By SB Tang
Note: an abbreviated, 3000 word version of this article originally appeared on The Guardian Australia on Monday 20 January 2014. The full 8385 word version of this article appears below.
Twenty one years ago, a young newspaper reporter in Melbourne quit his job.
This wasn’t just any job at any newspaper. Melbourne may be Australia’s second largest city, the place where the first Australian parliament sat in 1901, home to over three million people by the year 1991, and the nation’s self-declared cultural, intellectual and sporting capital since time immemorial, but ever since The Argus ceased publication in January 1957 after 108 years, Melbourne has sustained just one daily morning broadsheet newspaper, The Age.
That was where the reporter’s job was. Just two years earlier, in October 1990, Melbourne’s solitary afternoon broadsheet, The Herald, had followed The Argus into oblivion, which meant that for a bright, well-read reporter in Melbourne in 1992, to resign from a full-time position at The Age was to forsake the only secure source of income available to a non-tabloid print journalist in the city.
Outside The Age, the full-time employment options for a serious writer of non-fiction in Melbourne were limited: he could apply for a job at The Herald-Sun, the popular, commercially-successful, Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid; he could try his luck interstate by applying for a job at one of the other state capitals’ broadsheet newspapers; or he could apply for a job at The Australian, the national broadsheet newspaper launched by Murdoch in 1964. And, err, that’s about it really. For a bespectacled, bookish young man who enjoyed reading history, the classics and Shakespeare in his spare time, the options were probably limited to the latter two.
But he didn’t choose any of those conventional options. Instead, he took a job as a staff writer at an upstart publication called Independent Monthly. The year was 1992. He was 27-years-old. Independent Monthly had only been born in 1989. In 1993, the publication changed its name to The Independent: Australia’s National Quality Monthly. By 1996, it was dead. Many years later, the writer recalled that the “obscure monthly magazine” paid him so poorly that he was “living on breakfast cereal”. Independent Monthly’s life and death was obscure indeed — nowadays, its very existence is not even acknowledged in the “List of newspapers in Australia”, including defunct newspapers, provided by one of the Twitter Age’s primary sources of misinformation: Wikipedia.
Apart from reading, the young writer had one other great love — cricket. He’d grown up playing the game and reading the literary words penned about it by the likes of Sir Neville Cardus and Ray Robinson. He played and read about cricket still. Heck, as a teenager, he’d even spent two months in England watching county cricket — a choice of holiday some Australians might regard as indicative of insanity.
While at Independent Monthly, he wrote a cricket piece for a magazine even more short-lived and obscure than his then employer. The magazine was called FYI and the piece was about a seismic event in cricket history which everyone knew of, but no-one truly understood — Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket revolution.
World Series Cricket wasn’t just a cricket story; it was one of the great untold stories in modern Australian history, a revolution which fundamentally changed the way that cricket was watched, played and sold in a nation whose national cricket team predates the nation itself by some 23 years. For any young, close-to-penniless writer subsisting on breakfast cereal in a one-bedroom flat, such a state of affairs induces one universal response: BOOK! BOOK! BOOK! WRITE THE BOOK ABOUT IT!
This was easier thought than done.
For starters, he would need to interview, at minimum, a substantial number of the key participants in the revolution — cricketers, cricket administrators, businessmen and Packer employees.
The young writer encountered obstacles at every turn.
Many of the cricketers were reluctant to speak to him because they didn’t know him. At The Age, he’d written about business. He’d never been one of The Age’s beat cricket reporters or correspondents. And the attitude of many cricketers to an interview request from a freelance writer they’d never heard of was summed up by Tony Greig’s initial pointed reply: “How do I know I can trust you?”
Many of the cricket administrators remained deeply wounded by a very public war (which they’d comprehensively lost) and felt betrayed by the cricketers whose interests they honestly believed — rightly or wrongly — that they’d done their best to serve, only to see them defect to a media mogul’s upstart circus at the first available opportunity.
And as for the media mogul and his employees? As the writer himself recently explained: “Kerry Packer had by this stage suffered the public odium of the Goanna affair and, I heard later, sent down the line that I was not to receive any cooperation.”
As if gathering the raw data necessary to write the book wasn’t difficult enough, the young writer also had to find a publisher. That has never been an easy task for a young writer in a geographically isolated country with a small population. The Australian book market and publishing industry just aren’t very big. And they’re even smaller where cricket books are concerned. Not even the late, great Ray Robinson, Australia’s finest cricket writer since the War, could find steady employment at an Australian publication as a cricket writer in a career spanning half a century, instead writing successfully about Australian cricket for such overseas publications as England’s The Cricketer magazine, London’s Daily Telegraph, India’s Sportsweek and the Times of India. An Australian version of the Cricketer magazine (which curiously omitted the definite article from its title), was born in 1973, but was dead by 1994. The English original is still in print today.
Australia is undoubtedly, as the sub-title of the sublime book edited by Christian Ryan recently put it, “a cricket country”. But, for reasons unknown, it has never really been a cricket writing country, certainly not in the same literary sense seen in England and exemplified by the likes of Sir Neville Cardus, RC Robertson-Glasgow, JM Kilburn and Alan Ross.
Growing up in Melbourne in the ‘90s, I discovered a few things about cricket books before I’d finished primary school. All cricket books were expensive. And literary cricket books were hard to find.
