Return of the Board Warrior

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What will Jagmohan Dalmiya’s interim appointment as BCCI chief mean for Indian cricket? Probably not much

In November 2005, after beating Jagmohan Dalmiya to become BCCI president, it took Sharad Pawar just three months to hound him out of Indian cricket. This included foisting criminal cases of financial misappropriation on him. Many saw it as the end of Dalmiya as a cricket administrator. For nearly eight years, he stayed out of sight, patiently working his way back in. He first took charge of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB), which gave him a toehold in the Board. Earlier this month, he returned in spectacular fashion to take charge of the BCCI after a beleaguered N Srinivasan was forced to step aside because of the IPL betting scandal.

Dalmiya’s sudden elevation evokes two contrasting responses. The Economist patronisingly called it a display of staggering chutzpah, conceivable only against a background of ‘venal, personality based’ politics that characterises the Subcontinent. The piece claimed that global cricket was administered in a ‘gentlemanly fashion’ by England and Australia before Dalmiya turned the International Cricket Council (ICC) into a mean machine. Indian cricket watchers, on the other hand, are stupefied, scratching their heads and comparing him with an old fox slowly mending his fences and waiting to pounce on his tormentors. They cannot work out why he settled for something as insignificant as a nameless position (he has no official designation). Many suspect he is a dummy stand-in for Srinivasan, who, despite having stepped aside, is reportedly planning to represent India at this year’s annual ICC conference, which begins on 25 June in London. (Whether he will is still not clear as Open goes to press.)

Does Dalmiya want to keep the Board out of his main rival Sharad Pawar’s control at all cost? Is his reappearance part of a plan for a longer innings before a final showdown with Pawar? Some say that Dalmiya is neither a buccaneering bully nor cunning old fox. Instead, he is a proud businessman trying to maintain a clean public image for himself and his idea of what global cricket commerce should be.

Those who know Dalmiya might be surprised but not shocked at the turn of events. The man has made many turnarounds during his administrative career of four decades. BN Dutt, the man who Dalmiya considers his mentor in cricket administration and who brought him over to the CAB back in 1977, recalls the first time he spotted the man in action. Sometime in the mid-1970s, when Dalmiya was running the Rajasthan Club in Kolkata and Dutt was chief of the Indian Football Association (IFA), they met in a courtroom. The IFA had suspended Rajasthan for withdrawing its football team for a match. Dalmiya challenged the suspension in court, and during one hearing, to the surprise of everyone present, he initiated an impromptu conversation with the judge. He argued that the team was withdrawn on account of ‘unplayable conditions’, a legitimate reason. An alarmed Dutt saw the judge look convinced and went up to him with his own arguments. But Dutt also spotted the promise of the young man and took him under his wing. Kishore Bhimani, a cricket commentator turned novelist and Dalmiya’s former associate, recalls his first meeting with Dalmiya in the late 70s under similar circumstances. In an article that appeared in The Statesman, Bhimani had been critical of the lack of transparency in ticket distribution to local clubs and raised suspicions of manipulation of the CAB’s books. Dalmiya called Bhimani over to his office, offering him access to all the account books to protest his innocence. “Although I was not wholly convinced by his arguments,” says Bhimani, “I could not in all honesty fail to acknowledge his charm... the man certainly knows how to project himself as above reproach.”

That Dalmiya, spotting the power of a massive fan following in a fast-emerging economy, brought money and power to Indian cricket is widely acknowledged. It is why the BCCI is the ICC’s richest associate today. He was the first administrator to realise how India’s audience could spell lucrative sponsorship and telecast deals. The two most crucial decisions he took in the early 90s to enrich the Board were a five-year sponsorship contract with Pepsi and a TV rights contract with Trans World International (TWI). Still later, Dalimiya and his friend-turned-foe IS Bindra closed the disparity in what foreign teams travelling to India and Indians travelling abroad were paid.

He is also an excellent negotiator. Jayant Lele, his former associate in the BCCI, recalls in a published essay an instance in 1999-2000 when Dalmiya hiked a sponsorship deal with Pepsi from the proposed Rs 75 lakh to Rs 85 lakh for every Test match (he told Pepsi India’s CEO that he had a rival Rs 80 lakh offer, as the story goes). This, when he was the ICC president and not technically a party to the deal. Dalmiya’s modus operandi is a cocktail of backroom negotiations and bold public posturing. The extent of one or the other in a particular move is determined by the nature of the challenge. Tales of his successful backroom intrigues are hard to verify, but some stand out for their audacity. Bhimani recalls an example shortly before the Reliance World Cup of 1987. The office of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, an energetic anti-apartheid campaigner, expressed reservations over the visit of three English cricketers who had been part of a rebel team touring South Africa in 1982. The PMO reportedly wanted a signed letter from the cricketers—who’d already served a three-year suspension and were re-eligible for selection back home—regretting their decision and undertaking not to visit South Africa again until apartheid was lifted. Since the issue could not be taken up via diplomatic channels, the PMO mounted pressure on the BCCI; Dalmiya despatched Bhimani, who had studied politics and diplomacy at London School of Economics, to meet Raman Subbarao, chief at the time of the Test and County Cricket Board (later renamed England and Wales Cricket Board), for a solution. After several meetings and a stream of telex exchanges, the two agreed on a statement from the players to the effect that they went to South Africa not in support of apartheid but as a protest to teach children of all colours cricket. By this version of events, Dalmiya’s back channel manoeuvre managed to defuse a potentially serious diplomatic row. Bhimani, who is no longer an admirer of Dalmiya, still says that it is unfair to call the man a backroom ‘manipulator’.

