Confident of sorting out things

IT WAS news to Ehsan Mani, the ICC President, that Sachin Tendulkar, like him, signs his cheques with the left-hand.

SUBROTO SIRKAR

Ehsan Mani, who took over as the ICC President in June 2003. — Pic. JOHN GICHIGI/GETTY IMAGES-

IT WAS news to Ehsan Mani, the ICC President, that Sachin Tendulkar, like him, signs his cheques with the left-hand. "Now that's unusual,'' the new president said, "because Sachin bats and bowls right-handed, and uses his right arm in the field. I used to bowl left-handed, in my playing days.'' His playing days ended, though, when he came over to England — "way back in 1965, that was'' — to do his articles and qualify as a chartered accountant. It wasn't a profession that allowed much time for sporting activity, and Ehsan neither played any club cricket in London, nor has he been associated with any local cricket body.

"I'm a member of the MCC, though,'' he clarified. We were talking in the spacious living-room of his London home in St. John's Wood, not too far from Lord's, on a warm morning in early July. "It's unusual for us (the Manis have four daughters, in the 16-26 age group) to be here at this time of the year, we're usually in Pakistan, where we spend a few weeks at a family home at the foothills of the Himalayas. But this year it's different ...''

He had been on the verge of getting into the Rawalpindi team for the Qaid-e-Azam Trophy, as a left-arm medium-pacer, when he came away. "Yes, I do remember Rawalpindi's first Test match, against New Zealand, which was just before I left home. In fact, I was one of the scorers in the club-house. I can recall left-arm spinner Pervez Sajjad took quite a few wickets.''

"It wasn't the first Test I saw, though. That had been some ten years earlier, when India played in Peshawar. But I am from a Rawalpindi family... Mani isn't a very unusual name, I believe we have Persian origins.''

Preliminaries over, we moved on to the presidency. When Ehsan, now 58, had first been named as Pakistan's nominee for the top post, two years ago, it hadn't exactly been a popular choice back home. "Nothing depicts the bankruptcy of the PCB more,'' one critic had written, "than Ehsan Mani's elevation ... it reflects that either the Pakistani cricketing establishment is totally devoid of credible faces back home or it lacks in ideas to promote genuine articles.''

"Yes, I've been aware of that,'' was all that Ehsan had to say, blocking the shooter.

About the president-by-rotation system, when interviewing Jagmohan Dalmiya for Financial Times three years ago I'd sought his view, which was : "It had seemed a good idea at the time, but it may not be the perfect solution.''

Question: What do you have to say about the president-by-rotation system?

Answer: Actually, it had been my proposal that one should be president for two years, and not three, cutting short the rotation cycle to a reasonable span. Even someone from Bangladesh can head the ICC some day, well, why not? Look, the ICC president is not meant to be an executive post, as with FIFA or the ITF. He is supposed to be the ICC's public face, chair conferences and meetings, and oversee implementation of the Executive Board's decisions. With a president by rotation, all member-countries can look forward to recognition.

In your present capacity what could you do for resuming India-Pakistan cricket?

One has to be realistic. I would be doing all I can, behind the scenes, for the resumption of Indo-Pak ties. But what can one do, what can any individual do, if at the end of the day the Indian government rules that it can't happen, just now. Can the Indian Board go against such advice? At the Board level there's always talk, but you must bear in mind that the Indian government's attitude has hardened after Kargil. Perhaps it's best to wait for an interchange at the junior level to go through smoothly, there's less of the spotlight there. And I'm hopeful that by April 2004 there could be some positive development.

About the contract issue that was so much of a bother before the World Cup in South Africa, couldn't it have been foreseen and the situation averted?

Of course it was foreseen, and all the member-countries knew of the terms by the first quarter of 2002. The difficulty arose because the Indian Board didn't consult its own players. Now there are certain problems peculiar to the Indian Board. Despite being quite well-to-do, BCCI has no permanent headquarters, and the office moves around with whoever is president and secretary. This causes a lack of continuity which is in fact damaging. The Indian Board does have an executive-secretary's post, it's true, but it's Mumbai-based and more like an office administrator. It would certainly benefit with the introduction of professional sports management.

