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INTERVIEW: Mark Mascarenhas; From Bangalore via Connecticut, cricket's latest power broker brings a new perspective.
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The Independent Online
Mark Mascarenhas is passionate about cricket but managed to avoid watching it for more than a decade. "I missed the entire career of Joel Garner," he said to illustrate the length of the interruption. The Big Bird represents a fairly large gap in anybody's observation of the modern game but absence presumably made the heart grow fonder because when Mascarenhas renewed his acquaintanceship it was to buy the global television rights to the last World Cup.

In a single outrageous gamble he outbid all rivals by agreeing to hand over $10m and proceeded to make considerably more by selling on the rights to networks in the competing countries. It made him overnight a big player in the televising of the game and in the five years since the deal was struck he has become probably the biggest on the sub- continent, the largest marketplace. Along the way he has also become agent to Sachin Tendulkar, the highest earning and most venerated cricketer on the planet, and has been engulfed by a veritable tide of criticism and controversy.

Allegations of ruthlessness, opportunism and sharp practice have been succeeded by accusations of failing to pay his bills and downright bribery of officials to secure what he wants. In short, Mascarenhas has been charged with masquerading his way through the game. It has been said that his relationship with the International Cricket Council president, Jagmohan Dalmiya, is much too cosy. But the most serious claims against Mascarenhas are that he did not meet all his obligations for the 1996 World Cup and that, to secure rights to coverage of international cricket in Sri Lanka, he paid a bribe to a board official of $50,000, was being urged to pay a second instalment of a similar amount and admitted to this in a taped conversation with the board's president.

During a visit to London last week, en route from Monte Carlo for a trade fair to Istanbul for a Rolling Stones concert, Mascarenhas rejected the charges with a weary but implacable tone. "I'm not the most popular guy in the world," he said. "I don't set out to be and I don't think I'm perfect but a lot of this has come from rivals. I paid what I was supposed to a year in advance for the World Cup. As soon as the Sri Lankan stuff happened I made a full statement and was utterly exonerated. As for my relationship with Dalmiya, believe me he is a man who wants to get the best he possibly can for the game and nothing more. I have gained what I have every time by offering the highest price."

Mascarenhas, 41 next month, is a gregarious, affable fellow who conveys the impression of wanting to be your friend. While this has not altogether countered a penchant for making enemies, it is the way of a born salesman. Which is - although he is now president of WorldTel, the company he founded - what he remains. It was not quite the direction his life was supposed to take.

He was born and raised in Bangalore, southern India, the son and grandson of doctors. His father was a leading heart surgeon who trained in Edinburgh and it was supposed that Mark would continue the family business, as it were. He did a chemistry degree at college in India but failed to earn a place at medical college. "Through circumstance I decided to go to America to continue my education and got a place at Fairfield College, a Jesuit college in Connecticut," he said. "I did an MA in corporate and political communication and by this time I imagined I was going to become the next David Lean." What he actually became was a seller of radio airtime on a local New York station belonging to CBS. He was assertive, successful and ambitious and moved into CBS's television arm.

By the late Eighties he was bored and sought a new challenge. He set up WorldTel and his first deal was a football programme about Pele which he eventually managed to sell to Europe. "The first is always the hardest," he said. "That got me a foot on the ladder and then I was put in touch with soccer. In the run-up to the World Cup in America there were several matches with teams wishing to acclimatise. I could not get any rights to any matches involving the American team but there were tournaments in which Brazil, England and Germany competed. I got the rights to all the games in which the USA were not playing. Now, I ask you: if you were a fan would you rather watch games between the USA and Brazil or Brazil and Germany or Brazil and England?" It worked. There were also boxing deals and an especially audacious raid on the Alpine skiing World Cup.

For some reason the football World Cup in the US turned his attention to the cricket equivalent in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. All of Garner's 259 Test wickets passed him by, his declared love of the game was on the back burner but he decided to make a bid. The initial meeting took place in London and, against the odds, WorldTel won the deal. "It was a big punt. I asked my wife if we should take the risk and she was right behind me. It has worked but there were times when it might not. We now concentrate on cricket. WorldTel is a cricket television boutique."

His present contracts include the lucrative one-day tournaments in Sharjah for the next three years (beginning with one in November and another in April), the mini-World Cup in Bangladesh next month and coverage of all international cricket in Sri Lanka. In London last week he was trying to sell a same-day highlights package agreement for the Bangladesh tournament. The Asian cable station Sony has bought the live rights but Mascarenhas was hoping the event was big enough to induce terrestrial interest.

The BBC withdrew late last month, much to his annoyance. He is keen to see what happens now that television cricket, for the first time in England, is about to be measured in commercial terms. He does not expect to be involved. His long break from the game has not deterred a plethora of opinions on it and while he sees a future for Test cricket he knows that what the majority want to watch is limited-overs fare.

"Test matches should continue to be played but the authorities have to get together and have a global competition to decide champions and they also have to ensure greater chances of a positive result. In a one-day match people can see 500 runs scored and maybe 15 wickets fall. That's what they go for. In Tests that's not the case. The first match after I got the rights to Sri Lanka's matches was against India. They broke the world record and Sanath Jayasuriya got 340 but it was utterly tedious. What a Test batsman should do is score his runs quickly enough for his side to bowl out the opposition twice and that's hard to do. That's what Sachin does."

Mascarenhas's admiration for Tendulkar's genius is genuine but is doubtless heightened by the fact that he has a slice of the action of rather more than 10 per cent. It was the commentator and former Test player Ravi Shastri who suggested that Tendulkar might need somebody with nous to make the most of his earning opportunities. Mascarenhas stepped in three years ago and signed the most glittering star in the firmament to deals worth $10m.

Still based in Westport, Connecticut, Mascarenhas lives the life of a television mogul. He was in Monte Carlo for a television trade fair last week and was off to Turkey to see the Stones courtesy of an invitation from their vocalist and cricket buff, Mick Jagger. "I've done some work with Mick on cricket on the Internet."

He is not averse to a touch of name dropping: those with whom he has had a tipple at various bars and those whom he has recruited to his commentary teams when he is required to provide the whole production of a match. He talks with great fervour and the walls of his London apartment are lined with cricket books. Catching up for lost time perhaps. He would have given a lot to see Garner play.

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