Yes, 18 years ago. The then Indian president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), N.K.P. Salve, was in England to watch the World Cup. He was asked by Indian politician Siddhartha Shankar Ray and his wife, who happened to be in London, if he could get them two tickets to the final. Salve called up the chief of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and was brusquely turned down. Kapil’s Devils won the Cup, but the insult rankled with the Indian officials. Back in India, Salve called his three trusted lieutenants, Jagmohan Dalmiya, P.M. Rungta and P.R. Mansingh. The four men swore a near-sacred pledge that they would humble the English and shift the centre of gravity of world cricket to where its most passionate fans lived, India.
Dalmiya’s cold business brain told him that India could achieve this only through economic power. Till then, the board had not pursued logo money and sponsorships aggressively. That changed overnight. "Money talks" was the way Dalmiya once put it with brutal calm to a cricket official. "And we can be economically powerful only if we create a huge appetite for cricket in this part of the world." The Indian cricket board, backed by what was then India’s most powerful brand, Vimal, moved the world championships out of England and brought it to India as the Reliance Cup. Dalmiya, say former board officials, often exhorted them to never give an inch to the English, indeed to look constantly for ways to discomfit them. The logical culmination of the process was Dalmiya’s controversial ascendancy to the post of International Cricket Council (ICC) president, by splitting the ICC into two bitterly-opposed camps (see Jaggu’s Dadagiri). Indeed, almost every significant event off the field in world cricket in the last one-and-a-half decades can be traced back to the refusal of two Lord’s tickets that Indian authorities saw as a racist insult.
Did Dalmiya remember the pledge he took in 1983 when he was woken up late at night by a telephone call from Indian team manager M.K. Bhargava with the news of the draconian punishments? Did he connect it immediately with the row that Dalmiya currently is embroiled in with the ECB over whether India will play four Tests or three in England in the summer of 2002? After all, Mike Denness, as chairman of the Kent Cricket Club, honorary member of the MCC and the Old Taverners, head of the Pitch Advisory Committee of the ECB, member of the ECB’s Cricket Advisory Committee, is a pucca ECB bureaucrat. Dalmiya’s reneging on his predecessor Muthiah’s decision to have a four-Test England series has enraged the ECB and its chief, Lord Ian Maclaurin of Knebworth, head of Tesco, Britain’s premier food retailer, and a sworn enemy of the Indian construction tycoon. If India plays only three Tests, the ECB will make as much as £5 million less than what it expected to from the tour! Dalmiya’s brazen reasoning for pulling out of the fourth Test is that since England is playing three Tests in India, he saw no reason why India should play four in England. Did he see Denness’ punishments as a proxy war between the ECB and the BCCI? Well, whatever went through Dalmiya’s mind as he spoke to Bhargava, John Wright, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar that night, he knew he had to fight the next battle in his long war with the white cricket establishment.
Dalmiya spent the next two days huddled with board officials and trusted advisors and burning up the telephone lines. As an entire nation rose in rage against the ICC and its match referee, Indian TV channels incessantly bombarded viewers with footage of Michael Slater abusing Indian umpire S. Venkataraghavan and Dravid and getting away with it, Glenn McGrath abusing Tendulkar and getting away with it, Ricky Ponting abusing Javagal Srinath and getting away with it, Andre Nel abusing Ganguly and getting away with it, Jacques Kallis abusing V.V.S. Laxman and getting away with it, Shaun Pollock spending a whole minute in a blatantly false appeal masquerading as an animal scream and getting away with it, and Indian players doing far less on umpteen occasions in the last five years and being punished and defamed. As India united in defence of its cricketers, Dalmiya waded into battle with his customary mix of cunning and aggression.
Denness’ bizarre decisions had utterly demoralised the Indian team. But that soon turned to fury as the players realised that the ICC rules did not even offer the basic democratic right of appealing against a patently delusionary judgement. Tendulkar brooded alone in his room in silence for hours. A few wept in rage. "We were not hurt, we were angry, very angry," said Saurav Ganguly, who has suffered more than any other Indian player at the hands of racist match referees and umpires (for instance, being suspended for one match for looking incredulously at an umpire who had ruled him out with absolutely no justification).
