March 31, 2020
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A fierce battle between financial muscle and old-boy tradition ends in a compromise solution but the war is hardly over

The International Cricket Council (ICC) blinked first. As Jagmohan Dalmiya, president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), took l'affaire Mike Denness to the wire, as cricket administrators across the planet wrung their hands in confusion and anger, as the pause button was pressed on millions of dollars worth of cricket-related business deals, world cricket was plunged into the sporting equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

If the discovery by CIA satellites of Soviet nuclear installations in Cuba had sent the world careering to the edge of a nuclear war, Denness' stupidity did the same for cricket. The Cuban crisis lasted 13 days, ending only when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, faced with a John F. Kennedy apparently willing to go to any lengths at all over the issue, lowered his eyelids and agreed to dismantle the Soviet bases. In the cricket controversy, hectic negotiations on several fronts for more than a week have resulted in a series of well-orchestrated step-downs on both sides.

The first climb-down came on Wednesday, November 28, when Denness announced that he had not accused Sachin Tendulkar of ball-tampering but of the "technical" and not "deliberate" offence of cleaning the ball without seeking permission from the umpire. Of course, Denness was again making a fool of himself and was possibly adding one more to his several ostensible contraventions of ICC rules (for instance, which ICC rule allows Denness to speak repeatedly to the sympathetic English media while maintaining that he isn't allowed to speak under ICC rules?), but let that pass. When contacted in Sydney, ICC president Malcolm Gray told Outlook that the ICC "hasn't asked Denness to make any statements", but let that too pass. The truth is that the ICC has rarely been under so much pressure to find a solution that would be acceptable to the BCCI.

A few days before Denness exonerated Tendulkar of ball-tampering, Worldsport Nimbus, which, backed by Rupert Murdoch's NewsCorp, has the television rights to the 2003 World Cup to be held in South Africa, reportedly sent a letter to the ICC reminding it that according to their contract, if any of the four dominant markets—India, England, Australia and South Africa—drop out of the World Cup, it has the right to renegotiate the telecast fees sharply downward. The ICC apparently replied this was a purely hypothetical issue and it was sure the Indian team would be there in Johannesburg at the opening ceremony in 2003.

Some facts about what India brings to world cricket's commercial table will put the issue in perspective. Even by conservative estimates, more than 60 per cent of the money in world cricket comes from India. Says Sachin Bajaj of Sporting Frontiers, a sports marketing firm: "Cricket boards in other countries benefit much more from Indian companies than the BCCI does from corporates in those countries." India's last tour to Zimbabwe wiped out the Zimbabwean board's accumulated losses. The most spectacular Indian display on the killing fields of South Africa was from players like Ambuja Cement and Fiat Palio, who had taken massive on-field advertising space. In this tour, various South African cricket associations are reported to have made no less than 4 million rand from in-stadia advertising by Indian corporates.

And this is chickenfeed compared to the revenues from the sale of television rights to this part of the world. Manu Sawhney, ESPN Software India MD, refuses to give figures but admits: "The money we pay to telecast cricket in India is considerably large." According to reports in the British press, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has sold rights for the 2002 Indian tour of England for £10 million; it managed only £100,000 for the tour by Sri Lanka.

A high official from a corporate closely associated with the 2003 World Cup explains that out of every $100 the ICC will earn from the next World Cup, $60 will come from the sale of TV rights, $30 from sponsors and the rest from merchandising and other sources. Of the $60 from TV rights, about $27 will come from the Indian region, $12-14 from UK, $5-7 from Australia, $4-5 from host South Africa and the balance from the rest of the world including the US, a market driven by NRIs. In the $30 from sponsorship deals, the Indian presence is immense, though some may argue that companies like Pepsi are global players and cannot be strictly viewed as Indian. Between 2000 and 2007, when two World Cups and four multinational knock-out tournaments will be played, ICC has officially announced that it will make a whopping $550 million. That figure will be sci-fi if Dalmiya's India is "taught a lesson".

Says an ex-BCCI official: "India's message is: 'All those who don't want Indian money, raise your hands.' As Kerry Packer once said: 'Gentlemen, name your price.' The gentlemen did. They always do. And in the northern hemisphere, Jagmohan Dalmiya speaks that language best."

The Tendulkar concession came the day after Indian selectors named Virender Sehwag in the squad of 14 for the Mohali Test against England. The ICC had made it clear that Sehwag could not be picked in the 14, since the third Test against South Africa was an "unofficial" Test, so Sehwag had to serve out his suspension in the Mohali Test. The ICC had set a deadline for November 30, 12 noon London time, for the BCCI to comply. When Sehwag's name appeared in the 14, the ICC was aghast. Chief executive Malcolm Speed called up Dalmiya who stuck to the line that being in the 14 and not playing in the Test were two mutually exclusive issues. Speed gave the example of soccer, where a player who has been shown a red card (that is, suspended for the next match) cannot be in the reserves. Dalmiya's logic was that cricket is different: in soccer, a reserve player can replace anyone in the playing 11 in the middle of a match, while in cricket, he can only be a substitute fielder, that too in the outfield.

Several more international phonecalls later, the ICC relented; the BCCI now needed to confirm by noon on November 30 that Sehwag was not in the playing 11. But Dalmiya was ready for this one too. He retorted that under ICC rules, the playing team needs to be announced 30 minutes before the match and revealing this earlier could lead to him being investigated by the ICC's Anti-Corruption Cell! This in-your-face impudence sent ICC officials scurrying back to their conference calls. In addition to everything else, the negotiations were by this time taking a serious physical toll: Speed in London was four-and-a-half hours ahead of Dalmiya in Kolkata, who was five-and-a-half hours ahead of Gray in Sydney. In fact, Dalmiya hardly had time to sleep throughout last week, talking to Speed till 3 am, and then waking up his key advisors for further discussions, and then moving on to Gray's reactions from Sydney who had spent a working morning in Sydney by the time the sun rose in India.