Dalmiya is not known to shy away from a public slugfest, especially if he spies potential dividends in it. In 1995, he had no hesitation in confronting Doordarshan on TV rights. Cricket was aired free on DD, and he wanted the national broadcaster to pay ESPN, to which the BCCI had sold exclusive broadcasting rights. He cited the principle that commits Doordarshan to pay filmmakers a royalty to air their films. It was not the BCCI, he argued, but the broadcaster that had a responsibility to ensure that citizens at large could watch cricket matches on TV. “DD has the money... they owe the public an explanation, not the Board,” he said.

That the BCCI saw itself as a business was never more obvious. Still later, Dalmiya regaled journalists with stories of how, as ICC president, he once pulled up a mischievous British aristocrat with the quip that “once Britain ruled the waves, but now it appears that it waives the rules.” In each case, he always portrayed his actions as defending a principle. Just a few days ago, he challenged Bindra to go to court when the latter disputed the legality of his appointment as interim chief.

Dalmiya is also a master of the tactical retreat, seen in the way he withdraws himself from the public arena when a crisis hits him. In an interview to Tehelka in mid 2007 after several legal victories against the BCCI, he spoke of how no one except family members and lawyers had access to his central Kolkata office for more than a year. “I never called anyone, never interfered, never asked and never gave interviews,” Dalmiya said. He used a similar tactic in a recent interview to NDTV: quizzed on the precise nature and scope of his authority within the BCCI, he did little other than reiterate his resolve to improve the image of Indian cricket. He didn’t divulge any details about his position and immediate plans. When I phoned him for an interview, he took the call, but said, politely but firmly, that he would not speak to journalists before ‘next week’.

Until Dalmiya says or does something, it is hard to say how his tenure—if that’s what it is—as BCCI chief could impact cricket. There are at least three theories floating around on what his return augurs for the future of cricket in India. The first, and most obvious, suggests that, as a man hungry for power, he has staged a comeback by taking advantage of political realignments within the Board; he capitalised on Srinivasan’s exit and a resentment of Pawar common to most officeholders. This is fair, some say. “Being ambitious is not particularly suspicious behaviour, especially for capable men,” says senior cricket writer Gulu Ezekiel, “and there is no reason to believe someone of Dalmiya’s stature and success enjoys any special immunity from this universal trait.”

Others sympathetic to Dalmiya are inclined to consider a more ambitious agenda—that he has accepted the rather thankless task of standing in for Srinivasan solely under the temptation of a possible opportunity to effect major structural changes in cricket governance in India. For example, the inadequacy of India’s legal provisions in dealing with match fixing. A CBI report on match fixing had admitted a decade ago that the evidence it had did not add up to make a watertight case of either cheating or corruption against the accused cricketers under the existing provisions of law. There is reason, therefore, to believe Dalmiya is going to try persuading politicians to pass legislation that would criminalise match fixing and prescribe tough penalties for those found guilty. In addition, it offers him a chance to both stake a claim to immortality as a cricket administrator and steal a march over Pawar without appearing petty.

This is not as farsighted as it might seem. India’s Law Minister Kapil Sibal has already promised a standalone law by July or August, putting in place a definition of ‘dishonest practices’ and covering corporates, players and bookies under its ambit. If politicians keep their word, all that would be left for Dalmiya is to claim credit for outlawing offences that can currently be tried only indirectly in a court of law. The more important legal question is perhaps how the BCCI or Government is going to respond to a February 2011 Supreme Court ruling that brings officials of cricket boards within the scope of the term ‘public servant’ (as understood in the context of the Prevention of Corruption Act, since they perform a public service such as the selection of a state or national team). The position of the BCCI on this is unclear. So too that of the Centre. But it has the potential to discipline the functioning of the BCCI and other state boards, long reviled for their opacity and internal games of intrigue.

The third theory portrays Dalmiya as a last-minute consensus candidate pitchforked to a position of uncertain authority by force of circumstances rather than by any plotting on his part. No one knows for sure what really transpires within closed-door BCCI meetings or how such decisions are arrived at. One could assume that those calling for Srinivasan’s resignation after the IPL scam broke either did not have the numbers with them or had other reasons not to force the issue. Since a majority of current office holders wanted to keep Pawar out, Dalmiya emerged as a consensus candidate to look after ‘day to day affairs’, while Srinivasan nominally retained his position as president.

Dalmiya, in this scheme of analysis, was just lucky. His functional autonomy is anyway limited to the whims of a powerful lobby within the BCCI that neither threw Srinivasan out nor wants Pawar in. Dalmiya has told a Kolkata-based journalist that he had not expected his selection and that he has no immediate objective except to clean up the image of Indian cricket.

Left to himself, he reportedly said, he would like to put the IPL on hold for a year, although he was unsure if he had the requisite authority to do so. His subsequent announcements, including the abolition of IPL cheerleader teams, have largely been cautious and cosmetic.

More than two weeks after Srinivasan stepped aside, the former president still appears keen to call the shots on such matters as India’s stance at the ICC meeting. Even if Dalmiya dissuades him, he has failed to restore clarity to the Board’s decision-making process. For a body whose functioning has always been opaque, that does not augur well.

Senior cricket observers suggest this is not the Dalmiya of yore, who brooked no resistance once he’d made up his mind.

However, the earlier Dalmiya was also a man who kept his moves to himself down to the very last moment. Even though his immediate prospects do not look terribly bright, the BCCI’s original gameplan-maker may yet step out of his crease for a big hard whack.