Transcript: Couch Talk with Gideon Haigh

Couch Talk Episode 60 (play)

Guest: Gideon Haigh

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman– Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is the prolific writer Gideon Haigh. He talks about his new book “On Warne”, the motivation behind and the construction of it, and the differences from it to the other biographical sketch he had done, of Jack Iverson in “The Mystery Spinner”. He also discusses the club cricket culture, the need to play cricket at any level to gain perspectives as a writer, the positives and drawbacks of staying an independence voice, his favorite books, amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Gideon!

Gideon Haigh– Hello, Subash!

SJ– Thanks for coming on the show for the second time. Thanks for your time.

GH– Thank you for asking!

SJ– My pleasure, always.

Last week was a pretty hectic week for you. You delivered the Bradman Oration speech and you had a book published “On Warne”.

GH– Yes. And I went to two training sessions. And I went to a committee meeting. And I played a game of cricket.

SJ– And all the bones are still in the same place.

GH– Yes. Can’t wait for the next session. I am hitting the ball beautifully. I’ve got a new bat. Feeling great!

SJ– So, you are on your way to beating your own record, 92 runs?

GH– These days, I just think in terms of the number of games, and see if I have achieved enough.

SJ– Getting back to the book – If you talk about your cricket, we will keep talking about it for ever… How is this attempt of yours different from all the other ones that are out there about Shane Warne?

GH– I’d like to think that this one is good, because I don’t think the other books are very. I think that for all the words that have been written about Warne in book form, he has remained elusive and patchy, and even his own works have been insubstantial. I just thought it was time for someone to take him seriously, which I don’t think most of the writers have. I think it is a bit of an assumption these days because the people have seen us on videos, on television, and they don’t need us to describe. That makes it far more pressing to actually describe the sensation of watching someone who was so watchable. The remarkable thing about Warne is that you can watch these things again and again and again, and they still seem magical.

I quoted an Australian historian, a man called Greg Denning who said “Nothing is so fleeting as a sporting achievement and nothing is so lasting as the revelation of it.” It is absolutely true in Warne’s case. It was interesting that a lot of people in the last week who had me interviewed played the audio of the ball of the century, which was Warne’s ball to dismiss Mike Gatting 20 years ago. And the interesting thing about Agnew’s call is that he doesn’t know what has happened. He loosely starts off by saying that the ball has taken Gatting’s pad, and then exclaims “Oh No! That has bowled him! And he is just standing there. He doesn’t know what was going on. We had to just wait for the replay.” [Click here for the TMS commentary during the “ball of the century”].

It was just fascinating, and it was very special and very unique to Warne. He is one of the those who made us doubt the evidence of our own eyes. It is his fortune that he lived in the modern age which had a rigid examination of his art from a multitude of angles at a multitude of space and in different granularity of data that he does permit repeated studying. You can go back to him again and again and you will always find something more, something new to say. I was surprised how much I found about Warne even after having written hundreds and thousands of words about him in my career.

When I sat down on the first day, which was the 1st of March, I felt “What have I got anything to add? There is a very substantial amount of written records.” Then I felt that it was actually surprisingly easy, because it was surprisingly fun, it was surprisingly pleasant. Warne is a fun cricketer. He is fun to watch and he is certainly fun to write about.

SJ– What gave you the motivation to even get started on this project?

GH– It always helps when you are asked by a publisher. I had never really considered doing a book about this. It does seem oddly obvious. I prefer to make things difficult, just like I do in my batting. I prefer to be a bit more complex and nuanced. There was a lot to work on. It was the just odds of taking something that appears obvious, then perhaps making it look less so and perhaps revealing things that haven’t previously be been considered.

In Warne’s career, we recall the details, but we don’t recall the context of them. We have to go back and refresh our context. The other thing is that a lot of controversies that he was involved in, including personal peccadilloes seem incredibly trivial and transient. All the way through Warne’s career that these things didn’t matter, and weren’t anybody’s business but his own. And frankly, the world has come around to sharing Warne’s views, the rest of us have come in line with Warne. In taking his word, what we have realized is that what really matters is the art and the skill. That is certainly something that we, as cricket fans, can revel in.

SJ– When you start off writing on a subject that has been written about… And you had written two feature length articles on Global Mail as well, on Warne… How do you go about forgetting about Shane Warne and others having written about him, and figure out which angles to cover from so that you have that distinct force?

