Mumbai Madness

A melange of traffic, people, poverty, wealth – throw in a chunk of Bollywood and a palette of colour and you have Mumbai, India’s most populous city.

Click this link for full article: Mumbai Sawu Sept12

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From Delhi to Darjeeling – The Islander

New Delhi, India’s capital, is sprinkled with gems: incredible ancient monuments, magnificent museums, unbelievable shopping opportunities, a thriving arts scene and some of the subcontinent’s most delicious cuisine. Charming ruins lie in contrast to modern stadiums (Delhi hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games) and metro systems.

Click this link for full article: Delhi to Darjeeling Islander 66

IPL5: Bling Reloaded?

Even if the Indian Premier League’s brand value takes another dive in 2012, the competition is still one heck of a money spinner in a country that is completely gaga for limited-overs cricket.

I looked ahead to the fifth installment of the Twenty20 tournament for the April edition of Spin magazine.

IPL5 preview

Mumbai and the Festival of Lights

I have visited the city of Mumbai on 12 separate adventures and I can confidently declare that nowhere in the world is one so consistently surprised by the life and soul of a city so deeply spiritual that it breathes vivid calm in maddening chaos.

Mumbai, the commercial and show business capital of India, has evolved enormously since the seven small islands of Bombay (the name most non-Marathi speakers still use) were handed over by Portugal to England in 1661 as part of the dowry of Catherine de Braganza when she married Charles II of England. The monarch wasn’t much taken with the islands and in turn leased them to the British East India Company for £10 a year in 1668.

Three and a half centuries of trade and migration later translated into a success story built through wealth accumulation; and the cosmopolitan metropolis of Mumbai, one of the largest and most vibrant cities in the world, now hosts over 20 million people.

The last few days of October mark the biggest and most auspicious of the countless Hindu festivals. Diwali or Deepavali (literally meaning row of lights in Sanskrit) is when light and good triumph dark and evil before a new financial year begins, and is known across the world as the Festival of Lights.

As a celebration Diwali is much like Christmas and New Year in one joyous go – a time of year when families take a break from work and come together, offering each other lavish gifts, sweets and well-wishing cards. As with the festive season at the calendar year end in much of the west, Diwali is also shared to a great extent by members of other faiths who also enjoy time with their families and spending their hardearned salary bonuses. It is a time for universal brotherhood and inter-religious
harmony when folk are kind even to their enemies.

Diwali is a spectacular destination festival that has been visited by those such as Pope John Paul II and US President Barack Obama, and its timing marks the beginning of the peak tourist season in India. Long after the monsoon has abated, the months from October till February are marked by cool, dry weather and are the best time to visit these rich shores.

Dhanteras marks the beginning of Diwali and is the day when families and friends purchase expensive silver, gold and other luxuries before the Lakshmi Puja, when they pray in temples, homes and offices to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, light, prosperity and wisdom, and to Lord Ganesha, the “Lord of Beginnings”, for a prosperous new financial year. Melas (fairs) groan with shoppers countrywide and jewellery markets burst at the seams as the population’s insatiable appetite for precious metals is satisfied from morning till night.

Diwali happens when the sun passes through the Libra constellation and an Amavasya night sees the moon at the smallest stage of its cycle. To combat the darkness, diyas or lamps are lit up right across the country and bright lights are left on in shops and houses, doorways are decorated with mango leaves and marigolds and interiors are brightened up by rangoli (colourful powders).

Firecrackers are omnipresent, lighting up the night sky with thousands of free-to-all firework displays through the night, marking the death of demon Naraksura by Lord Krishna.

At times one could be forgiven for mistaking the scene for a terrifying war zone, but a glance up to the multicoloured sky will soon dispel such fears. Extravagant parties ensue as gifts and sweets are exchanged by family members who are dressed up to the
nines, and men sit up through the night playing cards in valiant attempts to begin the year with blessed and substantial financial gain.

In Mumbai, Hindus seeking blessings from the gods flock to the numerous temples, many to the Mahalaxmi Temple in central Mumbai, which is the oldest temple in the city and is dedicated primarily to the goddess of wealth and power. A visit to the temple during Diwali is bound to overwhelm any visitor as several thousand brightly-dressed worshippers throng in praise of Lakshmi.

