Nov. 29: “What politics' I don’t know anything about politics,” Jagmohan Dalmiya had told an interviewer soon after becoming International Cricket Council (ICC) chief in March 1997.
A characteristic, if surprising, comment from a man who had wrested cricket supremacy from the white nations and brought it to the subcontinent through sheer money power and manoeuvring, provoking The Guardian to dub him a “ruthless manipulator”.
All the more astonishing for someone who had fashioned that revolution by welding a bond of such firmness between India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka that it can put the region’s politicians to shame.
Sharad Pawar ' handed his first-ever election defeat in the bitter battle for the Board of Control for Cricket in India last year ' would vouch for the brinkmanship skills of the construction magnate from Calcutta, one of whose achievements is the Birla Planetarium.
So would the old MCC guard, left spluttering over their gin and tonic as they watched two World Cups (1987 and 1996) snatched from their grasp with the help of votes from non-Test-playing countries, who were offered a share of the profit far beyond their dreams. Not to speak of the Australian executives, repeatedly humbled in power tussles with the Indian as he, in Wisden’s words, threatened to “split world cricket” and thus deny the old powers the spoils of the huge Indian market.
The threat had looked real in 1996 as the white nations ganged up to keep the former club cricketer away from the world body’s top job on a technicality despite his having won the election 25-13. So scared were England, Australia and New Zealand of the man’s unconventional and divisive ways that they toyed with the idea of abolishing the ICC chief’s post lest Dalmiya manage to secure it one day.
That day came sooner rather than later when, faced with possible isolation from a burgeoning cricket market, the whites allowed him to be elected to the chair unanimously the following year.
That new, large market ' and world ' of cricket, stretching from Japan to Canada through the Gulf and Scandinavia, will be the legacy he leaves behind.
If his politics could divide, it could also unite, as shown by the India-Pakistan-Lanka alliance. When Australia and West Indies refused to play in terror-scarred Lanka during the 1996 World Cup, he conjured up a united India-Pakistan team in a matter of days to play friendlies on the island.
And in 1991, when the boycott of South Africa officially ended, he arranged for the Proteas a tour of India that went a long way in helping them shed the stigma of apartheid.
His “manipulations” put his own city on the road to snatching Lord’s crown as the Mecca of cricket. He fought off a stiff challenge by Delhi and Mumbai and brought the 1987 World Cup final to Calcutta, revamping the Clubhouse in record time.
He had to depend on his famous skills again to overcome a last-minute hurdle placed by the ICC, which demanded proof of the board’s “administrative control” over Eden Gardens. Dalmiya got Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister, to override the defence ministry and clear a lease of the ground to the board.
Two years later, it was Rajiv Gandhi again who got the Nehru Centenary Cup final shifted to Calcutta after Dalmiya threatened to scrap the event if Eden were denied.
Yet, Dalmiya has shown he can rise above “politics” for a chance to help Indian cricket ' as well as get into a scrap with the game’s traditional powerhouses.
This happened when Madhavrao Scindia, then board president and his opponent, asked him to help the bid to host the 1996 World Cup, which looked almost certain to go to England. Dalmiya stitched together his subcontinental alliance which, after 13-and-a-half hours of debate, turned the tables on England, promising the ICC a record '10m.
“Asian tiger twists Lord’s by the tail,” said The Times.
The money he brought into the game did much to muffle criticism of his power play. The BCCI, whose books showed a deficit of Rs 81.60 lakh when Dalmiya became its secretary in the early 1990s, recorded a profit within a year and is today the world’s richest board with a turnover of more than Rs 100 crore.
Team India cricketers benefited from his “Godfather” image: bans and suspensions against them were repeatedly overturned or slashed.
Dalmiya’s 27-year reign as administrator in the Cricket Association of Bengal, BCCI, ICC and the Asian Cricket Council was not free of controversy. His departure from the world body in 2000 was marred by a TV rights row; he got into another with Zee TV last year.
He was accused of pussy-footing over the match-fixing scandal that broke out during his term as world cricket chief; and the enforcement directorate put Pilcom, organiser of the 1996 World Cup, under the scanner for suspected foreign exchange violations.
Yet, history will take into account Ian Chappell’s words: “He has a vision for the game’s progress that I haven’t heard enunciated by any other so-called leader among cricket officials.”