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Feature

Cricket's canny iconoclast

Jagmohan Dalmiya's legacy as an administrator, in India and at an international level, was underlined by a stubborn confidence and an ambition to take on the game's well-entrenched power centres

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
21-Sep-2015
Jagmohan Dalmiya served as ICC president from 1997 to 2000

Jagmohan Dalmiya's shrewd business instinct sensed the latent financial potential of televised cricket  •  Savita Kirloskar/ESPNcricinfo Ltd

As the decades of the 21st century wear on, Jagmohan Dalmiya will be remembered, not merely in India but the wider world, as a forward-looking, even revolutionary cricket administrator.
If Australian television magnate Kerry Packer led the first wave of cricket's transformation, Dalmiya, a businessman from Kolkata working within cricket's official structures, brought about the second. If the Packer wave was focused on fair wages for players and entertainment for spectators and television, Dalmiya's era untapped the financial strength of Indian cricket and the need to spread the game. It shifted cricket's power centre eastwards from England, and Dalmiya became the man who ensured that the empire could strike back.
During the height of his powers, from the latter half of the 1980s and all through the 1990s, many considered Dalmiya as the game's iconoclast. In an age where acknowledgement by older Test nations like England and Australia was considered a pre-requisite for a younger cricketing nation's self-esteem, Dalmiya was ambitious and confident enough to take on that establishment. It came from what could have only been a businessman's instinct to sense the latent financial potential that lay in Indian cricket through television. It was backed by stubborn confidence, a disregard of inexplicable norms no matter how traditional, an understanding of human nature and an innate knack to build alliances and loyalties.
Born into a Marwari business family in Kolkata, with interests in construction, cement and leather, Dalmiya played club cricket as a wicketkeeper till he took over the company's reins at the age of 19 following his father's death. He joined the BCCI in 1979 as a representative of the Cricket Association of Bengal and through the 1980s rose in power to occupy key positions in the board - as treasurer, first in 1983, and secretary, before finally becoming the BCCI president as late as 2001, after he had completed his term as ICC president.
The tipping point for the BCCI and Indian cricket came in 1993. Dalmiya, along with his friend, partner and then BCCI president IS Bindra - a bureaucrat from Punjab - won a protracted legal battle against the Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan for the right to sell television rights to cable broadcasters. For the first time, in early 1993, Doordarshan had to pay the BCCI to televise a match and not the other way around. The rights to televised cricket in India were formalised as a commodity owned by the BCCI, which could be sold to the highest bidder, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in February 1995. Dalmiya and Bindra understood that it was only through television rights that Indian cricket would be given a level playing field in the global cricket marketplace.
Dalmiya's other great skill was to cultivate allies, through favours or largesse, both in India and abroad. During the course of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the BCCI built partnerships with other smaller boards, like India's south Asian neighbours and newly readmitted South Africa. The alliances between the smaller nations led to the creation of the 'Asian Bloc' in world cricket, a pressure group that could challenge the old establishment. The increase in the number of profit-generating ODI tournaments between them, as opposed to Test matches in the region, was met with conservative dismay. The bids for the 1987 and 1996 World Cups were made jointly by the south Asian allies, with the BCCI leading the way. Within India, the staging of lucrative ODIs was handed out to non-traditional venues like Jaipur, Guwahati, Cuttack and Kochi, thus strengthening Dalmiya's own power base within the board.
He worked not through merely authoritarian muscle but through a rigorous exercise in consensus, where the world was allowed negotiation and discussion, but eventually made to bend his way.
After the television rights episode in 1993, it was the 1996 World Cup that helped Dalmiya and the BCCI establish that a country always thought of as among the 'second-string nations' in world cricket had the capacity and audience to generate revenues of the kind the game had never seen before. Rights for the broadcast of the 1996 World Cup - hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - went for $10 million, the title sponsorship was worth $13 million and eventually, the ICC earned itself a neat $50 million.
In order to be recognised as the game's biggest fund-raiser, Dalmiya's desire to head the ICC was only logical. He took part in the first electoral contest for an ICC chairmanship in 1996. Dalmiya beat Australian Malcolm Gray to the job - 25 votes to 13 - but failed to acquire the two-thirds majority among the Test-playing members required by the ICC's rules. No consensus could be arrived at but, a year later, Dalmiya worked the numbers and was elected the first president of the ICC, the first Asian administrator in the role and the first non-cricketer.
