalitarian opportunity.
(Pankaj Mishra is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India.)
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