Prime Edition

Sphere Of Influence 

Gideon Haigh

Simon And Schuster India

Pages: 436 Rs. 399

Unafraid to take on cricket’s mightiest, home & away

Gideon Haigh deftly examines the way increasing commercialisation has alienated cricket spectators, and writes incisively on some great players

Dileep Premachandran  4th Dec 2011

Haigh is at his best while discussing the way Warne has taken to the IPL

he thin-skinned Indian will dismiss this book as a rant from someone that resents the country's place as the heart of the new cricket dispensation. It's not. The subtitle says: Writings on cricket and its discontents. But it could so easily be titled Everyman's Lament. As the sport has grown richer, the disconnect between administrators and fans – or 'cricket consumers', to use Cricket Australia-speak – has grown exponentially. What Haigh does, with considerable eloquence, is express the supporters' frustration, especially at the manner in which commercial considerations override what's good for the game.

The highlight of the book is What Just Happened, the opening section that chronicles the transformation of the Board of Control for Cricket in India [BCCI] from pauper to millionaire, from peripheral body ignored by the game's established powers to superpower. At the time of the 1983 World Cup win, the BCCI had Rs 2,00,000 in its bank accounts. The last TV deal it signed was worth $436 million over four years. The section also deals extensively with the rise and fall of Lalit Modi, who went from failed businessman to the face of the Indian Premier League to pariah in the space of half a decade.

What Haigh does, with eloquence, is express the supporters’ frustration, especially at the manner in which commercial considerations override what’s good for the game.

What makes this book special are the insights, and Haigh's background as a business journalist can be seen in the way he pricks holes in so many of the hype balloons surrounding the IPL. The IPL is allegedly worth $4.13 billion. On what basis, he asks? And how exactly is it 'recession-proof', as Modi once boasted, if TV ratings have fallen?

His most withering comments are reserved for the manner in which Modi and his henchmen operated, especially during the IPL's second season when the tournament was shifted to South Africa after the Indian government, busy with national elections, failed to guarantee security. "The fact is that the IPL would be occurring in Antarctica if there were direct flights, and it suited World Sports Group," he writes. "The point is not to bring an attraction to another country, but to create a satellite India on that country's soil. And there is an old-fashioned word for such a form of exploitation: imperialism."

This is not just a book about India though. There are thoughtful ruminations on Pakistan's isolation over the past decade, on the International Cricket Council's lame-duck stances and the England and Wales Cricket Board's shameless courting of the now-disgraced Allen Stanford. Unlike others who make sweeping statements, Haigh buttresses his arguments with facts and figures. Few of them show the game's administrators in good light. "In one respect, however, the traditionalists have it right," he says. "Cricket is tightly in the grip of commerce in the sense that it has lost the sense of existing for any other purpose. The priorities of business can be witnessed in the superannuation point reached by international competition: television demands a constant supply of new, live product, good or not. Turn on your television and flick idly between the Test match here, the IPL game there and the one-day international everywhere, and one sees not competition but content, created simply to be sold to the highest bidder." This obsession with quantity, often at the cost of quality, is a frequent theme, as is the media's increasingly incestuous relationship with those that run the game. A little over a year before the spot-fixing scandal that enveloped the Pakistan team in 2010, he wrote: "Journalists, for example, did much to reveal cricket's dark match-fixing heart a decade ago; one wonders whether they would now be sufficiently vigilant, curious and numerous to do the same." They were, but it was a publication – The News of the World – whose dubious methods had often been derided by the mainstream.

he second half of the book deals with some of the game's great personalities. The essays on Asians offer little by way of new information, but are written with a warmth and wit that are a world apart from the hagiographies we often see. He's at his best when writing about Shane Warne, especially the manner in which he embraced the IPL. "Perhaps, in hindsight, the Australian captaincy was too solemn an office for a man of such unquenchable energies," he writes. "Whatever the case, he makes a snug fit with the biggest, boldest, ripest, richest game in town."

Haigh also tackles that most thorny of modern cricket debates – Bradman versus Tendulkar – and the conclusion he arrives at is far more satisfying and palatable than most. "Bradman made contemporaries see that a man with a bat could change the world; Tendulkar wakened us to by just how much," he says. "If Bradman could be expressed as a question, the answer would be Tendulkar." Most of these essays, which combine soul-searching with sarcasm, have appeared elsewhere, especially on Cricinfo. For the serious student of the game, this exceptionally well-written book offers both searching questions and wise answers. Most of all, it addresses their concerns, the worries of the silent majority being elbowed aside by those with eyes only on the bottom line. For the Indian reader, it's also a warning to look more closely at what goes on around them. "So far, though, there is little to allay suspicions that India's hegemonic pretensions in international cricket are less about the game than about the aggrandisement of its political and media elite," he writes. "And as we are finding elsewhere, no hubris fails to find its nemesis." For the BCCI, a partial eclipse may not be such a bad thing.

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