The Great Tamasha - Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India
Author: James Astill
Wisden Sports Writing
So you think the Hesson/McCullum coup d'etat amid the much-publicised Taylorgate fiasco in New Zealand cricket was cataclysmic?
Okay, within the confines of New Zealand it most certainly did polarise a lion's share of the country but, put in the context of global cricket politics, it starts looking relatively tame, like an age-group squad selection gone wrong.
Author James Astill's The Great Tamasha - Cricket, Corruption and the Turbulent Rise of Modern India offers an enthralling account of how lucky, if not bereft of ideas, the rest of the world is when it comes to the summer sport.
As the political editor of The Economist, Astill uses his knowledge to attempt to not only illuminate the darker alleyways of India's No1 sport but also how cricket now forms the worn-out undergarment of the country's economy.
At a cursory glance he comes across as just another cynical Englishman relishing the opportunity to abort Mother India of her cultural diversity, albeit caught up in a web of complexities.
Closer scrutiny, though, reveals the multiaward-winning newspaper journalist has done a remarkable job of researching material to depict the birth of a sport the subcontinent usurped from its former colonial masters.
Astill borrows the opening line from The Tao of Cricket, by Bengali sociologist Ashis Nandy, to aptly define the Indian perception: "Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English."
Unarguably profound, but India has eerily succeeded in taking the gentlemen's game to another realm of disbelief.
Akin to a cult of deception, multitudes started worshipping at the altar of a condemned "false prophet", Lalit Modi, whose doctrine is primarily the basis of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
No one, it seems, is immune to the new denomination of a century-old religion.
The IPL bug doesn't differentiate, infecting everyone from the slumdogs to squillionaires to home-grown royalty to Bollywood celebrities and wannabe princes.
So much so that it has stolen the sheen off the once-revered actors who acquired the status of demi-gods.
For a country that got its fix from slow-burning dramas in the mould of soap-like Bollywood movies, it's frightening that a hit-and-giggle format is close to making the game of patience (test cricket) almost extinct.
Simply put, IPL equals rupees in the great tamasha, which in its literal translation is "entertainment".
However, tamasha is more often a euphemism for a "joke" or - in the Hindustani language I'm familiar with - something that has become farcical.
The dethroning of Modi is testament to how the religion outgrew its founder and, consequently, prompted his followers to plot his demise before forcing him into exile.
A country that admired his entrepreneurial dexterity soon grew to envy his lust for power.
Bookmakers are merely pawns who become sacrificial lambs to quell the western media.
How long will it be before the bottom falls off the IPL?
Former Indian batsman WV Raman aptly sums it up for Astill: "T20 is like a porn movie. I mean, it's okay for a bit but how long can you watch the bonking?"
Veteran actress Preity Zinta, whom I interviewed at McLean Park, Napier, in March 2009, candidly reveals she's the glue that binds the Kings XI Punjabs as well as becoming visual bubblegum for the fans.
Her contribution to team camaraderie boils down to breaking a lifetime's habit of flying in first-class digs to join the boys in economy flights to matches.
What does Zinta know about cricket?
Not much. "But that's Twenty20, isn't it? It's all fours and sixes," she explains.
The populace who once turned to religion for an escape clause for their poverty-stricken existence are now finding their heaven on earth, as it were.
Reinforcing that belief is the seasonal commitment of a foreign legion, such as Shane Warne who in his heyday reluctantly travelled to the subcontinent with supplies of canned baked beans for fear of contracting the Delhi belly but is now gleefully rubbing his tummy to make the right noises.
That foreign legion now finds a pivotal foetal position in the belly of Mother India to incantations of the virtues of Twenty20.
The author meticulously weaves delicate strands of history with the more contemporary fibres to depict the evolution of culture to whet the insatiable appetite for cricket.
It starts with the maharajas' love for cricket before meandering to the growth and impact of cable TV that spawned its own share of moguls.
The irony is India's caste system, which the colonial masters attempted to eradicate during their reign but hypocritically condoned in Britain.
The native nobility in India fancied themselves as distinguished batsmen and unashamedly profited from the luxury of time and resources.
While the untouchables prepared the pitches they also honed their skills but unwittingly gave rise to match fixing in ensuring the princes carved up centuries at state level.
Enveloping the battle against colonialism was the cocoon of a never-ending civil war to break the shackles of a hierarchical domination that raped India of talent almost to the turn of the 21st century.
Some would argue it still exists, although technocrats will insist they are clueless when it comes to determining the caste of those living in their middle-class, workstation neighbourhood.
Throw in the Muslim factor and India becomes a hotbed of xenophobia in the disguise of nationalism.
Astill interviews former Indian and Pakistan internationals in his warts-and-all approach and isn't shy to ask the hard questions for fear of not receiving an invite to the next glitzy gathering of socialites.
A few Black Caps and Kiwi identities are thrown in for good measure, too.
I enjoyed the "So where are they?" moments in the book where he tracks down players such as Vinod Kambli, Sachin Tendulkar's schoolboy opening batting partner, who aimed for the stars but landed on the moon.
Perhaps the best indicator of cultural degradation is illustrated in the local women's distaste for IPL's hired, hot pants-clad cheerleaders cavorting in a country where salacious scenes in films often trigger widespread protests and riots.
Astill's research shows the politics of cricket seeps through not only to the chambers of parliament but also challenges the judicial system.
This book will no doubt enhance cricket lovers' comprehension of the intangible catalysts that go into heightening the tension in matches involving India, Pakistan and the West Indies.