GH– Part of the fun writing about Warne, or part of the ease about writing about Warne is the main points of the story are so well known that you don’t have to go about recalling Shane Warne’s career ball-by-ball. It’s all been done before, and it is actually a bit tired. What you can do is you can be much more selective in the way in which you choose the parts of his careers, the clusters, which you want to emphasize, the facts that you want to draw together, and comparison that you want to draw with other cricketers. You can actually have a bit of fun with this.

I’ve tried to break it up into 5 different chapters. It is safe to work that way. I didn’t really plan it. The first one is about the Making of Warne, the context of his arising in Australian cricket, which is actually very interesting. That late 80s, early 90s period clashing with Australian cricket coming to terms with the fact that it can’t depend on its traditional ways of promoting talent. It was a period when we weren’t competitive in international cricket. It was a period when we weren’t where we thought we should have been on international cricket. The West Indies were top of the heap. We perhaps had to take steps as Australians had in the Olympics in the early 1980s, regardless of the academy period of Australian cricket. That was a unique period. that was a big focal change for the way in which we approached the game.

The second chapter is about the Art of Warne. Quite a lot of space to give a physical description of the action which was seen 50,000 times in international level. After a while, we took it for granted. It is interesting when you kind of look back to watching Australian cricket in 1970s and 1980s,, and you might have heard about leg spin. You might have been told that the bowlers you are watching were leg spinners. But that didn’t seem to have the magic that leg spin was supposed to have, the ones associated with great leg spinners like O’Reilly’s and Benaud’s. All of a sudden, Shane Warne arrives and it is almost as if like he hasn’t been coached. It is like he is kind of this intuitive leg spin from first principles. He has invented and crafted it on his own. You do discover that leg spin is exactly as marvelous as they had been all those years. They weren’t lying. This was kind of a “myth made in flesh”.

The third chapter is about the four key relationships of Warne’s career, cricket relationships – with Glenn McGrath, with Stuart MacGill, with John Buchanan and with Steve Waugh. And they all sort of reveal the different sides of Warne. Different shades of Warne.

The fourth chapter is about the various controversies of Warne’s career and his relationships, and the change in the sporting industrial sporting complex of which he was a prime part.

The last is about him in Australia and his relationship with some vexed parts of Australian sporting psyche. Masculinity, aggression, and nationalism. And I wrote a little bit about Elizabeth Hurley as well.

You could’ve done it in any number of ways. This is just the one that I chose. This is just the one that I arrived at. And, after a month it was done, from March 1st to March 31st, it was a 31 day month, so you could get a lot of work done. I could’ve gone on, but it kind of looked complete in itself. There was no point in going on, just like there is no point in Shane Warne adding two or three more paces to his action. The result would’ve been the same. Frankly, having written 200,000 words for my previous book, I didn’t feel like doing that again.

SJ– You had written a book on Jack Iverson, and now on Shane Warne. These are biographies, but it is basically your impressions and historical evidences. In one, you were alive to watch it. So, how are they different, writing over two different subjects?

GH– It is interesting that these two cricketers lived so close to one another. They are both from Brighton. Both played for the Brighton Cricket Club. Yet, they could hardly have been more remorse from one another in their attitudes to the game and in their belief in their abilities. I guess that the easiest contrast is that Iverson never believed that he belonged at the highest level. He always believed that he was an imposter. And in some respects, he was. He arrived in cricket at a relatively late age. He did not play at any sort of level seriously until after the Second World War, by which time he was into his 30s. He was quite secretive, he was into the idea of preserving mystery around his bowling.

Shane Warne is the very antithesis of that. He is the man who loved the limelight, who loved fame, who really always felt that he really belonged and held the exact opposite attitude to bowling.

It is amazing that Warne, whenever the cameras wanted Warne to demonstrate what they wanted him to, he eagerly went along with the idea of showing them off. I can remember countless TV masterclass at lunch time and tea time and he would sit and explain the leg spinners and top spinners and flipper. They kind of think he had no ____ about showing his art. It was like a Julian Assange like attitude to the secretive. He was so incredibly comfortable with all of this because he knew that the batsman still had to play it, didn’t they? And that was easier said than done.

