Monday, July 15, 2013

Have You Ever Thought Much About Cricket, The Gentleman's Game?


This isn't the website sports fans come to for their morning fix... or their evening wrap-up. Sometimes Ken or I write about baseball, basketball or football if there's some political connection or, in Ken's case, just because he wants to. There haven't been too many mentions of cricket though. Ken brought it up-- with pictures-- back in 2007 in relation to Tom Stoppard's play, The Real Thing and a year before that I mentioned how crooked right-wing freak "Sir" Allen Stanford wasn't just using all his criminal loot to bribe sleazy politicians like John Boehner, Pete Sessions, Rahm Emanuel, etc., buy himself titles, jets, yachts and high-priced hookers but to also sponsor cricket tournaments. His financial scandals shook up the British and West Indies cricket world. (He's currently serving a 110 year prison sentence, although neither Boehner, Sessions, Emanuel nor any of the other political figures he bought off that allowed him to run his ponzi schemes, have been charged with anything. Is that cricket?)

That's about how much I know about cricket. But, a few days ago I heard an interesting NPR interview with James Astill, the political editor of The Economist, regarding his latest book The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption And The Turbulent Rise of Modern India. Nothing to do with "Sir" Allen, but plenty to do with corruption... and with India. How about this for a couple of assertions? Not only has cricket, or the Indian version of it, become bigger than Bollywood, "to understand modern India, one must look at the business of cricket within the country."
When Lalit Modi-- an Indian businessman with a criminal record, a history of failed business ventures, and a reputation for audacious deal making-- created a Twenty20 cricket league in India in 2008, the odds were stacked against him. International cricket was still controlled from London, where they played the long, slow game of Test cricket by the old rules. Indians had traditionally underperformed in the sport but the game remained a national passion. Adopting the highly commercial American model of sporting tournaments, and throwing scantily clad western cheerleaders into the mix, Modi gave himself three months to succeed. And succeed he did-- dazzlingly--before he and his league crashed to earth amid astonishing scandal and corruption.

The emergence of the IPL is a remarkable tale. Cricket is at the heart of the miracle that is modern India. As a business, it represents everything that is most dynamic and entrepreneurial about the country's economic boom, including the industrious and aspiring middle-class consumers who are driving it. The IPL also reveals, perhaps to an unprecedented degree, the corrupt, back-scratching, and nepotistic way in which India is run.
NPR's Scott Simon got Astill to talk about how the spectacularly popular sport is plagued by organized crime and how virtually all the big tournaments are fixed!
"[Mobsters] 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.

"...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.

"...[Y]ou'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.

"...[In 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.

"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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