Devotional music moves many to trancelike meditations, while others weep and lay flowers before the goddess. Incense burns intensely through the warm coastal air as devotees make emotional pujas all around you and powerful energies well up among all those present while Vishnu followers feed large numbers of the poor.

The attractive beaches of Chowpatty in the city and Juhu near the airport teem with revellers who are on holiday from work and light lamps and fireworks, shop, eat and make merry. Of course, there is always time for some cricket as well – hundreds of simultaneous games keep the boys busy as a heavy orange sun sets over the shoreline and the bright lights of the coastline take over to illuminate the night. This Diwali millions of families will be glued to the India versus England revenge matches that will be played in Kolkata during the holiday.

The majority of India’s billion-strong population are followers of the Hindu faith, one of the world’s oldest and most widely practised religions. As the great Hindu sage Sri Ramakrishna said: “There can be as many spiritual paths as there are spiritual aspirants, and as many gods as there are devotees.” And this is the time when Goddess Lakshmi steals the show in a people’s appreciation of trade, commerce and prosperity. In the Indian culture, wealth is not viewed as a corruptive power. Instead, a wealthy person is considered to have been rewarded for good deeds in a past life through karma.

Fortunately, Diwali is not a crowded time of year in Mumbai. As most Indians are at home with their families there is no shortage of space in the city’s array of hotel options that vary widely from the opulent old world charm of the Taj Mahal Palace (from US$500 a room) to the backpacker-budget lodgings of Colaba (from US$10 a room) just 30 m up the road. Ferries take visitors from the Gateway of India in front of the Taj Hotel, which, incidentally, is a fine place for afternoon tea if staying there is beyond your budget, to nearby Elephanta Island. The UNESCO World Heritage Site houses religious sculptures and paintings from the sixth to the eighth century.

Mumbai is an exceptionally safe place to visit for a city of its size. It may be relatively commonplace to hear of tourists who pay over the odds for trinkets, but Mumbaikers are a very peaceful and hospitable people who on the whole are extraordinarily fair when it comes to doing business. Warm smiles and head-wobbles greet foreigners on the crowded local trains (much the best way to get up and down the overcrowded city) and it is not unusual for locals to spontaneously invite tourists to their houses for a meal.

English is widely spoken; transport, food and most other things are ridiculously cheap and the quiet night streets are every bit as intriguing as the bustling daytime commotion. The city is an ideal gateway from South Africa to other parts of Asia by air or land.

One can survive gladly on the streets, visiting artisans like barbers and tailors (for luxurious cut-throat shaves that cost US$0.20) and enjoying street snacks and coconut juices. Interacting with shopkeepers is a great pleasure as they are invariably polite, helpful and friendly. Tedious bureaucracy and paperwork are relics of the British Raj and can become onerous, but seeing the lighter side of this is worth doing.

Mumbai boasts unique architecture ranging from the enormous Anglo-Indian neo-Gothic structures of the city centre to a collection of art deco buildings along the beachfront that is second in number of buildings only to Miami.

The glitz and glamour of Bollywood and its parties never stop, while abundant art galleries, theatres, cinemas, libraries, museums, mosques, churches and temples add further to the cultural richness and diversity of the city.

This article appeared in the October 2011 edition of Sawubona – SAA’s in-flight magazine.

Losing Lalit – a review of the 2011 IPL

When India won the World Cup, an obsession swept that country that made every cog in the nation’s capitalist wheel jump to lubricate itself with all things cricket. Not that they hadn’t done so before, it is just that this single-minded strategy was taken to another stratosphere. People who hadn’t previously cared for the game were now mad about it and a bumper Indian Premier League season was anticipated. Twenty20 rupees looked certain to rain down harder than the monsoon that the IPL precedes . 

But without the controversial Lalit Modi at the helm of his colossal, albeit shadowy, brainchild, the fourth edition of the IPL has failed to live up to expectations. A combination of too short a break after the World Cup, cricket fatigue (for both players and spectators), a drop in team loyalty after the re-auctioning of the entire player pool, alleged corruption and high-handedness in the overgrown bureaucracy that is the BCCI, a shortage of new initiatives in the tournament, too many one-sided games and the continued lack of an international-fixtures window resulted in lower television ratings at IPL 2011 than at any of the previous editions.