The very first cricket book that I persuaded my parents to buy for me was Dean Jones’s Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991). It was just about the only cricket book I could find in the bookshop. It’s a good book, capably ghost written by Richie Benaud’s younger brother, John, a former Test cricketer and journalist who would, two years later, decide, as a member of the Australian selection panel, to terminate Jones’s Test career. But literature it is not. The price sticker, still distinct after all these years, informs me that it cost $16.95 (discounted from $18.95) from a Melbourne bookshop in 1991. That’s bloody expensive. In 2012 money, that’s $28.89, which equates to £15.53 at the current exchange rate.
To give you an idea of how much $16.95 was worth in Australia in 1991, a vanilla ice cream cone from Macca’s (or, as the rest of the world refers to that popular chain of fast food restaurants, “McDonald’s”) cost approximately 40 cents and the average price of a movie ticket was $6.95 (and a child’s ticket would have cost even less that). So, instead of forking out $16.95 for a ghost-written cricket book, a parent could take their child to the movies, buy them an ice-cream from Macca’s and still have about $7 left over. No prizes for guessing which was the more popular choice.
Books in general and cricket books in particular were over-priced in Australia and they still are. Contrast the choice set facing an Australian parent in 1991 with the choice set facing an English parent in 2013: a brand new paperback copy of Duncan Hamilton’s Harold Larwood (2010) costs just £6.47, which is less than either an adult movie ticket (£10.00) or a child movie ticket (£7.70) to go see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug at Westfield London. No wonder cricket books sell better in England than in Australia.
So, to return to our intrepid young aspiring cricket writer in Melbourne in 1992, he had to somehow find a publisher for a serious cricket book in a country where editors and publishers were largely indifferent to literary cricket writing (and, indeed, any cricket writing not done by a former Test cricketer), where the book market in general was small and books were hideously over-priced, and the economy was just coming out of a painful recession. He was rejected by 11 publishers before Text Publishing agreed to publish his book.
So he holed up in his one-bedroom flat and wrote his book. He couldn’t afford his own computer, so he wrote on a Mac Classic borrowed from his office on weekends. Soon, he ran into the same twin threats that every 20-something male writer composing his first major work has faced: “cabin fever and starvation”. His mum saved the day, bringing him “light, sustenance and hygiene.”
The book was published in 1993. It was titled, “The Cricket War: The Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket”.
The writer’s name was Gideon Haigh. The Cricket War was his first book about cricket. It would not be his last. Earlier this year, his 24th book about cricket, On Warne, won the 2013 Cricket Society and Marylebone Cricket Club Book of the Year award. Twenty years after the publication of his debut cricket book, Haigh towers over the cricket writing landscape, a God amongst men who revere his very name.
As someone who grew up in Melbourne reading him, it has been fascinating to watch his development as a cricket writer. Like a good Test batsman, he has grown throughout his innings. The clearest way to highlight this change over the course of an innings which has lasted 20 years and counting is to compare his first cricket book with his most recent one. It is truly a study in contrasts.
The Cricket War is first and foremost, a stunning piece of original research, the end product of a “massive data-quest that gradually entombed the writer in his flat”. The book’s subtitle promises “The Inside Story of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket” (emphasis added) and Haigh is as good as his word — the bibliography lists interviews with 48 people (including key players Ian Chappell, Greg Chappell, Tony Greig and Bob Parish), 126 “books and theses” (ranging from the well-known to the downright obscure, for example, a 1990 PhD thesis from the Graduate School of Ohio State University and a book self-published in Cape Town in 1976), and 20 magazines and newspapers.
The findings of that diligent research are rendered in sparse, matter-of-fact prose and exhaustive detail. The body text of my 1993 paperback edition is 326 pages long. The font size is uncomfortably small and the line spacing is cramped. The rhetorical flourishes and rich historical and literary allusions for which Haigh would later become famous are largely absent. That’s understandable — this was, after all, the debut cricket book by a writer who had never worked a day as a daily newspaper cricket correspondent in Australia. Accordingly, Haigh began his innings in cautious, risk-averse fashion, staying within the orthodox confines of unadorned positive statements of fact and a dry writing style which borders at times on the academic. There is little of the trenchant, fearless opinion and socio-political commentary and critique, delivered in bold, thunderous words, which are rightly lauded features of his later cricket writings.
The contrast with On Warne (2012) could not be greater. On Warne, as the mid-19th-century-treatise-like title suggests, is essentially a discursive literary-philosophical essay on Shane Warne. A publisher “asked” Haigh to write it, not vice versa. It is chock full of Haigh’s trenchant opinions about everything from the respective merits of Warne and Stuart MacGill as Test bowlers to the nature and role of the modern news media. Those opinions are eloquently expressed in the effortlessly allusive, erudite prose which led The Observer to declare in 2005: “If Flintoff is the cricketer that England waited two decades for, Gideon Haigh may be the writer for a game that inspires literature.”
Take this, one of my favourite passages from On Warne: “such was Pakistan, a cricket riddle inside a conundrum wrapped in an enigma”, which alludes to Churchill’s famous description of Russia in an October 1939 wartime BBC broadcast as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Haigh is as fluent in popular culture as he is high culture, adroitly comparing Warne with characters as diverse as Jez in Peep Show (2003–), Reggie Dunlop in Slap Shot (1977), and Edward Ashburnham in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1928).