Several senior players felt that India should call off the tour immediately, without even playing the fifth day of the Test match. But Dalmiya knew that this would be playing into the hands of the ICC, whose current office-bearers hate him (indeed, a foreign cricket bureaucrat says that if the current ICC management has its way, the body will not have an Indian chief ever again). "Play out the fifth day and save the match," he told Ganguly. "No one should get the impression that we are chickening out because we are in a bad situation in this Test." Then he spent the next 16 hours figuring out his strategy.
A call to Sunil Gavaskar, chief of the ICC’s technical committee which appoints match referees, confirmed that a rejection of Denness’ decision would not serve any purpose. India would then be clearly contravening ICC’s rules, questioning the very authority of the world body, and would get little support from other cricket boards. Besides, Gavaskar also made it clear that Tendulkar had broken the law: he had definitely not tampered with the ball, but he had cleaned the ball without taking the umpire’s permission, which is illegal, though a minor transgression. (Amazingly, two days after the Tendulkar incident, New Zealand’s Craig Macmillan was shown on TV in a Test against Australia, doing exactly what Tendulkar had done, and neither the umpires nor the match referee objected).
Besides, Dalmiya also knew that calling back the team would, in addition to providing ammunition to his enemies in the ICC, end up hurting not cricket’s governing body but only the South African Board, which was not a party to the controversy in any way: the board stood to lose £2.5 million if the third Test was not played. And Dalmiya’s ties with South African cricket go back a long way. He had played an instrumental role in bringing the country back to world cricket after a 22-year ban and a grateful South Africa had played their first international match since 1970 in Dalmiya’s hometown Kolkata. Over the years, Dalmiya had also assiduously worked the South Africa black political establishment, bringing them over as BCCI guests when South Africa visited India (it’s of course another story that the man Dalmiya had to defeat to become ICC president was Krish Mackeradhuj, a South African of Indian origin backed by the Anglo-Australian lobby). Dalmiya called in all those favours.
Within hours, the United Cricket Board of South Africa (UCBSA) had distanced itself from Mike Denness and the ICC, speaking in one voice with the BCCI that the judgement was unduly harsh and that Denness should be sacked as match referee for the third Test. There were two factors that worked here. One, the South African press had come out strongly against Denness’ decision, as did all former South African players-turned-commentators. Pat Symcox went ballistic in TV and print (see Shame on You, Mr Denness), even the mild-mannered Dave Richardson (who is a trained lawyer) said that the Indian players should sue the ICC for defamation. Ironically, the only exception to this was Denis Lindsay, who came out in Denness’ support, and who is the only ICC-approved match referee the UCBSA could rustle up for the final Test.
The second factor was economic. There was immediate loss of money involved for the UCBSA if the third Test was not played; but more importantly, the main corporate sponsors of the next World Cup, to be played in South Africa in 2003, are Indian companies. The telecast rights for India bring in far more money than the rights for any other market. It is Indian industry which will be the principal on-ground advertisers during the World Cup and swell the UCBSA’s coffers. The net result was that Dalmiya didn’t need to spend too much time convincing his South African counterparts which side they needed to back. And a few phone calls to Johannesburg politicians made sure that the South African government took the matter seriously enough. Since many cricket-lovers across the world (and also parts of the South African press) saw Denness’ acts as racism, which is the most painfully sensitive issue for the government, the politicos moved decisively and rapidly. So decisively in fact that the press releases regarding the crisis were being issued by its embassy in Delhi.
When Dalmiya made his demands to the ICC late evening on November 20, that the ICC should either sack Denness for the third Test or put his decision in abeyance to be examined by a neutral committee, he had hoped that the men in London would bend a bit. He did not expect Denness to be sacked—that would be too much of an overt defeat for the ICC, but he did think it would agree to postpone the punishments and re-examine the evidence. This was also what Gavaskar, who may have played a key advisory role for the BCCI in this crisis, had expected as ICC office-bearer. But the council decided to play hardball.