And while the ambitions of such a tournament should focus on the standard of the competition and less about how many people watch it at home on the box, this sadly isn’t the case with the IPL. It is all about the money. Windfalls of profits from the IPL have raised players’ salaries to levels that many wouldn’t have believed were possible in our lifetimes but, whilst this may have enhanced the level professionalism in the game, it has happened at considerable cost to the health of international cricket in general, and Test cricket in particular. 

The West Indies have just wrapped up a home series against Pakistan and been fielding under-strength teams after having lost Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo to the IPL. Also, the lure of the tournament’s riches forced Lasith Malinga to retire prematurely from playing Test cricket for Sri Lanka. Once again Pakistani players, who are persona non grata in India despite their President being invited to watch the Mohali World Cup semi-final with the Indian Prime Minister, were not invited to participate. This has left their players embittered about earnings and possibly more likely to fall prey to the temptations of lucrative match-fixing. The IPL continues to weaken the competitiveness of the fringe Test-playing nations and the ICC appears to be insufficiently concerned about remedying the situation.

An IPL window could solve some of these problems but it would be unjust for world cricket to stand still for what is an Indian domestic tournament, and a very long one at that. There is no window for T20 leagues in other countries and, as Tony Grieg points out, “We have a situation where the ICC is dominated by India. They tell Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and one or two other countries what to do and they always get the vote. It’s very hard, but somehow we have got to change things at that level.

“We have got to look very, very closely and make sure we do not destroy the cornerstone of the game which is Test cricket,” he added in response to suggestions that that the BCCI is looking to secure a two-month window for its multi-billion-dollar cash-cow of a tournament.

“Overdose of cricket is bad for health,” read a privately-owned bill-board outside a well-known pizzeria near the Wankhede stadium on Marine Drive in Mumbai, one week into the IPL. Almost every day for three and a half months, there has been a live game in India on television. A local friend of mine told her newlywed husband that he was allowed to choose three IPL teams and watch their games only, or else she will not give him any children for two years. Indians are crazy about cricket but even they seem to have a saturation point.

Reduced television audiences at IPL 2011 will translate to lower future profits for the BCCI and the franchise owners. The two new sides, Kochi Tuskers Kerala and the Pune Warriors, were bought for 330 and 370 million dollars respectively and are very unlikely to show a profit on their investment for many years to come. These figures are starkly contrasted to the original eight franchises, which were bought for an average of 80 million dollars. The Rajasthan Royals was acquired for 67 million dollars before the inaugural IPL in 2008 and was then valued at 130 million dollars a year later (when 11.7% of the team was sold for 15.4 million dollars). 

But it is not only this original investment that is hard for the more expensively acquired teams to overcome. Franchises pay 10% of the amount for which they were purchased as an annual franchise fee to the BCCI. For Rajasthan this translates to 6.7 milllions dollars per year, while for Kochi and Pune, the figures are five-fold at 33 and 37 million dollars respectively – a barrier to profit that won’t be overcome easily, especially if the sides don’t finish at the top of the league or land bumper sponsorship deals.

In the third IPL season, most of the eight teams declared an operating profit but that is not to say that all of the team owners have seen positive returns on their initial capital investments. “We haven’t broken even yet. We’re hoping we’ll get there this year, but the last three years have been difficult for us,” said Arvinder Singh, chief operating officer of the Kings XI Punjab before IPL 2011. 

Player salaries are up 40-50% on last year and a recent survey found that pro rata, IPL player salaries are second only to the US National Basketball Association (NBA) in the world of sports leagues. According to the Annual Review of Global Sports Salaries the estimated average salary of an IPL player over a year would be $3.84 million.

Furthermore, while World Cup ticket prices were granted Entertainment Tax exemption, IPL franchises are not afforded the same luxury. The tax effectively inflates the price of match tickets. In the state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, tickets attract a 10% tax and authorities expect to collect five million dollars from it. In Kerala, home to the new Tuskers team, the rate is 36% and although a 50% rebate has now been agreed, the damage was done by way of poor crowd attendances at that team’s games.

Another problem franchise owners have is that they are yet to realise strong incomes from merchandising. Whilst some teams have done well with sponsorship deals – the Royals increased their number of sponsors from 12 to 18 this season – the short season and fact that merchandise is so commonly reproduced and sold on the black market has meant that’s sides are unable to capitalise on the sale of team jerseys in the way that a football side like Manchester United has been able to do. It is difficult to build a strong team brand when that brand is only on the shelf for six weeks a year.