Growing up, I’d always assumed that the spartan, matter-of-fact prose of The Cricket War was entirely the upshot of a voluntary choice made by a young writer on his cricket writing debut. But, after corresponding with Haigh, who has been as generous with his time with me as Ian Chappell was with him all those years ago, I discovered that that there was actually “a more prosaic reason” for Haigh’s adoption of that writing style, familiar to me from my university days — word limits. As Haigh explained:
The ms came in at about 250,000 words. I had to cut it to 110,000. Not only were whole chapters excised, but I liposuctioned every sentence to the marrow, until I had eliminated almost all the articles, definite and indefinite. I got to 114,000 and my publisher took pity on me. I’ve never gone back and read it, but I suspect I’d be disappointed. By the time I was done, I feared it was almost staccato in places.
The Cricket War was a difficult book to write. It took the young Haigh more than a year. He had to “harr[y]” his interview subjects “at length”, “molest most often more than once”, and “beg, borrow and badger many favours and much patience from total strangers.” He told me recently: “frankly, I was so fucked up by the finish, weighing about seven stone, that I could do no more. I can’t remember who observed that books aren’t so much completed as abandoned, but my own experience tends to confirm it.”
On Warne was composed, without any undue effort, in the space of one month. “It was actually surprisingly easy”, Haigh told Couch Talk, as around the world, a million aspiring sports writers howled in equal parts anguish and admiration. If it makes you feel any better he did go on to explain that “it was a 31 day month so you can get quite a lot done.” He probably didn’t even have to leave the comfort of his home to write the book — the brief bibliography reveals that he didn’t conduct a single new interview and, it seems reasonable to presume that most, if not all, of the 69 books and three articles listed therein could be found in his personal library which weighs “five tons” and occupies the four walls of his study — one wall for “fiction”, one wall for “business and politics”, one wall for “history and biography”, and one wall for “cricket”.
On Warne is the essence of Haigh: the work of a mature artist at the very peak of his powers, a batsman who has done the hard, patient graft to get himself in and is now intent on playing his full array of elegant strokes to the delight of the capacity crowd who have crammed into the ground to watch him bat. Just about the only quibble I’ve read with respect to On Warne in the glowing reviews is that, in the words of Andy Bull: “There is just not enough of it.” The body text of On Warne is a mere 202 pages long; the font size is comfortably large and the line spacing generous. But even here, Haigh has succeeded, not erred. As an admirer of the great essayists Michel de Montaigne and Bertrand Russell, Haigh would be acutely aware that long reflective essays make for great short books, but terrible long books. If On Warne — remember, a work of non-fiction containing not a single new interview — had been substantially longer, critics would have called it self-indulgent, pretentious even, not praised it for its thoroughness.
The one common stylistic denominator between The Cricket War and On Warne is Haigh’s choice of diction, which frequently makes Sir Garfield Barwick‘s look positively plebeian by contrast. Here’s a small sample of words from The Cricket War: “self-abnegator, “paterfamilias”, “lugubriously”, “pusillanimous” and “semaphoring”.
And here’s a sample from On Warne: “inchoate”, “beau monde”, “à rebours”, “infelicitous”, “qui vive”, “ornery”, “aperçu”, “salaams”, “nugatory”, “defenestration”, “obeisance”, “propitiation”, “mots”, “catechism”, “élan vital”, “ergs”, “jeu d’esprit”, “anon”, “longueurs”, “détente”, “fatuity”, “aestas mirabilis”, “saturnine”, “in excelsis”, “succès de scandale”, “priapic”, “execrate”, “pharisaical”, “coevals”, “lèse-majesté”, “concupiscent”, “au fond”, “habitué”, “au courant” and “meretricious”.
Upon finishing On Warne, I first emitted a low sigh of contentment, then registered mild surprise that Haigh had never described Warne as “non-fungible”.
Haigh’s vocabulary has always been learned and that is a virtue. As his fellow sesquipedalian Will Self argued, “mental athletics”, of which “English vocabulary beyond that which is in common usage” is a key event, ought to be treated no differently from physical athletics — let us set the bar high and applaud those who excel for offering “vital inspiration” to those who do not; otherwise, “we’ll all end up simply playing in the sandpit.” In my lifetime, no-one has done more than Haigh to raise the bar for cricket writing (and, indeed, non-academic non-fiction writing generally) in Australia. I am grateful.
But it is a fine line between sophisticated diction, which enriches the intellect, and unnecessary obscurantism, which hinders the dissemination of knowledge. Haigh has always trodden that line with aplomb and continues to do so, but, now that he has reached the stage of his innings when he is well past 200 and intent on playing his full array of gasp-inducing strokes, it appears that his editors have allowed a few minor errors to creep into his game.
Take, for example, Haigh’s use of the word “essay” as a verb with respect to a batsman’s strokes: “Ponting essayed a cricket shot just about unimproveable: a straight drive grazing the non-striker’s stumps which wasn’t worth even a token chase to the boundary”; and “it was Damien Martyn who made crease occupation into an art form … essaying few memorable strokes but fewer false ones”. The Oxford English Dictionary (“OED”) defines the verb “essay” as “attempt or try” and provides the following example of its correct usage: “Donald essayed a smile”.