However, being the canny businessman that he is, Dalmiya had Plan B ready. Initially, he and the UCBSA had agreed that if the ICC stuck to its stance, the two boards would cancel the third Test and play two extra one-dayers instead. This is what UCBSA chief Gerald Majola had hinted at on November 21 when he told the media that there was an "alternate plan" being worked on. But the next day, Dalmiya’s resolve hardened. He wanted to go ahead with the Test and show the ICC that he was not willing to make any concessions either. He called up General Tauqir Zia, chief of the Pakistan board. Zia, who is embroiled in the perennial does-Shoaib-Akhtar-chuck controversy (see Reverse Swing), agreed immediately to back Dalmiya. Sri Lanka, which has fought the Anglo-Australian lobby in the ICC several times, consented too to be by India (see "A match referee should not be a dictator"), as did minnow Bangladesh, whose newfound Test status it owes entirely to the good offices of Jagmohan Dalmiya.
Dalmiya then played his masterstroke. He convinced the UCBSA to announce that it would not allow Mike Denness access to the match referee’s chair during the third Test. This move, unprecedented in the history of international cricket, is a clear defiance of ICC orders by the UCBSA. Indeed, as things stand, the BCCI has not transgressed any ICC rules. India has not fielded Virender Sehwag in the Johannesburg Test; the BCCI has also deposited the fines imposed on the six Indian players with the ICC. It has, thus, obeyed Denness’ strictures. The only cricket board that has officially cocked a snook at the ICC is the UCBSA. And it is highly unlikely that the ICC will take action against the UCBSA and start a civil war within international cricket. (This, however, does not mean that the civil war will not occur.)
The ICC has declared the third Test "unofficial", that is, as far as the ICC was concerned, the series was over and South Africa had won it 1-0, and runs scored, wickets taken and catches held in the Johannesburg Test would not be included in the players’ career statistics. In effect, what this means is that if Sachin Tendulkar scores a century, it will not be added to his current tally of 26; if Shaun Pollock takes all 10 wickets in an innings in this Test, he will not get a place alongside Jim Laker and Anil Kumble.
But it is possible that Dalmiya and his supporters will manage to make the Test "official" through pure bullying or some give-and-take. The first problem the BCCI will have to solve is how Sehwag can be played in the first Test against England, starting in a few days’ time. According to the ICC, Sehwag cannot play in that Test since that is the first "official" Test after the second one of the South Africa series. How will Dalmiya resolve this one? Well, Indians can rest assured that he already has something up his sleeve.
Meanwhile, Gavaskar has indicated that the ICC’s technical committee, which he heads, is considering setting up an appellate body for match referees’ decisions, a BCCI demand. Sri Lankan Ranjan Madugulle is poised to take over as the head of the five-member ICC match referee panel and Dalmiya can be expected to aggressively lobby with him on the issue of consistency in referees’ decisions and a rulebook for them.
What is clear is that world cricket is on the verge of its fourth tectonic upheaval, after bodyline in the ’30s (the brainchild of Douglas Jardine, the first of only two Scotsmen to have been captain of England, the other one being...Michael Henry Denness), the Kerry Packer crisis in the ’70s and the match-fixing scandal last year. The battle that a mediocre cricketer-turned-hanging judge has triggered (or was it Dalmiya who started it by refusing to play four Tests in England?) will continue in the chambers of cricket boards across the planet after the Indians leave South African shores. There are already rumblings of a split in the ICC, or a palace coup. The council meets next in March. And Jagmohan Dalmiya will not be sitting idle in the next three months.
He knows he is playing with fire. By forcing Denness to cool his heels in his hotel room while the teams are out on the field, he has set a precedent that can now be used by any and every cricket board to defy the authority. The result could be anarchy, as many observers have pointed out. Cricket’s future suddenly begins to resemble a minefield. But the game and its lovers will have to negotiate these killing fields; there’s no way round them. War has been declared, and neither side will rest till the other is crushed.
And the first battle in cricket’s Operation Infinite Justice has been won decisively by Jagmohan Dalmiya. Sandipan Deb in Delhi and Ashish shukla in Johannesburg With Sanjay Suri and A. James in London