Indeed the owning of IPL teams may go the way of the English Premier League, where owners like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich are far more concerned with team results than financial returns. The Mumbai Indians team is owned by Mukesh Ambani, whose company Reliance Communications turned over 45 billion dollars last year, I doubt very much whether he will be concerned if his play-thing costs him a few million dollars here or there (last year the franchise recorded a loss of 3.4 million dollars).

None of this paints a rosy picture for franchise owners but television ratings would have to drop a lot further before they overly trouble the BCCI as India’s cricket board is set to profit something in the region of 250 million dollars from IPL 2011. The BCCI’s wealth is exponentially larger than the rest of the cricket world combined and very little can be done to stop the fact that India will continue to dominate proceedings at the ICC.

An April study by UK-based analysts Brand Finance valued the IPL brand at $3.67 billion, a drop of 11 percent on the previous year, and that was before television ratings showed a massive 25% decline in audiences at this year’s tournament. While the BCC’s IPL is in no danger of complete demise, it is struggling to rake in the bucks in the exciting way it did under the business genius of Mr Modi. 

An astonishingly ambitious hard worker, marketing guru and ideas-man par excellence, Modi was the brains and face of the IPL. Although his position as Chairman of the league was unpaid, he amassed extraordinary fortunes for the BCCI and many of his friends and family members, some of whom are shareholders in teams. 

When the Indian government ruled at the last minute that IPL 2009 could not be held in India because of a schedule clash with national elections, Modi almost single-handedly pulled off the remarkable feat of moving the entire tournament to South Africa, where stadiums were filled with crowds dancing to Bollywood stars and Indian television ratings remained strong enough to put cinema complexes out of business. His extraordinary vision combined with the highly efficient sport marketing and logistics team under Andrew Wildblood of the International Marketing Group (IMG) was a winning a combination.

But Modi was axed during IPL 2010 amidst numerous charges of corruption and the former IPL Commissioner (a wonderful self-appointed title) is exiled in London. His passport has been revoked by the Indian government and he has refused to return home to face the music of criminal charges against him on the grounds that, after receiving several death threats, he fears his life would be in danger if he did so. Not the kind of man to hide quietly, Mr Modi has used the internet to voice his streams of opinions on the tournament and those who run it. Conflicted between support for his creation and deep contempt for his foes at the BCCI, his messages on the Twitter website come thick and fast on a daily basis.

After personally brokering and then often positively re-negotiating most of the deals that hold together the IPL, Modi in all likelihood has vested financial interests in the financial success of the tournament. “Just learnt that the ratings for IPL have reached an average of 3.84 (TRP ratings scale). Which is the lowest it has ever achieved. Sorry to hear the same,” writes Modi on Twitter.

While Modi has mostly been positive in his support for the child that was taken away from him, he has not had the same approach when tweeting about the BCCI honchos that ousted him and hijacked the gravy train he drove.

“Not indirectly, but very directly. Fixing the auction, umpires and now pitch. Just give the damn trophy to CSK,” Modi wrote of the BCCI secretary who is also the owner of the Chennai Super Kings side.

Do not forget that match-fixing is one of the allegations that was made against Modi’s tenure. But while Modi was the boss of the IPL there was someone who could be held responsible for alleged mismanagement of the league. Now it is an almost faceless organisation hiding behind the auspices of the BCCI, a large and powerful organisation. It would be both churlish and naïve to believe that the funny business in those ranks ended with the departure of Lalit Modi.

Like a circus without a ring-master, the IPL 2011 has seemed a monotonously choreographed show that we have seen so many times before. Whilst crowd attendances have been good and the tournament has gone smoothly, it has lacked the intrigue and entertainment value it boasted under the magical Mr Modi. One would have expected that tickets for the final would be sold out in a matter of minutes but it has been five days since they went on sale and they are still not quite sold out. 

In previous tournaments there were often upwards of 80 journalists in the press box, whereas this year I have been to games where there have been fewer than ten. Senior Indian cricket writers have been virtually nowhere to be found and I have not bumped into even one foreign cricket writer.

Cheerleaders have been told to wear more clothes, there have been fewer fireworks (not just off the pitch) and a degree of sameness pervades the jamboree. Bollywood megastars Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty and Shah Rukh Khan hugging players in the dug-out was a massive novelty three years ago but this year’s crackdown on IPL parties has diminished press interest in the glitz and glamour that weds cricket to India’s high society. In any case it is no longer so exciting for the average Indian television viewer. Liz Hurley’s cheering on her lover, Shane Warne, at his last IPL may have been about the only exception.

On the field, under half of the 70 group matches matches were closely fought and very few high scores were successfully chased down, which is not what crowds in India relish. Midway through the league Virender Sehwag blitzed 119 off 56 balls to give Delhi, who had been teetering at 25/3 in the sixth over, an terrific four-wicket win over the Deccan Chargers who had put up a substantial 175-run target. It was the kind of game that made the inaugural IPL a blockbuster but games this scintillating were few and far between. The following twelve consecutive matches were so one-sided that there was little reason to keep watching after the first strategic (read: advertising) time-out break.

In fact the IPL lacked the kind of game one never forgets until the last group game of the season. Kolkata Knight Riders needed to beat the Mumbai Indians in front of a capacity Eden Gardens in order to secure a top-two finish, and thereby only need to win one play-off game for a place in the final. Mumbai had five wickets in hand and needed 21 runs off the final over to avoid a fifth straight loss when Lakshmi Balaji sent down a nightmare six balls to James Franklin and Ambati Rayadu that conceded 23 runs, including a six off the last ball to win a crackerjack of a match. The feat prompted the notorious blogger @Altcricket to tweet, “It’s taken 70 matches, but finally, a good game in the IPL.”

With the cap of only four international players allowed in any starting XI remaining unchanged, the talent pool of Indian players was spread even more thinly across ten teams – instead of the previous eight – with the result that many very fine international players have been unable to get a game while several below-par Indians get caps. The IPL should not be allowed to get away with asking for an international window and being a domestic tournament. 

As Warne said the day after his retirement from professional cricket, “India needs to use its power responsibly and not trample over the smaller nations in search of extra revenues.”

The rules relating to the re-auctioning of players before the fourth season saw very few players being retained by each franchise, thus undoing of much of the fan loyalty that had been built up over the previous three seasons. A strict limit of four players per side were allowed to be retained but doing so proved expensive at the auction as anyone worthy of keeping was bid for by their old club and other clubs. Consequently a mere 12 players were retained by the eight franchises, and the squads at every one of them bore almost no resemblance to their previous sides, an obvious problem given that the popularity of sports leagues is underpinned by the loyalty of teams’ fans. Yuvraj Singh is from Punjab but he is the “icon” player and captain of Pune – it is enough to turn the most mentally sane cricket fan schizophrenic.

But by no means is it all doom and gloom for the IPL. Even if team ownership starts to trade on a lower price earnings ratio there are still many pros to the tournament. 

Crowd attendances have been good, with many games sold out at high ticket prices. The IPL has brought about the extension and diversification of cricket fans in India. On my first visit to these shores I remember thinking that there was hardly a woman or child in any stadium and that ticket prices were low. But going to a game has become a far more mainstream activity and India’s bulging middle class has lapped up the entertainment. Stadiums are more comfortable – squatting stands behind razor-wire seem to have been abolished, refreshments are more freely available, lavatories cleaner and security tighter. Tickets are freely available online and are couriered to your door, thus eliminating the need to either queue all day in the sun or know a club member. Match tickets are not inexpensive and a cross-section of any IPL 2011 crowd reveals a well-to-do demographic of students, families with young children, and even groups of women on a girls’ night out. 

Highlights included some ridiculously fast-scoring innings from the likes of Chris Gayle (107 off 49 balls amongst others) and Adam Gilchrist (106* off 55 balls) and the discovery of a certain Paul Valthaty (120* off 63 early in the season). Malinga picked up where he left off after the World Cup and, at the end of the group stages, led the Purple Cap contest by clear water with 27 scalps (over 20 of those were clean bowled!). Youngster Rahul Sharma made a name for himself as a promising leg-break bowler and probable future star for India. 

It is probably no coincidence that India won the first World Cup since the invention of the IPL for the country’s stars are now well accustomed to high pressure situations. 