The problem, as I initially saw it, with Haigh’s usage of the word in both the examples cited above is that he is clearly trying to say that the batsman played the shot successfully, perfectly even; therefore, it would be incorrect to say that the batsman “tried to play” the shot, because that suggests that he did not play the shot successfully, or at the very least that there was some amount of error in his execution of the shot. Accordingly, in the context of the two above examples of Haigh’s usage, I believed that the verb “essay” actually conveyed the opposite meaning to that which he intended!
However, the meaning which I believed Haigh intended to convey with his use of the word “essay” is not that which he actually intended. He explained, after copping my narrow verbal parsing on the chin:
I think you’re defining the word narrowly as a “try” that fails, being inadequate. I’m using it to express a feeling that strokeplay is [a] mix of the spontaneous and exploratory and the constructed and drilled, rather than simply the “execution of a skill set” — in the cases you cite, it is a “try” that succeeds, being a perfect response. The distinction may be subtle, but I don’t think it’s obscure.
Blame Star Wars for my construction of the word “try” — I’ve always accepted the literal meaning of “try” imported in the Jedi precept that Master Yoda famously issued to Luke Skywalker: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Haigh, having adopted a broader meaning of the word try which focuses on the act of trying, the craft of graft, rather than the outcome of the try (and therefore embraces both successful and unsuccessful outcomes), favours a cricketing precept diametrically opposed to Yoda’s Jedi precept: there is only try; there is no such thing as a mere “do” or “do not”. As Haigh put it:
You may be being slightly pedantic about my use of the word “essay”, but in doing so I think you successfully identify an idea, or proposition, that does animate my writing. I’m averse to the idea of cricket as an art; I prefer to think of it as a craft, in which every stroke and delivery is a kind of physical construction straining for perfection, a culmination of a process honed by repetition and rehearsal. I’m a player — an opening bat, actually. I play every week of summer, train every week of winter. I’m not very good, but I try very hard. And I know good players do too. A vignette: I remember watching Ponting in the nets before the Sydney Test of 2012. He was on a bowling machine for ninety minutes, drilling on-drives, to stop from falling over to the off. I went away, I came back, I went away, I came back. He was still going, long after his teammates had left on the bus. A couple of days later, he played the shot in the middle. To the onlooker, it looked like spontaneous mastery. But I rejoiced in knowing how hard-won that perfection had come. Such glimpses are central to my appreciation of cricket.
Broadly, the word samples from The Cricket War and On Warne reveal that Haigh has become increasingly fond of using words from foreign languages, particularly French and Latin, peppering them throughout his writing as generously as an early 20th century appellate court judge. To use some foreign words not already found in the OED in an English language book is no sin. After all, one of the great virtues and pleasures of the English language is that it is, as the distinguished linguist John McWhorter put it, a “magnificent bastard tongue”, a hotchpotch of different languages with an unlimited capacity to absorb new words from other languages and cultures.
However, to, as Haigh does in On Warne, use so many foreign language words and phrases not incorporated in the OED in the space of a short book — I found five just skim re-reading On Warne over lunch: à rebours, élan vital, aestas mirabilis, in excelsis and lèse-majesté (although “lese-majesty” is in the OED) — is perhaps the literary equivalent of switch-hitting a length ball on the pads: an unnecessarily extravagant risk when a well-timed leg-glance will achieve an equally good result.
Can it truly be said that “à rebours” (French for backward) adds any meaning when appended to the end of the following sentence: “He [ie Warne] is the rebel soul who bucked the system, the maverick genius”? Given that the “genius” has already been described as one of the “maverick” variety, to also say that he is a “reverse” genius borders on the tautologous, if not nonsensical.
And wouldn’t, say, “summer of content”, with its attendant Shakespearean allusion, be just as eloquent as “aestas mirabilis” (Latin for “wonderful summer”)?
Haigh cheerfully responded:
As for my use of language, I simply like to have fun with it. I write a lot of non-cricket stuff that’s far terser, far simpler. When I write I about cricket, I’m on holidays. Cricket’s a game. Games are important but they exist for our pleasure, and writing about it should reflect that. A friend of mine is a writer of erotica. She and I have a standing joke that our tasks are similarly challenging: we are describing familiar, repetitive actions which have been endlessly written about before. My writing is actually a great deal less colourful than hers!
When I argued in response that “a writer and his editor … need to be a tad careful about forcing a reader to repeatedly open up a foreign language dictionary when reading an English language work”, Haigh replied: “These days, nobody needs to ‘repeatedly open up a foreign language dictionary’. The definition of foreign language phrases is no more than a scuffle of keys away.”
That’s completely true. But, do we want to be scuffling on keys (or, increasingly, touchscreens) when we are enjoying a work of literature? Personally, I don’t, because, to me, literature such as that authored by the likes of Haigh provides an invaluable intellectual respite from a world of constant BBMing, SMSing, tweeting, netbanking, Bpaying, Googling and Facebooking. Therefore, the last thing that I want to do when I am happily immersed in a work of literature, is constantly Google translate foreign words.
