As conquerors, concepts and cuisines have discovered, Indianisation is inevitable once the borders into the country are crossed. We absorb and ingest, rejig and make our own. This is both inspiring and worrying.
The social scientist Ashish Nandy once wrote that cricket was an Indian game accidentally invented in England. The IPL, by contrast, is an American sport accidentally invented in India. Nandy tells the author of this delightful book about the “rhythm and the algorithm” of the game that finds resonance in South Asia, but this is not a book about why cricket is popular. It is more ambitious in scope—it attempts to find in cricket the echoes of national character—a changing one—and explain India through its favourite sport.
James Astill, political editor of The Economist, was stationed in New Delhi for three years from 2007 and thus ideally placed to see the dramatic changes wrought by the IPL. A more important qualification is that he is a fully paid-up member of the club of cricket obsessives who are happiest when watching, discussing or fantasising about the game. The book gains from the marriage between the rigour of a professional journalist and the passion of a lifelong fan.
Cricket here is not just an excuse to squeeze facts to fit prejudices. Astill lets the overall picture emerge from the history, interviews with players, officials, fans, Bollywood stars and corporate honchos. V.S. Naipaul has spoken of how he “throws hooks into a subject” and writes about whatever comes up with them. It is a technique that serves Astill well, as he tells us how cricket reflects the “feudal, corrupt and vindictive” nature of politics in the country.
Contemporary cricket, in fact modern India, was born with the opening up of the skies and satellite television. The 1982 football World Cup, shown live on Doordarshan, was a reality check for fans who worshipped local heroes, and were startled to see that world-class players seemed to be on another planet altogether. Attendances at local matches actually dropped. Next year, when the cricket World Cup was shown, India happened to win the title, and the craze exploded. Still, it was another decade before private channels brought their techniques and cheque books to telecasting sports—Astill tells the story of the tug-of-war without condescension while being fully aware of its historical necessity. It was the first step to making the cricket board the richest in the world, and the taking over of an English game with the same unexpectedness with which chicken tikka masala took over its cuisine.
Cricket is not about cricket alone in India, and genuine fans are not necessarily those flocking to the IPL. As Tiger Pataudi told Astill, “There is a great passion for cricket in this country, but little knowledge.” Astill’s comments on those he speaks to are fascinating too. Lalit Modi, he says, can be “extremely rude, even by the standards of rich Indians”. From the particular to the general in a few telling words.
If society reflects cricket so faithfully, would it be possible to stretch the comparison and predict how society might behave given the path cricket has taken? In other words, is the IPL both a comment on contemporary India as well as a precursor to the India to come?
The IPL is noisy, audacious, impertinent, and is the most popular domestic tournament in the world. The Srinivasans and the Shuklas and the other self-obsessed, egotistical administrators who care nothing for either public approval or validation in the rest of the world might, suggests Astill, actually be the way the new India might itself travel. “India is becoming powerful,” writes Astill. “It will be a long time before it forgets how it felt to be weak.” Is India becoming more self-absorbed, less caring and more corrupt? Perhaps it is. Just look at our cricket.
Yet, the book ends on a positive note. After spending time in slums in the north and west of India, especially Dharavi, Astill writes, “Indian cricket resides far from the elite, the corrupt politicians, tycoons and turkey-cocking film stars who have laid claim to it. Here, in the slums and villages, what was once an English game thrills and unites millions—including those accelerating away from poverty, and many who have not yet made the break. Cricket is their relief, their excitement, the main ingredient of national culture that they have embraced. It belongs to them too.”
To see so much, and yet retain hope—that is the book’s strength.
(Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack)
We at Outlookindia.com welcome feedback and your comments, including scathing criticism
1. Scathing, passionate, even angry critiques are welcome, but please do not indulge in abuse and invective. Our Primary concern is to keep the debate civil. We urge our users to try and express their disagreements without being disagreeable. Personal attacks are not welcome. No ad hominem please.
2. Please do not post the same message again and again in the same or different threads
3. Please keep your responses confined to the subject matter of the article you are responding to. Please note that our comments section is not a general free-for-all but for feedback to articles/blogs posted on the site
4. Our endeavour is to keep these forums unmoderated and unexpurgated. But if any of the above three conditions are violated, we reserve the right to delete any comment that we deem objectionable and also to withdraw posting privileges from the abuser. Please also note that hate-speech is punishable by law and in extreme circumstances, we may be forced to take legal action by tracing the IP addresses of the poster.
5. If someone is being abusive or personal, or generally being a troll or a flame-baiter, please do not descend to their level. The best response to such posters is to ignore them and send us a message at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT
6. Please do not copy and paste copyrighted material. If you do think that an article elsewhere has relevance to the point you wish to make, please only quote what is considered fair-use and provide a link to the article under question.
7. There is no particular outlookindia.com line on any subject. The views expressed in our opinion section are those of the author concerned and not that of all of outlookindia.com or all its authors.
8. Please also note that you are solely responsible for the comments posted by you on the site. The comments could be deleted or edited entirely at our discretion if we find them objectionable. However, the mere fact of their existence on our site does not mean that we necessarily approve of their contents. In short, the onus of responsibility for the comments remains solely with the authors thereof. Outlookindia.com or any of its group publications, may, however, retains the right to publish any of these comments, with or without editing, in any medium whatsoever. It is therefore in your own interest to be careful before posting.
9.Outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for how any search engine -- such as Google, Bing etc -- caches or displays these comments. Please note that you are solely responsible for posting these comments and it is a privilege being granted to our registered users which can be withdrawn in case of abuse. To reiterate:
a. Comments once posted can only be deleted at the discretion of outlookindia.com
b. The comments reflect the views of the authors and not of outlookindia.com
c. outlookindia.com is not responsible in any manner whatsoever for the way search engines cache or display these comments
d. Please therefore take due caution before you post any comments as your words could potentially be used against you
10. We have an online thread for our comments policy:
You are welcome to post your suggestions here or in case you have a specific issue, to directly email us at Mail AT outlookindia DOT com with the subject header COMPLAINT