But as a tournament the IPL is too long and too congested. It takes place at the hottest time of year in India, when cricket is not normally played. One doesn’t hear players complain about the schedule because of the exorbitant salaries they are paid to go through the motions: Who pays the piper calls the tune and even the unhappy player who never gets any game time puts on a big smile when he is interviewed pitch-side and fibs about how he is “having the time my life” spending six hours a day on buses and planes and standing around for soft-drink commercials five thousand miles away from his family.

But the IPL has been and will continue to be a fantastic tournament. It may not prove as entertaining or profitable a league without Lalit Modi but it serves a purpose in providing entertainment to the masses and enough money to retire to the players that make the cut. The major worry with the tournament is something none of us can do anything about and that is that it fattens up the already obese BCCI and ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ is the approach the rest of the world is likely to take.

This article appeared in the June edition of Spin magazine

Back in NZ, where everyone knows Richard Hadlee

Last New Zealand cricket season I received some angry responses to this column from Kiwis who thought that I had been a bit harsh in my descriptions of the lack of excitement in the land of the silver fern. But having been before, I knew to expect scenic landscapes and one-horse towns this time around. And I must say I am really enjoying myself.

When the luggage X-ray operator at Christchurch airport saw on my immigration card that I was in the country to follow the cricket, he told me that he himself was a cricket journalist for 25 years and that he had been at school with Richard Hadlee. I told him that I thought this India series would be close, he said: “I couldn’t give two hoots about it anymore!”

I don’t know what drove him from cricket writing to X-raying luggage for biltong and hiking boots (if they find you with these they take them out and give them to the bio-hazard people to give them good clean for you – a most handy service). But what I do know is that when I hopped on the bus into town and I asked the driver how he thought the Black Caps would fare against the visiting Indians, he told me that he too had been at school with Richard Hadlee.

Now I would have been impressed by this kind of co-incidence on my first trip but, knowing that New Zealand is just one small village on two medium-sized islands, I wasn’t the least bit surprised that the first two Kiwis I had a chat to had been to school with New Zealand’s best ever fast bowler and all-rounder. I also wasn’t surprised that when he answered my question about who would come up tops in the upcoming series, he said: “I’m not bothered, I’d rather be surfing in Jeffrey’s Bay with your lot, mate”.

New Zealanders are great sportsmen and sports fans but, while they like a bit of cricket in the summer, it’s rugby that they are crackers about for the rest of the year. The summer is not very long and the Super 14 rugby tournament is already in full swing. But while Hadlee’s classmates aren’t too bothered about the cricket, this is a potentially huge series on our hands.

Everyone likes to host a tour from India because that is where the money is in cricket and because with the profit sharing structure of ICC series, New Zealand Cricket will earn half of the broadcast rights fees generated from the series. Because India is playing, this translates to a windfall of some $25 million for NZ Cricket. That is a lot of money for a cricket union with only a few hundred professional cricketers.

It is also a lot of money to pay for the rights to broadcast endless drizzle at little grounds with drop-in pitches, 45 metre boundaries, a handful of spectators and a few advertisements for local paint and hardware stores.

With bit of luck they’ll spend some of it on replacing old benches with chairs and putting internet connections and lights in some of the cricket ground’s press boxes!

New Zealand is friendly, beautiful, cosmopolitan, clean and extremely well catered to tourism. The sports section of the newspaper is the same size as the rest of the paper and they make good beer. It’s also not an outrageously expensive place to visit since the old credit crunch crept up on us. A year ago a US dollar bought you $1,25NZ. Today a Yankee dollar buys you two kiwi dollars and I haven’t noticed much inflation – all good reasons to start planning your trip to the Rugby World Cup here in 2011.

Value for money wouldn’t have been Preity Zinta’s primary reason for being on holiday in New Zealand. I had the chance to enjoy a few words with her before play today in Napier and the Mohali Punjab Kings IPL franchise owner told me she is just out here on a bit of a holiday. The A-list Bollywood actress of 36 feature pictures said she has loved going to cricket since the IPL got her into the game. I was jealous after seeing the bombshell give Yuvraj a hug so I asked her if she would come out and paint the Napier town red with me tonight. She said yes but I have a feeling she’s going to stand me up.