Haigh likes Warne. A lot. He’s liked him from the moment they met nearly two decades ago. He is admirably candid about these feelings and their potential to impinge on his independence in the opening chapter of On Warne: “it’s best in journalism not to like your subjects too much, lest you forget the roles of the respective parties. … I’m bound to say that it was harder to set this aside with Warne than almost anyone I have interviewed.” In my opinion, Haigh did not entirely succeed in his attempts to do so, which makes him human — just like the rest of us.
Haigh is a moral man. He does the right thing even when doing so substantially harms his own interests. In 2009, he quit his well-paid role as The Monthly’s de facto staff writer because of its “scurvy treatment” of then editor (and Haigh’s former partner), Dr Sally Warhaft, culminating in her “forced … resignation” and the unwarranted “trash[ing]” of her “reputation”. In one fell act of moral reason, Haigh — an out-and-out freelancer since 1995 — “halved” his income at a time when he’d just gotten married, his wife had given birth to their first child, and the world’s print media was staring at an economic abyss. That’s moral courage. If you look closely, it’s evident in the opening pages of On Warne too, when Haigh’s 28-year-old self politely rejects Warne’s offer of a lift after their first meeting on the basis that “accepting a favour that obligated me to my interviewee … might compromise my objectivity”.
We saw it again in September 2013 when Haigh fearlessly told truth to power.
In order to fully appreciate just how politically and economically powerful the person who, and entity that, Haigh stood up to are, it is necessary to understand cricket’s current geopolitical and macroeconomic context.
Cricket is an international sport, but not a global one: in terms of viewership, public interest, players’ estimation, sponsors’ valuation, and gate and TV revenue, international competition between national teams — not domestic competition between clubs — is the absolute pinnacle of the game. However, the number of those national teams who play Test cricket against one another is puny — 10 in a world where there are, according to the US Department of State, a total of 195 independent nation-states — and even today, their identity follows the contours of the long-dead British Empire: except for England herself, every single one of those Test-playing nations was once a colony and/or dominion of the British Empire.
In 2013, one of those Test-playing nations economically towers over all others. India is the world’s 10th largest economy and home to over 1.2 billion people. According to The Australian, as of September 2013, India generates “over 70 per cent of the game’s revenue” and “broadcast deals from tours against India” are “critical to every other country’s survival.” The reason for this is simple: the primary source of revenue for cricket, as with every other popular spectator sport, is TV broadcast rights’ sales, and India, with its massive cricket-loving population and growing economy, offers the TV networks who purchase those rights more viewers and, therefore, more potential fee-paying subscribers and eyeballs on advertisements.
In each Test-playing nation, cricket is run by a national administrative body which, amongst other things, selects the national team and sells the TV broadcast rights to all home matches. In India, that body is named the Board of Control for Cricket in India. In April 2012, the BCCI sold the rights to broadcast international and domestic cricket in India, excluding the Indian Premier League, for 2012–2018 for approximately US$750 million to Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV. This means that, over the life of that six-year deal, the broadcast rights to Indian home cricket, excluding the IPL, are valued at US$125 million per annum.
By way of comparison, South Africa, the country whose Test team is currently ranked number one in the world on the field, has an economy one-fifth the size of India’s and a population of 48.6 million people. According to the Bangalore Mirror, the value of the TV broadcast rights to South Africa’s home international matches is US$31.816 million per annum, which means that they’re only worth roughly a quarter of the value of the TV broadcast rights to India’s home international matches. Moreover, the bulk (64.56 per cent) of CSA’s revenue from the sale of the TV broadcast rights to South Africa’s home international matches consists of sales of the broadcast rights to Asia where India is by far the biggest and most important market for those rights.
Thus, economically, for any Test-playing nation other than India, there is nothing more valuable than the Indian cricket team coming to town for they bring with them enormous Indian-market-derived television revenues which the host nation’s national cricket administrative body receives a share of.
According to the 2011 to 2020 Future Tours Programme laid out by the International Cricket Council, the global governing body for cricket of which India is a Full Member, India was scheduled to tour South Africa between November 2013 and January 2014 to play three Tests, seven one-day internationals and two T20 internationals. The ICC’s Future Tours Programme has been described by one former ICC Head of Legal as “legally binding” and, as recently as January 2013, the BCCI was saying at the ICC’s board meeting “that the Indian national team would continue to play the fixtures in the FTP Schedule”.
Therefore, CSA, quite reasonably, made its financial plans on the assumption that the ICC’s Future Tours Programme would be adhered to. However, in September 2013, the BCCI began indicating that India’s scheduled 2013–14 tour of South Africa may be severely shortened or perhaps abandoned altogether by announcing a list of upcoming series which made no mention of the South Africa tour and included a proposal to host the West Indies for a two Test, three ODI series in November 2013, the same month in which India’s tour of South Africa was scheduled to begin.
CSA stood to “lose up to R200 million” if India’s tour of South Africa was shortened. To put that figure into perspective, according to CSA’s Annual Financial Statements, for the year ended 30 April 2013, CSA’s total revenue was 520.985 million Rand and CSA made a total comprehensive loss for the year of 133.275 million Rand. Thus, the sudden and utterly unexpected loss of 200 million Rand would be disastrous for CSA. (As it eventually turned out, the BCCI agreed to a shortened tour of South Africa consisting of three ODIs and two Tests, the last of which is being played as I type this sentence, meaning that CSA does stand to lose 200 million Rand.)