The British papers on November 28 carried Denness' "clarification". A few hours later, Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, the ECB president, made it clear that England would pull out of the series if Sehwag played in Mohali (MacLaurin considered it below his dignity to even name Sehwag, referring to him only as "the gentleman in question").Even the English press, which has been baying for Dalmiya's blood, thought MacLaurin need not have opened his mouth. "ECB's own loose cannon", as he was called in The Guardian, was wheeled back into the Long Room at Lord's.

The next morning, the ICC offered its second white flag, inviting Dalmiya to negotiate and smoke the peace pipe with Gray and Speed at the neutral location of Kuala Lumpur, which had hosted the last ICC executive board meeting a month ago.

In the meantime, the Indian government had felt concerned enough to get involved. Arun Jaitley, minister for law, justice and company affairs, and cricket fan, was appointed the pointsman. Jaitley denies this, saying: "I have not replaced Uma Bharti as the person expected to solve this impasse. The sports ministry is competent to do that. As a lover of the game and as member of the Delhi Cricket Association, I attended the BCCI meeting last Monday (November 26). I have been in touch with Dalmiya on a regular basis but I am afraid I cannot disclose the content of what I told him. However, I am of the conviction that however big the crisis, cricket must go on." Jaitley's conviction is also apparently the Indian government's directive, that the England tour must go on. It is very unlikely that Dalmiya ever seriously considered taking such an extreme position that Nasser Husain and his boys had to pack their kits without playing a Test. But the government's unequivocal message defined for him the clear boundaries within which he had to manoeuvre.

Amazingly, this did not cramp his style.

On November 30 morning, Outlook called up Gray in Sydney. He sounded somewhat exasperated when he said: "I've just been informed that Mr Dalmiya's Malaysia visa has expired and so we may not be able to meet in Kuala Lumpur. Hopefully, something will work out before the deadline." It seems inconceivable that even if Dalmiya's visa had indeed expired, he could not have managed a new one to reach Kuala Lumpur on Friday. More likely, he was simply making it non-negotiably obvious that he was not going to toe any ICC deadline.

The ICC then blinked again. Speed announced in London that he and Gray had been persuaded by Dalmiya to forget the original Friday noon cut-off; the BCCI could indicate by Saturday (December 1) evening whether Sehwag was in the 11. Dalmiya reciprocated by saying that he would be in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, 48 hours before Saurav Ganguly and Husain were scheduled to go out for the toss in Mohali.

As Outlook goes to press on the evening of November 30, it begins to appear that a deal may be announced without Dalmiya having to take his late-night flight. An ICC spokesperson told a news agency that it was "possible that a solution may be found without a meeting". In either case, whether Dalmiya travels or not, investigations by Outlook correspondents on three continents have turned up a clear message of hope. The Mohali Test will take place. Right from the beginning, Dalmiya was apparently confident that the worst that could happen was that it was only when Ganguly handed over his team list to Husain before the toss that the world would come to know that Virender Sehwag was not in the playing 11.

According to insider reports, by 3 am on November 30, Dalmiya and Speed had agreed:

  • that Sehwag would not play in Mohali;

  • that the ICC would announce the setting up of a committee to hear appeals against match referees' decisions;

  • That this committee would also be empowered to hear appeals against Denness' decisions, and, if needed, reverse them; and that the punishments on the five players other than Sehwag be held in abeyance till then.

But while a worn-out Speed agreed to this, Gray put his foot down on the last clause. Till afternoon on November 30, he was adamant that Denness' case could not be re-opened. This was surprising, since the former president of the Asian Cricket Council, Thilanga Sumathipala, told Outlook that there is already a precedent of a match referee's decision being overturned, and that too in Australia when Malcolm Gray was the chief of the Australian Cricket Board. "Match referee Graham Dowling accused Sri Lanka of ball tampering in the first Test against Australia in Perth in 1995," he recalls. "The umpires had made no complaint and TV pictures showed no such attempts. We hired a London law firm and appealed. Six days later, the ICC exonerated the Sri Lankans."

What Dalmiya has been betting on, and successfully, is that he has stronger nerves than the ICC. That as the leader of world cricket's economic powerhouse, he has far less to lose than the ICC. That his financial muscle can swing a majority of national cricket boards behind him if it comes to a showdown with the ICC. That his demands for reforms in cricket laws are just. That the next ICC president, Ahsan Mani of Pakistan, is his friend and confidant, and even if he has to compromise on one demand now, it will be merely a matter of time before he emerges the undisputed victor in this battle.

Intikhab Alam, former Pakistan captain and manager, was hardly speaking for only himself when he told Outlook: "One cannot deny that there've been cases of double standards, and aplenty. I can say without any fear of contradiction that with an odd exception or two, most referees have used their discretion and there has been more than a bit of diversity, according to who was involved, and not exactly following merit and demands of justice. The problem starts when the ICC decides to back its appointees even if they seem to be blatantly unfair and partisan. It's nothing more than an old boy network. I believe that the entire system has to be rethought and yes, the referees should not be given immunity to explain as to how they reached a particular decision. So that if they chose to make laughable and biased decisions, they are made accountable at least to the media and public."

Dalmiya is unquestionably the most controversial man in the history of cricket officialdom. But he has also, throughout his chequered career, been the spearhead against the perceived proprietory and superior attitude of cricket's old boys' club. This has been his biggest battle against the establishment and clearly, he has the longest stare in the business of blinkmanship.

Sandipan Deb and Manu Joseph With Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo, Ashish Shukla in Johannesburg, Sanjay Suri in London and Agha Akbar in Lahore

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