The thing now is to ensure no such confusion or misunderstanding ever happens again, and I'm confident that during my term as president a lasting solution will have been worked out towards that end.

Do you believe there is too much international cricket, something many people are complaining about?

There, again, I can't agree. I do not think there is too much international cricket being played. We have a policy on the number of Tests and Internationals a country should be playing in a year, but this is sometimes subject to change on economic considerations. It's not easy to strike the perfect balance.

But, look at what the players themselves do when their countries have time off : they go to England, get into county cricket, sometimes when they're not quite fit (a possible reference to Harbhajan Singh?), or in the leagues, even in club cricket. I appreciate that a cricketer's earning span isn't very long, most of them want to make as much while they're in demand, at some level. But the players themselves aren't complaining of too much cricket.

Over the years the trend has moved towards short, sharp tours. Once the visiting team has acclimatised, it should be all Tests and one-dayers. The traditional England tour, with so many first-class matches in between, is on its way out. Nobody is interested in those matches any more, they serve little purpose.

You've been quoted as saying North America is where you'd like cricket to make some inroads. Why is that?

Well, on one hand it's a matter of simple finance. North America is overwhelmingly the biggest market for televised sport, and all the benefits that derive from it. I'd like to see cricket get a toe-hold in that market, ahead of some other sports which are trying to break in. True, basketball, baseball and American football together have the lion's share, but there's still enough opportunity for other sports.

Besides, in terms of numbers, the Indian, Pakistani and West Indian population in North America is huge, so that if we can go about it the right way, we can exploit their inherent interest in the game for the general good.

Which developments in the game aren't to your liking?

Certainly, the preponderance of sledging in the modern game. One can't blame any particular player, but I'd say it first grew during the Packer circus and now it's common at every level of the game. With its practice, I feel we've moved away from the true spirit in which cricket ought to be played.

The other thing, of course, is the total commercialisation, leading in turn for corruption. Things have changed, and not always for the better. I wouldn't like to go into details, but it's something that has saddened me.

How do you feel about being the man in the middle, an Asian who is a London resident, and would you admit that there was a divide in the ranks of world cricket?

The divide, as it's often been called, has in fact not been there since 1996. Prior to that, also, it was not, as is commonly supposed, on lines of race or colour. True, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been together, but the West Indies stood with England and Australia, partly for financial and partly for traditional reasons. And then South Africa aligned itself with our group.

I don't think Jagmohan Dalmiya has been given due credit for straightening out this matter. But he went about it in a determined manner, by talking, cajoling, convincing, even occasionally manipulating ... no decision on the Executive Board during his time ever went to the vote, we always strived for consensus and ultimately achieved it.

You see, race apart, some cultural differences remain, and you could say that I, being so long integrated in a Western society, am well placed to bridge whatever gap there is between cultures.

Do you think there is a need for the World Test championship?

It's not really for me to say whether or not there was a need for the ICC World Test championship. It's a concept that is being constantly reviewed, and now you will know that we're going on match basis, and not as per series. Due weightage is also being given to strengthen the opposition. With updating, it should work.

Is another throwing controversy, like the one in the 1960s, likely to blow up soon?

I don't believe so, the situation is quite different, especially with the availability of modern technology. It has been alleged that top bowlers like Shoaib Akhtar, Brett Lee and Muralitharan all throw, but not consistently, perhaps the occasional delivery when they're trying to do something different.

But the real solution would be to root out all traces of possible `chucking', and that can be done with all members committing to monitor the matter from the junior levels. If a promising bowler at a young age needs to amend his action, that's possible. It's very difficult for an established bowler to do that.

Could you name one innings that remains etched in your memory?

It wasn't an innings I saw live. But, sometime in the Seventies, I watched Barry Richards on television, batting in a one-day competition. He was just so dominating, so adept in stroke-selection, I couldn't help admiring what a tremendous player he was, and what a tragedy it was that international cricket was deprived of showcasing his talent.

As I walked to the Swiss Cottage underground station en route to Wimbledon, I thought of Dalmiya's years in office ending with the match-fixing controversy, and of Malcolm Gray's term closing with the player-contracts' imbroglio. Perhaps, Ehsan Mani would prove he was the "genuine article'': his air of quiet confidence suggested he was capable of sorting things out in his two years at the helm.