Harsha Bhogle is the most popular cricket commentator in the world. He has two of this age’s most prized global marks of distinction — a million plus followers on Twitter and his very own TED Speakers profile page. Haigh has neither. In 2008, the users of Cricinfo, the world’s leading cricket website, voted Bhogle their favourite TV commentator. Bhogle not only beat such luminaries as Richie Benaud, Ramiz Raja, Michael Holding and Geoff Boycott in the poll, but was the only non-ex-Test-player to make the top 10.
At present, Bhogle commentates on India’s home international matches for Star Sports — Star Sports is one of the TV channels on which the Murdoch-owned Star TV, the current holder of the rights to broadcast international and domestic cricket (excluding the IPL) in India, broadcasts cricket — and on the IPL. On the official BCCI website, Star TV is listed as “media rights partner” and Star Sports is listed as “series sponsor in India”. According to ESPNCricinfo, Bhogle is “on contract with Star, the media-rights holders for cricket played in India.”
The IPL is the franchise-based domestic Indian T20 competition launched, backed and organised by the BCCI itself. The IPL’s current official broadcast partners are Multi Screen Media, a subsidiary of Sony Pictures Television Inc, and World Sport Group. Bhogle works as a commentator on the BCCI-backed IPL, but it is unclear whether his contract is with the BCCI itself or one of the IPL’s broadcast partners. What is clear is that he has served as an advisor to the Mumbai Indians, one of the more prominent IPL franchises that is owned by a group company of Reliance Industries Ltd, India’s largest private sector company, and has featured Sachin Tendulkar on its playing roster for the past six years.
In short, Bhogle works for the BCCI’s official “media rights partner” and “series sponsor in India”, works on the competition that is the BCCI’s brainchild, and has worked for one of the most prominent franchises in that BCCI-backed competition. Therefore, it may, quite understandably, be financially risky for him to be too critical of the BCCI.
But his response in September to the BCCI’s apparent disinterest in adhering to the full tour of South Africa set out in the ICC’s Future Tours Programme was not to criticise the BCCI for its apparent failure to fully comply with a document described by one former ICC Head of Legal as “legally binding”, but to criticise CSA for allowing themselves to get “into a situation where their cricket economy was so dependent on an external power that is always more likely to do what suits itself first” and failing “to create other parallel revenue sources to insure against untoward happenings.”
Haigh was having none of it. On 23 September 2013, he penned a post titled “Harsher Bhogle” for his blog on The Australian website that systematically eviscerates Bhogle’s arguments whilst remaining respectful of the man himself. Haigh pointed out that Bhogle’s primary argument — which is fundamentally economic in nature despite his disclaimer that “I am not an economist” — is flawed because it treats national cricket boards as if they are corporations or nation-states competing against one another when they are neither, being “custodians of a game, a game based on the steady accumulation of historic endowments, strengthened by the deep love of its publics everywhere, and dependent on some rough-and-ready idea of equality”. I’d add that this is clearly evidenced by the fact that CSA is, as clearly stated on the front cover of CSA’s most recent Annual Financial Statement that is publicly available on CSA’s website: “A Non-profit company”.
A week earlier, Haigh wrote a thunderous article for ESPNCricinfo Magazine titled “The sovereign republic of the BCCI” wherein he trenchantly observed that the BCCI’s “ignoring” of the ICC’s Future Tours Programme demonstrates “conspicuous contempt” for the ICC and explained that “[r]ightly or wrongly, some in South Africa sense that the BCCI’s long-term aim is to prostrate an on-field rival, perhaps also by levering CSA out of the Champions League and replacing it with the ECB, thereby pauperising South African first-class cricket.”
Thus, in the space of a week, Haigh criticised the most influential cricket commentator in the world and the most politically and economically powerful entity in the cricket world.
For his trouble (and for no other reason than that both targets of his criticism happened to be Indian), Haigh was viciously attacked by the full-time professional defamers of our age — anonymous internet commenters, who, amongst other things, called him “unethical” for having the temerity to criticise Bhogle’s opinion, accused him of taking “a more personal, more negative note against India and Indians”, making “personal attacks to buttress his arguments” and harbouring “personal hatred for Harsha and BCCI”, and, most bizarrely of all, compared him with “brutal enemies” of India such as Alexander the Great, Muslims and the British.
Those who now mindlessly accuse Haigh of hating India on the basis that he has the temerity to criticise some of the BCCI’s policies appear to be blithely unaware of the fact that it was he who, well before any other Australian cricket writer, highlighted Australian cricket’s “ethnocentric arrogance … in demanding ‘its’ summers of international cricket in Australia” thereby failing to adequately take into account the interests of India, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all of whose cricket seasons overlap with Australia’s. The relevant, and somewhat prescient, quote is on page 324 of The Cricket War (1993):
PBL’s promotion of the game has looked increasingly jaded and tatty, and there has been an ethnocentric arrogance to Australian cricket — not unlike that which prevailed at Lord’s in 1977 — in demanding ‘its’ summers of international cricket in Australia. As Indra Vikram Singh wrote last year: ‘This may have brought Australian cricket some extra bucks but it also turned a blind eye to the existence of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as Test-playing nations who seasons conflict with Australia’s.’ The same potential conflict of seasons now applies with South Africa.
What appears to have gone largely unnoticed is that by so frankly criticising Bhogle and the BCCI, Haigh exposed himself to increased personal financial risk as an out-and-out freelance writer, an occupation which is already, by its very nature, laden with uncertainty, because the BCCI has demonstrated a remarkable propensity for holding grudges and a terrifying willingness to attempt to disembowel the professional careers of those whom it holds a grudge against.
The apparent root cause of the BCCI’s late-hour curtailment of India’s tour of South Africa was CSA’s appointment of Haroon Lorgat, a South African former first-class cricketer, respected Chartered Accountant and former Senior Partner at Ernst & Young, as its CEO. According to The Australian, “South African cricket was warned by India earlier this year that if it appointed former ICC chief Haroon Lorgat as its new chief executive then a series scheduled for November might be in danger.” The basis for the BCCI’s apparent enmity towards Lorgat is not fully known, but the point of farce was surely reached when Lorgat, upon his appointment as CSA CEO, graciously offered “to apologise” to anyone he’d offended at the BCCI and, more than six weeks later, the BCCI’s interim chief Jagmohan Dalmiya said, “it would be nice of him if he apologises”, without deigning to mention what exactly he’d like Lorgat to apologise for. In any event, the BCCI only confirmed India’s shortened tour of Africa after CSA assured the BCCI that it would suspend Lorgat from dealing with matters related to India, which is a bit like Microsoft suspending its own CEO from dealing with all matters related to Windows. Despite the dignified manner in which Lorgat has continued to conduct himself in public, there is no disguising the fact that the suspension is a hammer blow to his professional career.
The BCCI does not reserve such acts of gross professional vengeance exclusively for cricket administrators who raise its ire. Members of the cricket media who step out of line are subjected to similar treatment. Sanjay Manjrekar, the former Indian Test batsman, is a well-established and well-respected TV cricket commentator and pundit who, like Bhogle, is on contract with Star. Unlike Bhogle, Manjrekar has publicly criticised the BCCI for, amongst other things, its lack of respect for the Future Tours Programme, taking Indian fans “for granted”, “making all kinds of mistakes which take their toll on the credibility of Indian cricket”, and conducting an internal inquiry “with all its limitations”, including the absence of police reports, into allegations of spot-fixing and corruption in the IPL so serious that they led to Gurunath Meiyappan, a top official of the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise and son-in-law of the BCCI president N Srinivasan, being arrested by the Mumbai Police and charged with cheating, fraud and cheating at games.
Following his public criticism of the BCCI, Manjrekar was mysteriously not utilised as either a commentator or a host on Star Sports’ coverage of the India-Australia limited overs series in October, despite having a contract with Star. The involvement of the invisible hand of the BCCI in Manjrekar’s effective relegation to his profession’s bench was evidenced by a tweet that he sent to none other than Sundar Raman, the Chief Operating Officer of the BCCI’s pet project, the IPL, who was recently described by the respected Indian cricket writer, Anjali Doshi, as “the power behind the throne” at the BCCI, which read: “Sundar, I have now been kicked off from studio for Ind / Aus by star. Don’t you think this is a bit harsh? I have a contract with them.”
Manjrekar underlines a salient point — his contract was with Star, not the BCCI itself. But such is power of the BCCI that it is apparently able to influence the internal hiring policies of a third party corporation that is its media rights partner and series sponsor in India, even where that third party corporation is a wholly-owned subsidiary of one of the most powerful media empires in the world — Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp–21st Century Fox.
How does any of this relate to Haigh?
At present, one of his primary gigs as a freelancer is writing about cricket for The Australian newspaper and its website. The Australian is, like Star, owned by Murdoch’s News Corp–21st Century Fox media empire. Thus, Haigh is in a directly analogous position to Manjrekar — they’re both hired by an arm of the News Corp–21st Century Fox media empire which is, via its Star subsidiary, the BCCI’s media rights partner and series sponsor in India. Therefore, it is by no means outlandish to suggest that the BCCI may ask its commercial partner and sponsor to punish Haigh in a similar fashion to which Manjrekar was punished, especially since Haigh’s criticisms of the BCCI exceed those of Manjrekar in quantum, length and gravity and, as a freelancer, Haigh is rather easy to fire. It is no exaggeration to say that, by speaking truth to the cricket world’s sole political and economic superpower, Haigh is, once again, endangering a substantial proportion of his own income.
The question then is, as a friend who I showed an early draft of this article put it: “WHY did he [ie Haigh] give up money for ethics?”
The answer is simple: because, in each and every instance, it was the right thing to do. There was no quid pro quo. Haigh didn’t do any of those things in order to extract benefits or favours from anyone in return. His ethics are fundamentally Kantian in nature — he steadfastly refuses to use people as a means to an end even where that would plainly benefit himself (for example, he could have quite easily stayed silent about The Monthly’s “scurvy treatment” of Dr Warhaft and retained his lucrative role as The Monthly’s de facto staff writer), consistently does the right thing for no other reason than that it’s the right thing to do, and consistently advocates such behaviour through his writing: stick to your word, don’t tell lies (especially about innocent third parties), and don’t hurt persons weaker than oneself in a non-competitive environment. The man lives the categorical imperative.
