English cricket grapples with Dalmiya factor

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The Independent Online

The boot is now firmly on the other foot. Ground invasions, riots, burning stands, and generally intrusive spectator participation are as acceptable in big-match cricket lore on the subcontinent as "Delhi Belly''. Touring sides have had to live with these difficulties and, provided 11 fit men can be put on the field, it often did wonders for team spirit.

In the aftermath of September 11 and with all hell breaking loose in Afghanistan, the English authorities were understandably concerned about the safety of their players on last winter's tour to India. Recces were made and the team was eventually accompanied there by two former members of the SAS, who both looked as if bullets were more likely to bounce off rather than go through them.

The Indian authorities were undoubtedly miffed that their own guarantees of safety were not considered to be enough. As the tour went on, the new President of the Indian Board of Control (BCCI), the combative Jagmohan Dalmiya, the last head of the International Cricket Council, persuaded England to play a sixth one-day international. This was to compensate for India having to play a fourth Test match against England later this summer – an arrangement agreed by the previous board.

The ECB initially seemed confident that this would only mean back-to-back games in Calcutta or Bombay and therefore no big thing. As it happened, we all trooped off to Cuttack, 30 miles away in Bubhaneswar, which was an interesting drive. Anyway, 15-15, if not 30-15 to Dalmiya.

Now, Dalmiya's Board, for whom read Dalmiya, has sent two of his administrators to England to check out conditions for India's tour this summer: security, hotels, logistical details and the facilities in general. This is an unheard of precedent which will initially have raised a few hackles. The home of cricket, the inventors of the "gentlemen's game'', was going to be subject to the sort of security reserved for Third World countries. Heaven forbid – and 40-15 to Dalmiya.

It is probably a safe bet that this super-tough, gung-ho multi-millionaire from Calcutta loves nothing more than to rub English and ICC, if it comes to that, noses in the mud whenever the chance comes along. However, the Indians are entirely justified in sending Jyoti Bajpai, the joint honorary secretary of the Board, and Amrit Mathur, the Director of Communication and Co-ordination (a deliciously bureaucratic title, although in this aspect of life the English were and still are impressive front runners).

Last year hysterical Pakistan supporters sparked off ground invasions and missile throwing – the Australian, Michael Bevan, was hit on the head by a full can of beer at Lord's of all places – and general skulduggery. At Headingley England had to concede a match against Pakistan because of a crowd invasion during which a steward was violently assaulted. At Edgbaston, Nick Knight was seriously jostled.

All of this is totally unacceptable and it is impossible to complain about India wanting to make sure their players are safe. It is to the credit of the ECB that it has not regarded this visitation simply as Dalmiya trying to get one back, and it has taken on board all the Indian concerns. Strenuous efforts have been made to improve ground security and the ECB has been working for sometime with the Association of Chief Police Officers.

No one will now be allowed on the ground before, during or after play. The presentation ceremonies at the end will be held on the ground in full view of the crowd so that they can watch and cheer every move on these mind bogglingly boring occasions.

The hefty sanctions provided for in the Public Order Act for those who break the regulations will be ruthlessly in force. These regulations will be constantly repeated over the tannoy and offenders could find themselves in receipt of a fine of £1,000. This will not happen many times before it concentrates a few minds.

Erecting perimeter fencing, as it appears in India, was not considered, after the horrific events of the Hillsborough tragedy. The two Indians understood this and were most appreciative of the help they have been given by the ECB and most particularly by Tim Lamb, the Chief Executive.

In the long run Dalmiya has surely done English cricket a favour, even though the nasty thought of over 2,000 fans invading English cricketing turf still remains an unwelcome reality. If crowds in England are not better policed, the authorities may one day be looking at a fatality.

There is much more at stake here than a grudge match against Dalmiya – although his reactions now that Bajpai and Mathur have returned home to report back to him will still be interesting.