The red-letter day of Sri Lankan cricket and Dalmiya’s hand

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It was on a day like this (17th March), 23 years ago, Sri Lanka were crowned World Champions in Lahore beating Australia by seven wickets in the 1996 final. The architects of that stunning win and how an unfancied team went onto beat India twice in India before overcoming tournament favourites Australia will be spoken for a long time to come. Clint Eastwood’s movie Invictus on how South Africa went onto become World Champions in rugby beating All Blacks in 1995 became a huge hit and if someone tries to put the Sri Lankan success into film, it will be well received as well.

Arjuna Ranatunga’s bold captaincy, Aravinda de Silva’s spectacular batting feats, Sanath Jayasuriya’s audacious stroke play, Romesh Kaluwitharana’s smart glove work, Chaminda Vaas’ probing spells and contributions of Dav Whatmore, Duleep Mendis and Alex Kontoruis have been all spoken about. But what about Jagmohan Dalmiya, the Indian cricket supremo, who ensured that Sri Lanka would not be isolated in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks. Throughout his tenure both at BCCI and ICC, Dalmiya remained a loyal friend of Sri Lanka.

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When Australia and West Indies decided to pull out from their World Cup games in Colombo soon after the Central Bank bombing in January 1996 and wanted those games shifted away to India, Sri Lanka Cricket relented.

Australia and West Indies stood their ground and demanded that if Sri Lanka refused to play those games in India, the points from those games to be awarded to them.

It was at this point Dalmiya intervened and ensured fair play. In order to prove that there were no security concerns for cricket teams to play in Colombo, he hastily put out a joint India – Pakistan team to play an exhibition game at R. Premadasa Stadium. He had to overcome several obstacles and through clever statesmanship achieved his means.

At that point, it was unthinkable for an Indian captain to play under the Pakistani skipper or vice-versa. Both the players and fans would have none of it. India was led by Mohammad Azharuddin while his Pakistani counterpart was Wasim Akram. Dalmiya found a way to break the deadlock. He made the impossible possible.

The first thing he did was to call up Inthikab Alam, the former Pakistan captain. He told Alam that the toughest thing in this whole venture is to manage this star-studded team. So he convinced Alam to become the Manager of the side. Once the role of Manager had gone to Pakistan, it was only fair that the captaincy was given to India. So Azhar would become the captain and it was up to Alam to convince Wasim to play under the Indian captain. This Wasim agreed to.

Then there was another obstacle. Wills the sponsor of the World Cup in their agreement had a clause that no international match should be played one month prior to the World Cup. This was a marketing strategy to get maximum exposure for spending millions of US$ having come forward as the event sponsor.

The exhibition match involving contracted players would be breach of agreement. Dalmiya had an answer for that too.

“Listen, you are not going to get another occasion where the Indian and Pakistani team are going to play together. In fact, you should be paying me more for making this possible,” Dalmiya told event sponsor Wills. He went onto name the team Wills XI. The sponsors were over the moon. Problem solved.

The exhibition match was a huge success. The Sri Lankan government had ensured that the teams were given security that is provided to the Heads of State and Foreign Minister Lakshma Kadirgamar came to RPS to watch the match. A cricketer himself, Kadir was a huge fan of Sachin Tendulkar.

Dalmiya now had built a strong case to argue that Australia and West Indies need to travel to Colombo to honour their fixtures as there were no security threats.

After the exhibition match, Kenya and Zimbabwe agreed to play their Group games in Colombo and that left Australia and West Indies with fewer alternatives. Dalmiya gave them another option which was to be airlifted to Colombo from Madras on the morning of the match and brought back to India the same day. This too was turned down.

Having exhausted all options, Dalmiya put his foot down and told West Indies and Australia that they had to either play in Colombo or give away the points. Had he given into pressure without finding a way out of the tricky situation, the points would have been either shared or worse Sri Lanka would have had none of it.

Dalmiya didn’t just steamroll his way through. He systematically went about things whereby the nations that were protesting had no way out of the situation.

Dalmiya hails from Calcutta. He inherited his family construction business at the age of 19 when his father passed away. He rose through the ranks at BCCI gradually having first joined the board in 1979 through Cricket Association of Bengal.

He is the man credited with changing the finances of Indian cricket. He did to Indian cricket what Kerry Packer did to Australian cricket. In 1987, he was at the center stage during a legal battle with Dooradarshan. For years BCCI had been paying the state owned television company for telecasting Indian cricket. Dalmiya argued in court that it was time that Dooradarshan paid BCCI.

A couple of years later, Indian television rights was opened to the world market and it took a matter of few years for India to become the richest board in the world. By 1996, he was the Secretary of the Board and even before becoming President of BCCI, went onto become the Chairman of ICC, the first Asian to do so.

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