But, this most moral of men, a self-described “prude”, likes Shane Warne so much that he devotes approximately 11 (pages 160–6 and 195–200) of On Warne’s 205 pages to attempting to understand Warne’s marital infidelities. Let me be clear: as a cricket lover, I care not a jot about Warne’s sex life, unless it somehow intrudes on his cricket (it never did). To be fair, that is Haigh’s starting position too, as he correctly draws a moral distinction between “Warne’s accountability to his wife and to the public”, which are “not remotely the same thing”, and rhetorically asks: “Why is it [ie Warne’s sex life] our business? Who went to Warne for guidance in how to live one’s life anyway?”
Haigh could have stopped there. Instead, in a book whose primary thesis and raison d’être is that Warne is “the best at something [that is, spin bowling] that there has ever been”, Haigh proceeds to spend over seven times more pages discussing Warne’s sexual peccadilloes than he does explaining, much less justifying, Warne’s statistically abysmal Test record against the world’s best players of spin in their own backyard — in nine Test matches, spread across three tours spanning more than six years, Warne took just 34 wickets in India at an average of 43.11, economy rate of 3.19 and strike rate of 81. According to every conventional statistical measure, Warne performed substantially worse in India than he did anywhere else — his overall career bowling average, economy rate and strike rate was 25.41, 2.65 and 57.4 respectively.
If, as Haigh contends (and most of us, including myself, believe), Warne is the best that there has ever been at the art of spin bowling, then why did he perform at his absolute worst against the world’s greatest combatants of spin on their own turf?
This, as any follower of cricket knows, has long been the Super Star Destroyer sized hole in the otherwise highly persuasive case that Warne is the greatest spin bowler who ever lived.
When I got the email from Amazon notifying me of On Warne’s release date, this was the question on Warne that I most anticipated reading Haigh’s answer to. I can still recall the aching sense of disappointment when I discovered, after reading the book in one sitting whilst waiting for a taxi to the airport, that Haigh spent all of one page considering the vexed question of Warne’s Test record in India, which basically summarised the well-established, but not entirely convincing, explanations that we already knew — he was carrying a shoulder injury in 1998 and returning from knee and finger injuries in 2001. Of 2004, Warne’s third and final Test tour, Haigh does not proffer a substantive answer at all, but the most common one is that Warne, with his unparalleled powers of control, was used as almost a containing bowler, bowling to the defensive fields which characterised the novel — by Australian standards, at least — approach which won Australia their first Test series victory on Indian soil in 34 years.
I await the answer to the vexed question of Warne’s Test record in India still.
Haigh replied to my criticism of this lacuna in a literary work titled On Warne as follows:
As for his [ie Warne’s] record in India, it didn’t really fit in to the structure of the five self-contained essays. Remember that this is not a biography. There are lots of omissions. It’s arguable I should have made some comment on the subject, and I do in passing — I point out that the occasions on which he toured India he was semi-fit; I note that he bowled in the IPL as I think he should have earlier, bowling straighter, allowing the strokeplayers less width and leverage. But you may be right. I wrote it, as you report, in a month. This was a book where the writing either came naturally or it didn’t come at all. Warne didn’t bowl the googly for the same reason.
Haigh is the world’s greatest living cricket writer. But he is not perfect. The flaw evident in On Warne is this: Haigh simply likes Warne too much, which is why he spends more time explaining Warne the man’s private sex life than he does solving the puzzle of Warne the spin bowler’s crummy Test record in India.
In a sense, it’s reassuring: Haigh has a heart. He’s not just a giant brain in a hermetically-sealed glass jar plugged into a laptop in the State Library of Victoria.
In 1996, just three years after the publication of The Cricket War, Haigh achieved what must have been one of his dreams — revising and updating Ray Robinson’s classic, On Top Down Under: Australia’s Cricket Captains, first published in 1975, so that it would remain as relevant to future generations as it was to his. In his preface to that revised and updated edition, Haigh rightly lamented:
Robinson is a figure virtually unique in Australia. Despite cricket’s fecundity with books, few Australian writers have aspired to crafting cricket literature of the kind associated with Sir Neville Cardus, RC Roberston-Glasgow, Alan Ross, Ronald Mason, EW Swanton, JM Kilburn and AA Thomson.
Seventeen years on, it can safely be said that Haigh has single-handedly changed that. The “successful combin[ation] [of] elegance of prose and density of factual detail”, which he praised in Robinson’s writing, became a universally-acclaimed hallmark of his own. So much so that re-reading some passages from Haigh’s 1996 preface on Robinson now, it feels as if one is reading a glowing contemporary review of one of Haigh’s own works. The apprentice has become the master.
In a world which seems to grow angrier and more irrational by the day, where institutions — public, private, elected, unelected, foreign and domestic — have seemingly decayed beyond the point of repair, Haigh’s career is a rare, inspiring example of how one man with a pen (or a borrowed Mac Classic) can still change the world for the better. He took the risks that others wouldn’t. He did the work that others couldn’t. And in so doing, he became the world’s pre-eminent cricket writer. He has given us books that no other author has the unique combination of research ethic, writing ability and intellectual heft to write, books that have enriched our understanding not just of cricket history, but Australian history.
Twenty one years ago, a young newspaper reporter in Melbourne quit his job — and changed the face of Australian cricket writing forever. I am grateful.