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THE GREAT TAMASHA: CRICKET, CORRUPTION AND THE TURBULENT RISE OF MODERN INDIA
By James Astill
Wisden, $35

James Astill's exploration of India's grand obsession took him into the highest offices of cricket and commerce - often one and the same - as well as onto the maidans and into the teeming backstreets. In a bookshop, he met Bengali sociologist and author Ashis Nandy, who once wrote that cricket is ''an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English''.

Astill expands: ''He argues that Indians prefer slow-burning dramas and endless digression, that they have an equivocal view of destiny, in which victory and defeat are always partial.'' At the end of their conversation, Nandy says to Astill: ''I don't see much of cricket in this IPL business.''

But there is much of India in this IPL business, a modern and transformed India, a nouveau riche India, a titillated India. In this IPL business, at some grounds, the incoming batsman's salary is flashed up on the scoreboard as well as his batting average. Astill vividly describes his first experience of the IPL, a psychedelic event in Delhi. ''It was a rubbish game of cricket,'' he writes. ''But for millions of Indian viewers, this was the cricket of their dreams. It was the purest tamasha.'' Tamasha is a Hindi word for entertainment, and the title of Astill's book.

Astill was for three years south Asia bureau chief for The Economist. The Great Tamasha is as much the accomplishment of a personal as professional end. He threw himself so wholly into the project that one day in Rawalpindi, he faced up in the nets to the fearfully fast, but this day merciful Shoaib Akhtar. Astill demonstrates how the development of Indian cricket parallels its political and economic evolution, making the IPL as inevitable as it is trashy.

Indian cricket always has been a game cherished by the masses, but played by elites and run by charming, rogue-ish demi-royals - maharajahs then, tycoons now.

Caste, religion, politicking, nepotism and corruption all have played their part, sometimes to a comical degree. Astill tells of Indian board vice-president Niranjan Shah, who has run cricket in Saurashtra for 40 years, and whose son is captain of that state, despite averaging 28. He has had contracts with three IPL teams, but never appeared.

For touching contrast, Astill spends a day with the humble Arvind Pujara, who for two decades has dipped into his own pocket to coach boys in two tattered nets in a stadium owned by the Indian railways in Rajkot. One was his son, Cheteshawar, who began at four, and at 21 played a match-winning innings on Test debut against Australia in Bangalore, and was received with garlands and rose petals upon his return to Rajkot that night, and at 7am the next day was back in the nets with his father.

Television prefigured revolution. When Sachin Tendulkar began, there were 30 million TV households in India. Now, after the pageant of his retirement, there are close to 200 million. Here, Rupert Murdoch's sport-as-battering-ram philosophy has had its fullest flowering. Televised cricket swamps all other entertainment, even Bollywood, with which it shares an entranced nexus. ''Whenever movies and cricket compete in our country, cricket wins,'' the head of a major film production company tells Astill.

The sums associated with the IPL are astronomical, and a matter of pride. ''India, for so long poor and embarrassed, (is) at last emerging as a global power - and the IPL seemed to many Indians like a powerful symbol of that,'' writes Astill. In their euphoria, few are mindful of collateral damage. One is that the national team has lost its edge. ''India's unique and multitudinous passion for cricket, (fully) harnessed, would unleash a torrent of sporting talent unprecedented in history in any game,'' Astill says. ''But it will not happen, because the good of Indian cricket is not the chief priority of the politicians who run the BCCI.''

Nor is the good of world cricket. The inevitable expansion of the IPL is suffocating the increasingly fragile international game. ''For cricket tragics, it is a depressing outlook,'' Astill writes. ''India, a country that has so enriched cricket, is now the gravest threat to its most precious traditions.'' Unapologetically. '''Like in baseball,'' the tyrannical Niranjan Shah tells Astill, ''America is not worried whether other country is playing or not.''