In some respects, that confidence was some of the most impressive things about him. The fact that for 15 years, his action was relentlessly scrutinized, his actions were watched over and over again. Groundsmen had the opportunity to prepare the pitches that didn’t suit him. The batsmen had the opportunity to reverse against bowlers like him, to try and replicate match like situations that they might find themselves in. The umpires had the opportunity to come to terms with the kind of aggression in his appealing, and his art, a psychological manipulator. He still managed to stay one step ahead of the game. He was as difficult to face later {in his career] as he was in the beginning.

SJ– Let’s talk about your beginnings, as a writer. You were a business writer, and you have transitioned into a cricket writer, mostly. Of course, you write about other topics too. How has this transition occurred?

GH– I can tell you that as basic facts of the matter, I was a business journalist. I went to work in the UK after 5 or 6 years in Australia, after 1989/90. And yes, I loved cricket. I was a little bit frustrated by the way people wrote about cricket. I could moan and bitch, and complain about it. Or, I could actually have a go at it myself. Which I did. I started writing for a fanzine called “Johnny Miller 96 not out”. Your older podcast fans might remember that. It was lot of fun. I started contributing to Wisden Cricket. I sent an article to David Frith, and he published it and we began a editorial relationship, and I am very fond of Frithy.

When I returned to Australia, I had written a business book already. I wanted to write a book about the World Series Cricket which had been of importance in my cricket upbringing. I was in primary school when Kerry Packer recruited the cream of the world’s cricketers, and they came to Geelong, my home town. That was terribly exciting. And all of a sudden as hard as it is maybe now to believe, it really was exciting and thrilling to have cricket on two whole channels on Australian televisions. You could actually flick between the two channels, ABC  and Channel 9 and watch an entirely different cricket attraction with many of the world’s best players. I am forever thankful to Kerry Packer for the opportunity to watch Barry Richards, who was otherwise a marvellous player. So, I wrote that book in 1992.

Funnily enough, I remember doing a load of interviews for that book, before the Boxing Day Test of 1992. I stood at the back of Channel 9 commentary booth and snaffled the Channel 9 commentators as they came on and off commentary duty. And that was the Test match where Shane Warne took 7 wickets against the West Indies, 7 for 52, including a famous flipper to dismiss Richie Richardson. That was 20 years ago now. Who would’ve known then that I would be writing a book about that young cricketer who was then making his way into the game!

I have always had a necessity and desire [to be] a little outside the cricket main stream until last summer, till which I didn’t write regularly for Australian summer, as opposed to my match reports to Cricinfo or The Guardian and The Times, because the cricket press here is quite small and the opportunities didn’t arise.

And I didn’t want to go and write in the sports section. I considered myself as a journalist who writes about sports, rather than a sports journalist. I’m doing a completely different piece right now, about the making of political history in Australia. Before then, I had done a piece on central banking in Australia. I was never just a sports journalist. It keeps you fresh, limber, keeps you broad and aware of the wide world. We often talk about how important it is to be aware of the wide world. It is easy enough to be swollen up, and continue to allow ourselves to be swollen up by sports and ports writing. I think it is important to sometimes step outside. It you are writing about cricket whole day, I get bored. I begin to go and find something else [to write about].

SJ– You mentioned that for a majority of the time, you had been an independent journalist. In comes a question from Mahesh, who wonders if the need to stay independent and not get plugged into the system – Does it come in a way of any necessary access you may need to cricketers and the people running cricket?

GH– Sometimes, there is always a danger of being swallowed by the whole enterprise. It was interesting to be asked to deliver the Bradman Oration, something as established and mainstream as that. It was a great honor to be asked. But, I didn’t get paid for it. I wouldn’t have accepted money for it, anyway. I was quite sure that I was critical of Cricket Australian the oration as well, just to remind them that I am independent and have my own point of view. It is not an institutional point of view. It is something that I have arrived at. Peter Bird said to me that, “he was often wrong, but he was never in doubt”. I’m probably the same. If I’m wrong, at least I’ve arrived on the inaccuracy by independent means. It is obvious that I will not be speaking anybody else’s agenda.

SJ– I was having a conversation earlier with Dileep Premachandran, now of Wisden India, about the access to players. There is a danger of being swallowed by the system. But, if you are too far removed, you might not be able to get out the stories in the way that you would want to present it. How did you walk that tight line?

