Cricket’s rock star underbelly exposed by Kersi Meher-Homji

Spiro Zavos Columnist

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Cricket: Conflicts and Controversies by Kersi Meher-Homji

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In the early 1990s when there was a big cricket match on at the wonderful SCG, I’d often write my daily editorial for the Sydney Morning Herald quickly and make my way to the press box in the towering Noble Stand.

There I’d chat with the good old boys who were present.

We’d all joke with genial Ernie Crosgrove, a Balmain diehard and the official scorer at the SCG.

Early on I remember the telephone ringing constantly before an ODI. Ernie whispered into the phone and then with a wry smile on his face told us that the calls had come from ‘Indian bookmaker’.

In those innocent days, whenever the phone rang in the press box we’d all laugh and call out to Ernie, “your Indian bookmakers are after you!”

Among the group, generally coming in a bit later, was a Kersi Meher-Homji, an intense, charming man who was always interested in finding out what was happening and why, was always good for a laugh (more often a chuckle) and a probing insight into whatever the current controversy that was raging.

At lunch time you’d see Kersi chatting intensely to one of the journalists, Peter Roebuck (who is greatly missed) or Phil Wilkins (a terrific sports reporter with an eye for a story and lively writing style) or some of the former players in the journalists’ box, doing commentaries on television or radio.

From time to time, Kersi sent me his delightful little books on cricket oddities. The books reflected his intense love of cricket and his penchant for research that probably came from his work as a virologist.

Now Kersi has branched out into a fully-fledged book, called ‘Cricket: Conflicts and Controversies.’

The best description of the book I can give is to say that, in an informed and generous manner, Kersi has written a history of cricket’s underbelly, the scandals and the controversies that have marked and often scarred the history of the game since its earliest days.

The first scandal covered involves William Lambert, “among the first person to be kicked out of cricket for match-fixing… in June 1817.” As Kersi notes, “that is almost 200 years ago, and 180 years before Salim Malik , Hansie Cronje, Mohammad Azharduddin, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer.”

One of the charms of the book is the tidbits of information that make it such an appetising confection. Lambert, Kersi tells us, was “the first batsman in cricket history to score centuries in both innings of a match, for Sussex at Epsom in 1817, a feat not repeated for 76 years.”

There is trivia question gold in this sort of information.

Nothing very much changes in life and sport, even in a venerable game like cricket. Lambert was a professional cricketer, in that he made his living from cricket, playing for whoever would pay him to turn out for them. Shades of the modern T20 game. He was banned from Lord’s for not performing at his best for England against Nottinghamshire.

And why was his under-performance punished? Because cricket then (and now) was a gambling game. Lord’s actually drove the bookmakers out of the ground for tarnishing the credibility of the games played there. It remained a ground where no betting was allowed until relatively recently.

From its origins, cricket was designed for gambling, in a sort of games equivalent of horse racing. Runs were notched up and there were so many events in each over and multiplied throughout a match that you could (and can) make a bet, and sometimes several bets, on every single delivery.

As Kersi points out, there is an intense irony in all of this, as cricket is the only game where its integrity is woven into the metaphorical fabric of the game. This notion is summed up in the familiar phrase: ‘It’s not cricket.’

The last scandal covered is the case of Allen Stanford, the former Texan billionaire, who was jailed for 110 years (he would be 172 if he were still alive to be released) who ‘bankrolled’ Caribbean cricket, as a rival to the Indian Premier League. His financial empire collapsed with investors being defrauded of $7 billion.

In between Lambert and Stanford there are fascinating chapters that include: Pooley imprisoned before the inaugural 1877 Test; team boycott of the 1885 Melbourne Test; coming to blows 1911 – 1912 style; Bodyline furore; the flaming Bombay Test; snow storm leads to SCG walk-off; World Series Cricket revolution; how D’Oliveira affair dismantled apartheid; rebel tours to South Africa; Lillee, Lillee, Oi, Oi, ouch; match-fixing, ball tampering and drugs; Hair, Inzy and the forfeited Oval Test of 2006; Greg Chappell and the Indian disconnection; headline hunters – Shane and Shoaib; Bollyline – the Harbhajan-Symonds hullabaloo.

Kersi calls himself, “a qualified cricket fanatic and the respected author of 13 books.” There are two aspects about his work that stand out for me.

First, he was born, educated and worked in India before migrating to Australia. He brings an intimate knowledge and love for cricket on the sub-continent (something that Peter Roebuck had, too) to his writings on cricket.

The Indian perspective is probably too strong a statement to make about this, for Kersi is exceedingly fair and generous in his assessments. Let’s just say there is just a hint of curry that infuses his descriptions.

Second, Kersi’s talent for friendship and his industry in digging into stories permeates his writing with authenticity and insights. Writing about the infamous collapse by Pakistan on 5 January 2010 to lose an unlosable Test to Australia, Kersi tells of having lunch the day before with some Pakistani journalists who inferred to him the possibility of the Test being thrown.

Incidentally, after the Test I wrote a piece for The Roar pointing out that the field placings on the final day by Pakistan resembled, in an uncanny manner, field placing in an Ashes Test in the 1920s when the Australian captain Herb Collins, in debt to the bookmakers, was alleged by Stork Hendry to have organised a fix to allow England to win the match.

Time and time again, Kersi adds insight and analysis to his accounts of the scandals by quoting conversations or letters about the incidents, given to him by key participants in the events. This gives his accounts an authenticity and a historical resonance that give ballast to his accounts and his judgments.

And the worst scandal of all them?

Kersi does not discuss this. But I’ll offer my opinion. England’s non-selection of Basil D’Oliveira in 1968 for the tour of South Africa.

In the previous Test, England played against Australia. D’Oliveira, a Cape Coloured, scored 158 in the first innings of the Test and took one for one off five overs in Australia’s second inning.

By bowing to the South African government’s apartheid policy by not selecting D’Oliveira initially for the England touring side, the cricket world exploded with antagonism to South Africa. That country’s isolation from sporting contacts began in earnest then.

The end of the apartheid republic did not come for nearly two more decades, but its end was fixed with the selection decision against D’Oliveria.

Cricket is a game that generates endless argument.

That is one of the pleasures of the game. It is a game, too, that treasures its past, even the underbelly scandals. Kersi has added to the argument and the pleasures of the game with this splendid book, which I guess would make an ideal Christmas present, for cricket lovers old and young.

Cricket: Conflict and Controversies by Kersi Meher-Homji (New Holland Publishers, christine@newholland.com.au

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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