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Working the World Cups

The 1996 World Cup opening ceremony was a lesson in how not to manage a global event Getty Images

The 1996 World Cup was the last time the tournament was managed by the host country and not the ICC. The World Cup moved back to the subcontinent following a fractious ten-hour meeting at Lord's in 1993.

Once the right to host the World Cup was won, the main worry for PILCOM (Pakistan-India-Lanka Committee) was paying the ICC the guarantee money. The standard business practice in such situations is to negotiate a television rights deal and ask for an advance, which is used to meet urgent payments. But despite strenuous efforts, PILCOM was finding it difficult to get the right partner and the right price for the World Cup television rights.

As the ICC deadline neared, and with no TV deal in place, an emergency PILCOM meeting was convened in Lahore and prospective sponsors were asked to submit bids. Jagmohan Dalmiya, IS Bindra and I, Indian PILCOM members, travelled to meet with the Pakistani members, led by Justice Nasim Hasan Shah.

For a long time it appeared the meeting was headed nowhere. In most cases either the bidders were technically dodgy or the financial offers were unsatisfactory. Nobody was willing to put up the cash that PILCOM desperately needed to get the ICC off its back.

It was then that WorldTel's Mark Mascarenhas entered the scene with an offer that was difficult to refuse. A newcomer to the Indian cricket scene, Mascarenhas was willing to make an advance payment, and his base offer of a US$10 million guarantee surpassed those of the other contenders by a distance.

However, the committee members were reluctant to accept his offer. Mark's bid came after the tender had officially closed and WorldTel was largely unknown - its previous experience was limited to handling minor football rights in USA and Europe.

After unending arguments and counter-arguments, countless conference calls and faxes, PILCOM and WorldTel shook hands to settle the deal.

The World Cup kicked off at the Eden Gardens with what was meant to be a grand opening ceremony but ultimately turned out to be a dud. The performers' clothes were held up in Kolkata traffic, so they had to go on stage in mismatched uniforms; the announcer fluffed her lines; and then came the rain, accompanied by a strong breeze that quite literally blew away the laser show and the screen that was to be its centrepiece.

The end of the tournament, in Lahore, was not much different. With India and Pakistan not making it to the final, the buzz was missing. High-end tickets remained unsold, many guests failed to turn up, and hotel bookings were cancelled at the last minute. A general breakdown of arrangements and traffic snarls outside the stadium caused delays that left many, including Imran Khan, fuming as they got to their seats only after a frustrating struggle. When Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto's name was announced to present the trophy to Arjuna Ranatunga, a section of the stadium booed her loudly. Even as the presentation proceeded, it started to rain and the drenched dignitaries had to run for cover.

In contrast, the 2003 World Cup is remembered for its efficient and glitch-free handling, the credit for which should go largely to Dr Ali Bacher, the managing director of the event. He ran the World Cup in his unique manner without emails or mobile phones, relying instead on a small, highly empowered team.

Partly, this reputation for calm competence and an uncanny ability to get work done without making a noise stemmed from Ali's work ethic. He started each day several hours before dawn, decluttering his desk before putting on sneakers for a mandatory slow jog that he called the "Ali Shuffle". After breakfast, he returned to his desk by 8am, ready to set the agenda for the day.

He believed in preventing fires instead of running around trying to douse them. That he had his own inimitable style was demonstrated by two incidents that are still vivid in my memory. In Paarl, the venue for India's first match, against Netherlands, a volunteer came to me with a message that Dr Bacher was waiting outside the Indian dressing room to see me, then India's team manager. I sent him back to ask Dr Bacher to come into the dressing room instead of waiting by a picket fence. The volunteer returned within minutes with a new message: Dr Bacher had expressed his inability to come to the dressing room because his accreditation did not allow access to the players' areas.

In Centurion during the India-Pakistan match, a senior official with Pepsi, the principal sponsor of the World Cup, was stranded in the parking lot, having forgotten his match tickets back in his Johannesburg hotel. When he called me asking for help, I reached out to Dr Bacher, whose response was immediate: "Come, let's go fetch him." We escorted the sponsor from the parking lot and made sure he was comfortably seated in the presidential box. Dr Bacher's gesture was more than just a polite one; it revealed a mindset that viewed sponsors as important allies of professional sport.

India's crushing loss to Australia at the start of the World Cup triggered an ugly reaction back home. The team was shaken by the critical media coverage and reports of effigies of players being burnt and their homes pelted with stones.

A dispirited India team landed in Harare for their next match, but Harbhajan Singh tried his best to keep the morale up. "Has anyone died?" he asked, urging his team-mates to fight. Coach John Wright had a blunt message to the team: We are here to win. Wake up and perform.

But we still needed some communication from the team as a damage-control exercise to reach out to disappointed fans. When Sachin Tendulkar was asked to help out he agreed readily. "I will not apologise," he said, "only assure people that the team is trying its best and will continue to work hard." Later, Sourav Ganguly also made a powerful public appeal on the same lines. Within the team, he spoke about maintaining morale.

After India beat Zimbabwe easily, the tension lifted. The changed mood was best captured by a congratulatory text message Ganguly received from his wife. "All these years she did not talk to me about cricket, " Ganguly said, "but now suddenly she follows the game and is on the ball."