GH– It is a good question. The players have become much, much less accessible. And that has led to some kind of unease between the two of them – journalists and players. So, the journalists nurture illusions about players and players probably do the same about journalists. It is a shame because the players have a great capacity as educators and expositors of the game and the journalists love cricket. No doubt about it, they like to talk about it. But, they usually do it among themselves, which is a shame.

I don’t seek players out. I don’t avoid them, at the same time. One slight advantage or element of my cricket is that I am a player, no matter how humble, I am a player and I go out there and do my best every week for my club. If I don’t play for too long, that I start to feel itchy to want to play the game. I love to play the game, I like the physical sensation of it, the technical and temperamental challenges of it, I love the situations that it puts you in.

And that does give you something in common with the best player in the game- the fact that you are out there and having a go. Last week, I sat next to Ricky Ponting at the Bradman Oration, and we immediately struck a conversation about the cricket that we played, and that we were playing. He played at the Sheffield Field game that day. I played at the weekend, I’ve been training. We just started talking about the grounds that we played in. We talked about the gear that we used, and stuffs like that. It is amazing how far you can in a conversation just talking about stuff that cricketers talk about, it is fun to talk about those. Under the skin, we have actually got a lot in common.

It was interesting that after the oration, we had a panel, and it was an interesting discussion. The individuals who were up there were my suggestions – Ricky Ponting, Ed Cowan and Melanie Jones. Basically, I asked them to talk about their clubs, where they played and who influenced them as young players. And, I don’t know whether that was on the cricinfo website, but it was a really good discussion. The three really opened up and spoke about what they gave up in their career, and the values that they are attached to being part of an institution like they were. And, the ideas that were instilled, like the reciprocity and mutual respect.

All of them would be very much at home at my club, and they already sort of are. On a Saturday night, we launched my book at my home club, and Ed Cowan came along and gave the launch speech. It was fantastic. He stayed all night. We had a ball. He in fact text-ed me the next day saying what a fantastic day he had, and how he would love to come back, which is the kind of guy that Eddie is. Even though I have played cricket at a very humble level, it is important to me, for my appreciation that how difficult it is, how frustrating it can be, how exciting it can be. What fun it can be to be a part of a team, and how challenging it can be to be under pressure in a match situation. And then you imagine doing that in a ground with tens of thousands of people in it.

It is a great game, it is a players’ game. It is a players’ game even more than it is a spectators’ game. Partly because the action takes place so far away from the spectators. And also because you only really get to understand what is going on only if you are directly involved in it, else they are just impressions.

SJ– It is my view that the more you play, the more you appreciate the game and prevents you from being a cynic. You enjoy the game for what it is, and it stops from operating from the other end of the spectrum where you are all negative and pessimistic about things.

GH– It wasn’t good when I didn’t play it. Just for pressure of work and time, in my late 20s and early 30s. I was working in the evenings, and hence I wasn’t training. If I can’t train, then I am not of much use to anyone, not that I am of much use to anyone generally. The minute that I went back to playing regularly at the club that I am now playing at, I realized that this is why I love it, and this is what I’ve been missing in my cricket experience and I am very grateful that I have it back.

SJ– To hop back to the conversation with Dileep and lack of access to players, we were talking about long form features. And we have Gideon Haigh writing it almost exclusively. And in majority of cricket portals, we don’t see that. He was talking about the bottom line – the economics of commissioning long form features. It doesn’t get the hits that justify paying the kind of money that it requires. I see it as the editors washing their hands from some kind of responsibility. If you grow a generation of readers never having exposed them to long form features- So, how do we overcome that? We shouldn’t have that art form disappear from cricket.

GH– If people just grab on T20, how are they going to understand Test cricket? Unless there are examples of the kind of journalism that you are explaining, there is nothing else to really aspire to. This is disappointing. But then again, I thought that cricket journalism is as exciting as it should’ve been, perhaps because it has been opened up to outsiders. I’ve recently started to blog for The Australian. I’m very late to cricket blogging, but I’ve been a reader of blogs for 6 or 7 years because I have enjoyed reading it because they are personal, engaged, enthusiastic and driven by the love of the game. They are fresh, not jaded and don’t contain the same clichés falling into place like iron filings attracted to magnet.