While I am name dropping, another very exciting thing happened to me today. Mark Greatbatch came over and gave me a big shiny red homegrown apple. It had a sticker with a picture of him that says “Mark Greatbatch – Cricket Legend, 1987-1997”. I remember him well because I was secretly listening to some Radio 2000 live Test commentary aged 11 in maths class when I got into trouble for laughing out loudly. The reason I was laughing was that Greatbatch was so slow in chasing a ball to the boundary that Jonty Rhodes and his partner ran five runs, without any overthrows.

Over the past few days, cricket lovers around the world have been able to do what’s good for them: watch the civilised game virtually around the clock. Simultaneous Test matches in Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies (in order of where the sun comes up first). Pure bliss if you live in South Africa or England, countries where for a little bit of money every month you get this sort of thing on your satellite television.

A bad country to be in at such a time is New Zealand where none of these matches was broadcast, even though Sky TV here has something like seven sports channels. This is very good for Cricket 365’s ratings as desperate fans sit up following our commentary all night but I think this lack of international cricket on the telly would even put my mother off moving here.

In every other country I have visited over the past year my clever phone has automatically picked up 3G internet on whichever pay as you go mobile network I have used. But in New Zealand, there is only one mobile phone network and GPRS/3G is only available to residents on a two-year contract. It’s fair to say that for a developed country with high levels of GDP per capita, the place is a bit backward. No wonder the rate of Kiwi emigration (mostly to Australia) is the highest it has ever been.

But it is also no surprise that New Zealand currently gains about 3000 more inhabitants than it loses every month. Immigration is needed to stimulate the economy and there are plenty of people who put their hand up to move to this green and pleasant land where work is easy to come by and the government looks after its residents generously.

A majority of this immigration comes from India, the very country against which the Black Caps are currently doing battle. There must be far more Hindi than Maori spoken in New Zealand and I was amused when Daniel Vettori, a captain who never puts his foot in it, joked that it would be a home series for the visitors. I don’t think he was supposed to say that but it does seem that way at times.

In terms of the conditions however, this is anything but a home series for India. Indeed the principle reason for India’s weak performances in New Zealand over the years has been the fact that the pitches and weather could not be more alien to anyone from the sub-continent. Slow drop-in pitches where dibbly dobblers can look unplayable, more rain interruptions than hot meals, gale force winds disturbing bowlers’ run-ups and grounds that don’t have any practice nets, because they are primarily rugby stadiums, are just some of the conditions to which this young Indian camp must quickly adjust.

After losing the two Twenty20 games in close matches at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch and the Westpac Stadium in Wellington (both Super 14 rugby grounds), India came back with a good win in the first ODI at Napier. In a rain interrupted 38-over match, the tourists posted a substantial 373/4 after Virender Sehwag got the Indians off to a flyer with 77 runs off 56 balls. M.S. Dhoni captained the ship with 84 not out off 80 balls and Suresh Rana finished off the innings with a bang as he sought and found the short square boundary several times as he clobbered 66 runs from 39
deliveries.

The home side just never got gong in the chase and when the rain came down after 20.5 overs in the second innings, five balls after the 20 overs required to find a winner via the Duckworth Lewis method, New Zealand were in all kinds of trouble at 111/4. When play resumed, the Back Caps needed 105 runs off 7.1 overs (a mammoth 14.62 runs per over). It was never going to happen once Martin Guptill was out to Harbhajan Singh for 64 runs off 70 balls. Harbhajan added two more quick wickets and the hosts finished on 162/2, some 53 runs behind the revised DL par of 215 runs.

World cricket is in a very healthy position when there are four close contests between the ICC’s top eight ranked sides simultaneously. India in New Zealand promises to be very exciting and the drama of the recent Antigua and Wanderers Test matches have provided such good advertisements for the longer version of the game. After 14 months in the wilderness it was wonderful to see Pakistan finally play in a Test match in which their new captain, Younis Khan, made a fine triple hundred.

But today will not be remembered for any positives. Instead it will mark one of the saddest days in cricketing history. It was a day when the best game in the world was stolen from a public by audacious terrorists who attempted to murder another nation’s cricketers. Five Pakistani policemen were killed and at least five members of the touring Sri Lankan team and management have been seriously injured.

The cricket world must unite to help Sri Lanka come through such a violent attack on its team and country and it also must offer empathy to Pakistan cricket, which will not be staging any international cricket at home for a very long time.

This article appeared on Cricket365 in March 2009, during India’s tour of New Zealand.