During his tenure as a university lecturer, the novelist (and former football goalkeeper) Vladimir Nabokov instructed his students that the reader of literature needed three things: imagination, memory, and a dictionary. This advice applies as well for the reader of Gideon Haigh’s essays on cricket, collected in Sphere of Influence: Writings on Cricket and Its Discontents (Victory Books, 2010). Certainly, Gideon taps the lexicon like no other sportswriter, peppering his columns with sibilance, hypertrophic, and phosphoresce (verb), and even nifty neologisms like gossipmongery and zeitgeistiest. The reader’s memory is stretched with cultural allusions that go beyond the standard sports commentator’s references to Will Ferrell movies or Saturday Night Live skits. The essays feature cameos by Dean Rusk, William O. Douglas, John Kenneth Galbraith, P.G. Wodehouse, and Captain Renault from Casablanca. And the imaginative reader will delight in metaphors and similes that conjure brilliant images: a bowler demolishes a wicket stump “like a dynamited chimney”; the excess of millions in contemporary cricket is compared to a saturnalia; and Sachin Tendulkar’s entry to the pitch has the same awe and drama as if he was being carried “on a bejeweled palanquin by dusky maidens amid the flourish of imperial trumpets.”
But there is also substance behind the style. Gideon’s career began in business journalism, and many of his articles probe the financial side of cricket. He questions the direction that cricket’s commercialization is heading, and how it is fueling a profligacy of competitions and leagues and televised matches that is threatening to cannibalize the sport. There is much cause for discontent, from hyperbolic television commentary to WAG’s staking their place in the tabloids, and fans who do not follow cricket will find that many of Gideon’s critiques apply to their own sports as well.
At the same time, Gideon is also a cricketer. As he makes clear throughout the interview, he has a profound love and respect for the game that comes from avidly playing it. He shows an appreciation for the skill of the masters in his comments on Tendulkar and Shane Warne. And he has hope for the future, despite the looming retirement of these icons and the current tumult in the sport, because it is a good game—perhaps even, as he says, the best game. But for all this pride in his favorite sport, Gideon also appreciates the compliment he’s received from readers, including this one, that he writes about cricket in a way that outsiders to the game can understand. Certainly, this ability to communicate cricket, even to non-cricket speakers, is apparent in our interview.