Let the flowers bloom. I love the variety and range of different voices of cricket writing these days. A lot of them started as amateurs, and a lot of them have been nothing other than that. I’m an amateur kind of guy, an amateur cricketer and I feel kind of sympatico with amateur writers.

SJ– On that topic, there is a question from Damith, who wants to know if you have any words of wisdom for writers who are not professional journalists, eg: bloggers, in terms of finding the drive to keep writing when faced with mundane things like 9-5 job.

GH– He would need more encouragement to stick to the 9-5 job, wouldn’t he? It is painful. I can’t advice him on that. The advice that I give to all the young writers who are trying to get this is to not to forget to read. Be a greedy omnivorous reader of cricket literature, any literature. That gave me the exposure to different styles and attitudes and ways of seeing the world that encouraged me to experiment and push myself.

The other thing is, don’t over estimate being a professional in these days of working inside a giant entertainment place, one of those big mast head or TV place. They work under enormous economic pressures these days. It demands for productivity, and content. It must be a chore to work in places like those. I don’t feel that, because I have tried to step outside that world as much as possible. I often say that I still love journalism because I was able to stop doing it in the days of newspapers in the mid 1990s. I think, if I stayed in the mainstream journalism since then, I would have been very well over it and be looking at another career by now.

My interaction with colleagues and friends who are staying there says that it is not a lot of fun. Perhaps the way to do it in the future will be to do as an amateur because you only ever do it as an amateur when you have something to say.

SJ– Talking about writing cricket. You have such diverse areas that you have written about. How do you alternate from one to the other? How does the process of writing go about? Do you shut yourself from the outside world when you focus on the book? Do you read other books when you are writing? Or, you fear that it may subconsciously affect you? It is a question partly raised by Mahesh.

GH– It is a good question. I remember Ramachandra Guha telling me that “you should never read Dickens very young. You will only ever write like Dickens.” Sometimes, the styles of the big writers are so heavy and powering that you want to set of test each of those ideas. I read [Neville} Cardus when I was too young and impressionable. And for a while, all I wanted to do was read Cardus. It was fortunate that when I was 12 years old, I got over it.

How do you go back and forth between different subjects? I only try to write about the stuff that I am sincerely trying to find out about. This kind of sounds a bit pious and bit high minded, but, I never ever ask whether or what I was going to be paid for a piece. It would be ridiculous in this day and age. If I ask, then I am obviously doing it for some other reason, for making money. A piece is either worth doing or not worth doing. And all the money in the world will not make up for doing a crappy piece on a boring subject. The fact that you are not being paid for doing something is not an excuse for not doing something really, REALLY interesting. So, you always stand the risk of not making extra money. But, it is always exciting and broadening and there is always some benefit from the track that I hadn’t foreseen. That is a simple rule of thumb- you only write about stuff that you really want to do. If you stick to that, you can write about almost anything. Mencken, I think, once said “There are no boring stories, only boring journalists.” I’ve generally found that to be true.

I am always interested in how much you can do with a particular subject. One of the fun things about writing cricket is that I have to push and challenge myself to say something new because I’ve written so much about it. So, I try to get interested into so many different aspects of cricket that I had not thought about before. Over the last few years, I have become very interested in governance and cricket’s economic structures. It is a great time to be interested in it because they are all going through compulsive change and it is even quite hard to keep up with. I got interested in that because I thought that it was going to become really fundamental. All the journalists’ eyes glaze over when they hear the word governance these days. Because I have the business background, I always was interested in the ways people managed things and the way in which they organize and plan things, the way in which the game markets [itself] that perhaps did not previously exist the way in which the way people sort of shape-shifted and altered products to meet the demand. That used to be quite strange that I had this background in business from way back to write about business in sports. How strange that you have to write about two such completely different areas!!

SJ– Do you already have an idea on your next cricket book?

