The Economist’s South Asia bureau chief finds the game of cricket a telling metaphor for what ails and heals the new India.
Cricket has functioned as a tool to both institutionalize India’s caste system and break it. From a quintessentially Victorian gentleman’s game, cricket was first adopted by the Brahmin class of Zoroastrians from Gujarat, and prosperous merchants, who started the first clubs in Bombay. From Hindu clubs to Muslim, Astill sees cricket’s subsequent growth across India as “unplanned, organic and almost exclusively on sectarian lines.” Even the positions on the team formed along class lines: Gentleman batted, and working men bowled. Early Indian princes captured the public’s imagination; by the time of Indian independence, cricket had not only been firmly institutionalized, but it had taken on a highly theatrical quality. Yet partition proved a blow to Indian cricket, as the best bowlers were absorbed by Pakistan. The bitter India-Pakistan rivalry precluded meeting on the cricket field between 1952 and 1977 (and again after the Mumbai attack in 2008). The rise of corporate patronage vastly changed the game, as did the association with Bollywood celebrity. The slow-moving matches on which Ashis Nandy’s The Tao of Cricket (1989) were based were already giving way to a shorter, faster game after India’s 1983 World Cup victory, inviting new money, TV sponsorship, corruption and match-fixing. Astill traces political and corporate infiltration of the game, such as by the powerful Sharad Pawar, International Cricket Council boss, and Lalit Modi, creator of the glamorous, shaky Indian Premier League. Alternating with his prodigious research, the author chronicles his passionate watching and playing of the game, from city green to slum, finding among the lowest castes an admirable motivation and “remarkable consolation.”
A stirring study by an enthusiast of the game.