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How Cricket Mirrors Indian Society, For Better And For Worse

Americans can seem a little sports-crazy, thanks to multimillion-dollar salaries for stars and big games that are practically national holidays. But our passion for sports has its limits: football, baseball and basketball, yes. Cricket? Not so much. In contrast, perhaps no country has more passion for a sport — any sport — than India has for cricket.

James Astill, political editor of The Economist, ranged around India while he was South Asia correspondent for the magazine. He discovered that cricket reflects some of the best, worst and most charmingly peculiar forces that shape modern India. In his new book, The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Spectacular Rise of Modern Indian, he writes the story of the massive popularity, big money (both legal and illicit) and pure passion involved in India's love for the game.

Astill tells NPR's Scott Simon about cricketer celebrity, how mobsters are involved in the game and why cricket means so much to India's poorest populations.

Interview Highlights

On just how popular cricket is in India

"When the IPL, the Indian Premier League, India's most popular domestic cricket tournament — it's worth several billion dollars, it's estimated — when that tournament runs for seven weeks in April and May each year, Bollywood stops releasing movies, because Indians just don't go to the cinema. They stay at home and they watch cricket on television.

"There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when Bollywood idols were the biggest celebrities in India. That's no longer true. The Indian national cricketers, national heroes, are very much the biggest stars in India today."

On the role mobsters play in the Indian cricket economy

"They are a very important part of the illegal Indian gambling industry. Betting on cricket is illegal. And because Indians nonetheless like to bet on cricket, and don't mind breaking rules, this has led to the growth of an enormous criminal enterprise, which is run, at least partly, by mobsters — some of the biggest in the world — based in countries of the Arabian Gulf and Pakistan. And mostly Muslims from Bombay, or Mumbai, as it's now called, who have been driven out of India by law enforcement agencies but nonetheless seem to be able to run their criminal enterprises in India uninterrupted. "

On whether all the major cricket games are fixed

James Astill is a political editor at <em>The Economist. </em><em>The Great Tamasha</em> is his first book.
Mian Ridge / Courtesy Bloomsbury USA
Courtesy Bloomsbury USA
James Astill is a political editor at The Economist. The Great Tamasha is his first book.

"Well, perhaps I'm a little too optimistic, but I don't think that's anything like true. ... The interview that you refer to, with an illegal bookmaker in Mumbai who was working for a gangster, he was convinced that most international games are fixed. I am very sure, and indeed there is evidence to show, that many have been — and in a sort of recent blight of international and domestic cricket, we're seeing a different kind of fixing where individual cricketers get bought out to do predictable things in a match, so to get out after scoring a certain number of runs or to bowl a bad delivery or a wide delivery. And that is just incredibly difficult to detect and police."

On whether the rise in cricket has helped create ethnic amity and economic mobility

"Yes and no. You know, for example, the low-caste Hindus, once called untouchables, who were reviled in Hinduism traditionally and are now around the poorest third of India's population — they are conspicuously absent from India's elite cricket teams. They just don't play cricket, it seems. And that is, of course, because cricket and economic opportunity are quite closely associated.

"But more recently, the enormous growth of this Indian cricket culture, which is, of course, coincidental with economic growth more broadly, has indeed been associated with a great rise of opportunity, in the economy generally and noticeably in cricket. So you're seeing a new kind of Indian cricket star emerging. In the past, he tended to be from a rather privileged, high-Hindu-class, Anglophone elite, often based in a couple of very big cities: Delhi, Mumbai. But now that pitch has completely changed. The modern Indian cricket star is very likely to come from a poor family, not to speak English well ... if at all. He's more likely than not to come from a small town in India where perhaps people didn't even play cricket until 10 or 20 years ago, when TV arrived and spread the popularity of the game. So cricket mirrors Indian society; it shows the fault lines in Indian society even as it unites Indians in their cricket enthusiasm."

On the last scene in the book

"I take a wander through one of the biggest slums in Mumbai, called Dharavi: home to perhaps a million people, a sort of shanty in the middle of India's commercial capital. So on the night of a really big cricket match, I wandered through the slum to see who was watching the game, what it meant to them. And I found that there was a television set in every tiny hutment, in which perhaps a dozen people would be crammed together. I spoke to people about the game, and what cricket meant to them, and about how they played the game, and indeed got a powerful sense of the tremendous consolation that it provided to these poor, incredibly hard-working people who might have an afternoon off each week. And the boys and the youths and the men, who'd come to the city from their villages to earn a few rupees to send back to their families, played cricket. It was the dearest thing in their lives.

I spoke to people about the game, and what cricket meant to them ... the tremendous consolation that it provided to these poor, incredibly hard-working people ... It was the dearest thing in their lives.

"And there was a lot of controversy in the cricket-following world, outside India, about what the growth of India's cricket economy means for the game, the future of the game — because India's demand is for a heavily commercialized, glitzy, short form of cricket, a very much anti-traditional kind of cricket. That is changing the game in a way that many foreigners, including Brits, don't like. But when I saw what that cricket — what any cricket, really — meant to so many poor boys on a dark night in Mumbai, I thought, 'Well, it's your right to have the cricket that you want. Because cricket means more to you than it ever could to anyone sitting comfortably in Britain or Australia or South Africa, or those other rich countries where cricket is followed.' "

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