GH– I think the next book will be a book on the Ashes series, the back-to-back Ashes series over the next year. I’m not sure time is going to permit anything more deep or thorough. I do have another book out, which you probably don’t know about. Basically no one does. I have written an e-book. It is called The Deserted Newsroom. It is the about the future of news media, in a digital environment. It is for 2/3rd of diddlysquat cost on Penguin’s website, if you are interested in it. I did quite a lot of work on it. I interviewed a lot of people who have lived on the edge of the media at the moment in Australia, both the leading edge and the bleeding edge. And I found some really interesting things there. I thought it would be a bit more of a sackcloth and ashes kind of story than it actually was. I think there are considerable grounds for optimism there. It is definitely going to be a much different media world than what I grew up in.

SJ– You had the compilation of your articles [as an Ashes book]. When you write those articles, is it on the back of your mind that “this is going to go into a book. So, I would have to craft it differently.” Does that affect your judgment at all?

GH– The days when you were writing a magisterial retrospective are a thing of the past. I loved them, I grew up with them. It almost seems unfair to do that now. Players don’t get a chance to play their innings all over again. So, why should you write your views? It is actually fun working out where you were right and where you were wrong in writing about things. You have to be honest. In these days, in a digital environment, people can actually ask you about what you wrote in the first place. As embarrassing as it may be from your place, you may as well be honest about these things. My 2005 Ashes book is full of red herrings and facts and illusions and mistaken prophecies because that was the kind of rubber it was. The ones who made predictions in that series loved being proven wrong. That is why it was a great series to watch. In the fourth test, I remember England were meant to knock off the runs easily, and then Shane Warne took a handful and the game was afoot again. I remember putting down the lid of my computer and putting my head on top of it and saying “I just can’t do this anymore. I just can’t write another fucking piece.” With a smile on my face. The game was toying with us that summer, and it was great to be a part of.

SJ– One last question. You mentioned reading Cardus when you were a 12 year old. A question comes from a listener Pawan Bharadwaj, who wants to know what your favorite fiction / sports fiction books are, and what your favorite non-cricket sports books are?

GH– I can think of a good example straight away that way quite influential on me – Summer of 49, David Halberstam’s book about the 1949 World Series. It is a wonderful book about a seminal World Series that catches the imagination of the baseball followers, of which I didn’t know much about at that time. But, also it kind of powerfully evokes a period of American history and analyses the American society through baseball. I remember reading that book and thinking that it would be great to do something like that about cricket. It is why I wrote The Summer Game, which is a book about Australian cricket in the 1950s and 60s. It is a bit different than the Halberstam book. It doesn’t concentrate on a particular year, but on two decades. But it was an attempt to approach society through the medium of the sport that it played. That was a lot of fun and fascinating.

Another book that was influential on me is Fisher’s Face, on the admiral Jackie Fisher, based during the first World War. This very fine English writer Jan Morris did invoke that it was basically stimulated by this one particular photograph, basically teasing and taking up the nuances of this photograph in order to reveal this historical character. I liked that, that style of book that is able to do a lot with just little. My book about Jack Iverson is a little bit like that- take a historical character and drill away at the story, at the legend, to really interrogate it.

I was also quite influenced by the book Quest For Corvo by an English critic called A.J.A. Symons, Baron Corvo was the English novelist who wrote imaginative novels that could intrigue. Quest For Corvo is about this particular writer- Symon’s obsession with Corvo, and includes a lot about the biographical apparatus. This is the way I found about Baron Corvo. There is an element of that in the Iverson book as well, as I go through some of the research avenues and blind alleys that I took along the way.

I can speak about this for very much [time] as you can probably tell.

Those were the ones that were influential on me. Even the bad books were valuable, because they they [told you how not to write]. There were a lot of bad books on Shane Warne. If anything, that was an inspiration for me to go on and have my own book on the subject.

SJ– Alright. Fantastic! We will end the interview here. I must congratulate you on a great job on the book. It was a fantastic book. While reading the book, I was able to recreate Shane Warne’s run up and the way he walked back and his appealing. A brilliant work!

GH– It is interesting to me that when I sat down to write about it, I couldn’t get a really, really good description of Shane Ware. Perhaps, it was because we saw it so much from so many different angles. Everything that could be said were already said on the subject. Often the most fascinating things in front of us were waiting for us to pay them some attention. And I can’t think of a better subject than Shane Warne and his art, as I have written all above it. It indeed continues to evolve.

Alright. Thanks, Subash.

SJ– Thank you, Gideon. It was wonderful talking to you again.

GH– Anytime.

SJ– Cheers!

Download the full episode here.

Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman