Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


If you haven’t caught this by now, I’m a sports junkie and in India that means cricket. Thirty years ago, cricket was the most boring, god-awful waste of time the sporting world had ever devised. Basically it was a way for Brits to spend endless months in foreign lands in between trying to kill all the people in those foreign lands. The foreigners took their revenge by dominating them at their own sport. Cricket is far more popular than baseball and is the top sport in India, Pakistan, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and South Africa. It also competes with soccer in all of Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. In England and New Zealand it shares time with rugby and even the Irish have now put up a formidable side.

What cricket has done, more than any other major sport, is change the game dramatically to make it more palatable to the international market. Although the five-day test matches are still taking place, the recognized world champion is the winner of the World Cup, which is a tournament consisting of one-day matches. And just five years ago, the world governing body, realizing they couldn’t get TV time for these 8-9 hour contests, came up with a stroke of genius – the 20-20 format.

20-20 (or T20 as it’s more commonly referred to) takes the best part of the sport (free swinging batting) and squeezes all the excitement of a 5-day sport into a palatable and exhilarating three-hour format. In the five-day format, each player on both teams was allowed to bat until they were forced out. In the T-20 format each teams scores as many runs as they can in 20 overs (6 pitches or bowls/over) then the other team bats. In the old format a batter could be at the wicket for days on end and never had to take a chance. They could bunt the ball for hours with no penalty. In T20 the batters need to swing early, often and hard. The ball leaves the grounds at unprecedented rates and the crowds go crazy for it. They also don’t have to plan a 5-day holiday to catch a match. They can go after work and even bring the kids.

Three years ago, the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India), devised a new professional league consisting of the best players in the world. The Indian Premiere League (IPL) was born and it’s been a huge hit in India ever since. The IPL brings the best players in the world to India for a short season of t20 matches and spreads the games all over the country. Each match has the flair of an NFL or Champions League Soccer match, with local fans getting to see their heroes, many of them for the first time in their lives.

In 2004 in an attempt to attract major sporting events to Dharamsala, the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Board built a beautiful 30,000 seat stadium that any spectator (aside from someone in a wheelchair) will agree is the most spectacular stadium in all of sport. The stadium is perched high above the city so the grandstands rise above Dharamsala like a glowing red temple. The perfectly manicured pitch is the only flat piece of ground for hundreds of miles so spectators are in awe the minute they walk in. Looming just a few miles away are the dominating peaks of the Dhauladhar. 17,000 ft. Moon Peak, the king of the range, is only twenty miles away as the crow flies, although it would take days by any means of transport to get there.

Unfortunately for me, the Dharamsala Cricket stadium is without question the least accessible venue I’ve ever been to. To begin with there are no simple gate attendants or ticket takers. They only people working the game were police men and local army troops. Any time there’s a huge gathering in India, terrorism is not far behind so security is at a premium. I’m all fine with that – in fact there was a bomb at an IPL match in southern India on the same day. But the HP Cricket Board did absolutely no training with these people on how to manage the crowd. None of them knew where any of the gates were and spectators were universally ignored when asking where their seats were.

In trying to decipher the stadium layout, I was given directions far from the main entrance which lead me down a path through a military base (the terrain around the stadium is used for army exercises) down a huge rock pile (I was carried by four Punjabis), and finally down a series of two-foot high stadium steps. Once I got in line there I compared my ticket to one of the Punjabis and discovered my seat was on the far side of the stadium.

The four huge Punjabi guys (their team, Punjabi Kings XI were the home team) took it upon themselves to help me out. They lifted me back up the stadium steps (about 35 ft vertical), back over the rock pile and finally back to the far side of the stadium where I finally found my entrance. This entrance was through a metal detector and up a huge dirt embankment which of course I had no chance of getting through.

Once I was pushed up to the top, an army officer ran me down and spent ten minutes going through my bag. I had to explain to him what I was doing with catheters, petroleum jelly and rubber gloves in my bag. He spoke little English so I had to wait for another spectator who spoke English and could understand what I was doing with this medical gear (it’s for peeing, if you didn’t know).

I finally got to my gate, but my whole reason for getting there early (I was two hours before the first ball) was that I got in contact with a TV producer who was going to let me work in the TV booth. I called him and told him where I was, but seeing as all I could see around me were stairs, there’s no way I was going to make it work. He told me he was going to scout things out and call me once he knew how to get a hold of me. I didn’t see him again until the next day when he came to my hotel to apologize. There was simply no way to get me around that stadium.

But even though I was well ahead of game time, the stadium was filling up. There was plenty of music and entertainment planned, so I decided I should just get to my seat, relax and enjoy the game. I found the entrance to my section and discovered I was only 30 stairs away from the inside. Before going up, I found a bathroom, which luckily enough had no stairs. I did my duty which was going to have to last, because there was no way I could get back down once I made it to my seat.

Again I had to find four willing spectators to lift me to my seat. Everyone there was in an upbeat festive mood so this really wasn’t a problem. I found four huge cricket fans who lifted me up and carried me up the stairs to a floor section about four feet from the rail to the pitch.
Front Row! How about it! Biggest show in town and I was living large. Unfortunately they turned out to be the worst seats in the yard. This was the only exit for 5000 spectators so for the next five hours I was passed several times by each spectator. There was just enough room for them to walk in front of me so they did just that – all night long. Also, to my left, guarding the entrance were a dozen Army troops blocking 30% of my view all night long.

So it sucked for me, but for the rest of the crowd, it was a magical evening. This was the first time the IPL had come to Himachal Pradesh so the local fans were seeing their heroes live for the first time. Most of these players have enormous international reputations, so every time a defender would come close to the stands, the crowd would scream like a rock concert. The pitch is one of the smaller ones the IPL goes to so balls were leaving the yard at a good pace and scoring was high.

One of the funniest spectacles in the yard, however, were the cheerleaders, who were brought in from South Africa. I found out the next day the cheerleaders were staying in the hotel next to mine with the TV crew (that’s how I made my contact that wasn’t working!). But these were not the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. These girls were average looking, not in any kind of athletic shape and were crappy dancers. They didn’t know the rules of the game, celebrated only when they were cued and seemed bored out of their skull every time they were required to do a dance. But the Indian men went absolutely bonkers for them. The locals rushed to the rail when they danced, threw them all sorts of notes and even tried to copy their dances (yes, the Indian MEN).

At first I thought they were mocking the cheerleaders, but they were absolutely going nuts over them. Marriage proposals; flashbulbs; the whole works. The next day when I spoke to the cheerleaders from my balcony I discovered them to be bitches of the first order, thinking they were some kind of television stars. I’m telling you right now, they couldn’t have made my high school JV cheering squad, and here they thought they were as big as the players. It was really pathetic.

The Punjabi Kings XI were defeated with only a few balls left in the match as the Deccan Chargers hit a boundary sending the home side down. The 5000 people in my section now had to all pass by me again, as the army captain told me he would help me down as soon as everyone left. So I waited until nearly the entire stadium was left before four soldiers carried me down. Luckily there was no beer at this venue because had I put down three or four glasses of suds, my bladder would have been bursting. As it was, I was dehydrated and hungry. The only drink at the stadium was sugary soda and the only food was potato chips and ice cream. I had some of everything, but it made me feel kinda gross. Thank god I ate a huge meal before going inside the stadium or I would have been a wreck.

Luckily for me, a group of performers from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts were doing a dance before the game and I hooked up with them for a ride back to Bhagsu. Had I not connected with them (they only saw me as I left the stadium) I would have had to roll more than two miles up a steep incline to the nearest taxi stand – then wait until 2 a.m. for an expensive ride.

In the end it wasn’t quite the magical night for me that I’d envisioned. But for the 30,000 ‘normal’ cricket fans it was glorious. The play was top quality and they got to be proud of Dharamsala for something besides being the home of the Dalai Lama. So kudos to cricket! Had the game stayed as boring as it was in the 50’s a night like this would never have been possible.

Now if they could only consult an ADA architect before building huge monuments to the game, I’d be a lot happier!

1 comment:

  1. Dear Tom

    an excellent piece on a game which is now enjoyed by more than a Billion people in five continents of the world..

    I hope you had a wonderful stay in India....

    Keep on writing ,sharing and Inspiring

    Loved your work