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How Cricket Mirrors Indian Society, For Better And For Worse

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How Cricket Mirrors Indian Society, For Better And For Worse

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How Cricket Mirrors Indian Society, For Better And For Worse

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And look. Tom and I know that U.S. sports can seem crazy. I saw a startling stat recently. The annual budget for the Lane Tech High School in Chicago, right near Wrigley Field, is $19 million. That's exactly the annual salary of the Cub's shortstop. Maybe no country's more mad - good and bad - for a sport, as India is for cricket.

James Astill was South Asia bureau chief for The Economist. He has written a book called the "Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Spectacular Rise of Modern India." It's a story of popularity, big money - both legal and illicit - celebrity and pure passion for the game, all of which reflect the charmingly peculiar forces that shape today's India. Now, Mr. Astill began our conversation by explaining that Bollywood even stopped showing films during major cricket tournaments because Indians simply don't go out to a show when cricket's on TV.

JAMES ASTILL: There was a time in the not so distance past when Bollywood idols were the biggest celebrities in India. That's no longer true. Cricket is Indian national cricket is national heroes, very much the biggest stars in India today.

SIMON: Reading this book, it struck me that the popularity of cricket today in India almost begins as a consequence of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

ASTILL: That's absolutely right, Scott, because of all the Indian migrant workers who were working in the Arabian Gulf and from demand for news of the war in Iraq/Kuwait, you very quickly got demand for the most popular content in India, which is, of course, cricket. So right around 1990, India had about 20 million households with a television set. Today it has nearly 200 million.

That is a phenomenal rate of growth. It's unprecedented in human history, say perhaps outside China. And cricket has been absolutely integral to that growth.

SIMON: I have to ask you about mob ties. Now we have a history in this country of organized crime taking an interest in sports. We have the famous example of the 1919 Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series, but we think of it as history. You make it sound like mobsters are an important part of the game in India right now.

ASTILL: Betting on cricket is illegal and because Indians, nonetheless, like to bet on cricket and don't mind breaking rules, this has lead 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 the Arabian Gulf and Pakistan, and mostly Muslims from Bombay - or Mumbai as it's now called - who've been driven out of India by law enforcement agencies, but nonetheless seem to have been able to run their criminal enterprises in India uninterrupted.

SIMON: I've got to say, you interviewed a few people in this book who make a reader doubt that any major cricket game isn't fixed.

ASTILL: Well, perhaps I'm a little too optimistic, but I don't think that's anything like true. I think that...

SIMON: Well, they explained to you, some of the people you talked to, how easy it is...

ASTILL: To fix a game, yeah. And indeed the interview that you refer to with an illegal bookmaker in Mumbai, 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 a recent blight international and domestic cricket. We're seeing a different kind of fixing where individual cricketers get bought off 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 wide delivery, and that is just incredibly difficult to detect and police.

SIMON: Has the rise of cricket in some ways signified an assisted ethnic amity and economic mobility in India?

ASTILL: Yes and no. You have, for example, the low-caste Hindus, once called untouchables, who were reviled in Hinduism tradition 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, you're seeing a new kind of Indian cricket star emerging. The modern Indian cricket star is very likely to come from a poor family, not 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.

SIMON: You end this book with a very sweet view of what cricket can be like to see and what it means in village India.

ASTILL: Yeah. I take a wander through one of the biggest slums in Mumbai called Dharavi, home to perhaps a million people, a shanty in India's commercial capital. So on the night of a really big cricket match, I found that was a television set in every tiny hutment in which half a dozen people would be crammed together. I spoke to people about the game and about what cricket meant to them and about how they played the game, and indeed what a powerful sense of the tremendous consolation that it provided to these poor, incredibly hardworking people.

It was the dearest thing in their lives and there's a lot of controversy in the cricket following world outside India about what the growth of India's cricket economy means for the future of the game because India's demand is for a heavily commercialized, glitzy, short form of cricket. That is changing the game in a way that many foreigners, including many Brits, don't like.

But when I saw what that cricket 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.

SIMON: James Astill of The Economist speaking from London. His new book is "The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Spectacular Rise of Modern India." Thanks so much for being with us.

ASTILL: Greatest pleasure.

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