The ICC's response to Dalmiya's arrival was frosty: there were newspaper references to the 'grubby hands' controlling world cricket. When Dalmiya took over office, an ICC official told journalists it was he, not Dalmiya, who would be taking the questions because they would find it "difficult to understand his accent." There was, in fact, no office for Dalmiya to go to within the ICC, which at the time was housed at Lord's. When Dalmiya found out that the previous chairman, Clyde Walcott, sat across the ICC CEO David Richards' table, he instructed Richards to either create an office space for the new president or show up daily at Dalmiya's hotel room whenever he visited London.
The cricketer-administrators who preceded Dalmiya had left the ICC with £16000 in the bank. His first visible act as ICC chief was to create an ODI tournament between the eight major Test-playing countries lasting no longer than a fortnight at a single location, in order to generate funds for the ICC and, from there, for smaller countries. It was called the ICC KnockOut Trophy and later, as we now know it, the Champions Trophy. The first event was held in Dhaka in 1998 and earned the ICC $20 million straight off. In November 2000, Bangladesh became the tenth Test-playing nation, playing their first match against India.
When Dalmiya quit the ICC, he said the world body had a surplus of $17 million. One of the most beneficial financial developments he achieved in his tenure was to ensure that the ICC took greater control of the World Cup and its sizeable earnings, rather than hand the bulk over to host nations with varying title sponsors. It is from 1999 onwards that the event began to be called the ICC World Cup.
Dalmiya became the BCCI president in 2001 and it was during his term that the first contracts were given out to Indian cricketers in 2003 and, in 2004, pensions to former Test players and umpires.
His second innings as a BCCI administrator was riddled with even more controversy than the first, with the birth of a rival faction led by Maharashtra politician Sharad Pawar, Dalmiya's old ally Bindra, Rajasthan official Lalit Modi and Tamil Nadu businessman N Srinivasan. In the 2004 election for the post of BCCI president, Dalmiya cast his vote four times - the first two as the representative of the CAB and National Cricket Club, the third as BCCI president and the fourth his casting vote as board chief - to ensure victory for his preferred candidate, Ranbir Singh Mahendra, over Pawar. The following year, Dalmiya lost his hold over the BCCI as Pawar was elected president. In 2006, he was expelled from the BCCI and the board registered a criminal case against Dalmiya for misappropriation of funds pertaining to the 1996 World Cup. The board withdrew its civil suit in 2010 and the parties eventually reached a settlement.
His return to the helm of BCCI's affairs, first as an interim president following the 2013 IPL corruption case and then as an elected president, was unremarkable, with growing concern about his failing health. Dalmiya's final innings with the board was without the impact or authority that had marked his previous three decades in the organisation.
As an administrator in the 1990s, Dalmiya controlled the levers of power in Indian cricket from his corporate office in Kolkata, running the game through two trusted secretaries and, until 2001, a typewriter. He worked not through merely authoritarian muscle but through a rigorous exercise in consensus, where the world was allowed negotiation and discussion, but eventually made to bend his way. He was a great one for occasions and ceremony, marking one historic anniversary after another, of which India offers several every few months, as an opportunity to stage an ODI tournament.
Dalmiya was, in many ways, an old-fashioned cricket administrator, a benevolent patriarch who turned a blind eye to the failings of loyal subordinates, which helped them remain in entrenched positions despite severe shortcomings in administration and infrastructure. Once he had mastered the numbers in the BCCI, his strength, he would do his utmost to ensure the boat was never rocked which became, in many ways, a failing.
When the first news of illegal betting and match-fixing broke over Indian cricket, originally through a magazine article in 1997 and later the Hansie Cronje case in 2000, Dalmiya was found to be out of touch with the most proactive responses to the growing scourge of the modern game. He resisted early overtures about changing the nature of the domestic game through a city-based, 50-over league and, naturally, did not think very fondly of Twenty20 or the IPL.
Dalmiya's passing has taken away from the Indian game an administrator of a generation who first knew how to capitalise on the game's financial muscle and take other 'stakeholders' along with him as he did so. Someone who loved power, authority and control, but who recognised the consequences of and the difference between wearing it lightly and dealing it out with a heavy hand. He leaves behind his wife, Chandralekha, whom he married after a seven-year courtship following resistance from her aristocratic Bengali family, and two children, a son and daughter.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo