Amrit Mathur, described as a “real all-rounder” by Sunil Gavaskar, has had a multifaceted career in Indian cricket. He has been a journalist, administrator, manager of the Indian men’s cricket team, a tournament organiser (1996 Cricket World Cup in the subcontinent), and a first-class cricket umpire. Mathur played a pivotal role in shaping the Indian Premier League, served as the COO of Delhi Daredevils (now Delhi Capitals), and held administrative roles in various state associations. Recently, he was the Secretary at the Sports Authority of India, leading the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and advising the Ministry of Sports. He’s currently an advisor to the Federation of Indian Fantasy Sports and writes a column for the Hindustan Times.
Mathur’s memoir, Pitchside: My Life in Indian Cricket, offers a ringside view of cricket in India over the past three and a half decades, featuring captivating stories and profiles of cricket’s luminaries. In an interview with Frontline, he discussed his diverse roles with the Indian men’s cricket team, the allure of India-Pakistan matches, memories of cricket legends, and thoughts on the ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup, among other subjects. Edited transcript:
Can you elaborate on your writing journey?
Actually, the process wasn’t difficult: the more difficult part was to decide to write because this has been with me for a very long time and I never got around to doing it. Then I realised that I was privileged to have had the opportunity to be there at important moments of Indian cricket. So after a lot of deliberation and uncertainty, I decided to write. The doubts were: is anybody interested in what I have to offer? There’s no scandal or scam I have to reveal, there’s no major gyan I can give. There is no breaking news. But ultimately I decided to do it, and I’m glad I did.
You managed the men’s cricket team during the 1992 Friendship Tour to South Africa. This tour was significant because it marked a shift from previous “rebel tours”, both on and off the pitch. How do you view its importance?
It was very significant. More so for South Africa because this was after re-admission, the first sporting team—not just cricket—to tour South Africa. So in a way, it was path-breaking. Politically, it was a minefield because India did not recognise the government of South Africa. Our passports were stamped “Not valid for Israel and South Africa”. Nelson Mandela had been released but he was still not in power. You still have [Fredrik Willem] de Klerk and the earlier apartheid government still around. So politically, a bit of a tightrope to walk, who to associate with, where to go, whom to meet and whom not to meet, and no assistance—there is no Indian Mission there to guide you. You are alone.
Cricket-wise, from an Indian perspective, I find it like going into completely uncharted territory. We were a total group of 17, which meant 14 players, Mr. [Ajit] Wadekar is coach, me, and Ali Irani as the physio, trainer, everything else. We went there with almost no support staff. In fact, very often, Ali Irani and I would help out with the fielding drills. Can you imagine? Your Indian team with [Mohammed] Azharuddin, Kapil Dev, [Ravi] Shastri, [Sachin] Tendulkar, [Javagal] Srinath, [Anil] Kumble, and somebody like me and Ali are helping out because there’s nobody else.
And nobody knew anything about the tour, in the sense that conditions, pitches, players—zero information. Ravi had played with some South Africans in the county circuit playing for Glamorgan, but otherwise no information whatsoever. I remember the first team meeting, somebody got up and asked, “Yeh Kepler Wessels kaun hai?” (Who is Kepler Wessels?) Kepler was captain, he had made a Test hundred. So that was the level of ignorance and the lack of preparation and information about the tour.
In the chapter about the 2002 NatWest Series, you discuss the loss of “dressing room sanctity” and the altercation between coach John Wright and Virender Sehwag. This incident remained hidden for years, and you consider the reasons behind this change. Is it due to a shift in team culture, the impact of social media, or a generational change?
It’s more generational and how everything else has changed around cricket. The coverage is more intense, there’s much more media—not just print and television but so many other media platforms—everybody is interested in cricket. Everybody is looking for stories and information, it’s more aggressive. Secondly, because of social media the players themselves are putting out information now. They all have their Twitter handles, Instagram. And in a strange way, the player is also compelled to do it because the number of followers he has determines his market price in terms of endorsements and commercial contracts. So there is a need, an urge to put out more information.
In that context, if something similar had happened now in the dressing room, there would be dhamaka [explosion]. That will be top news for God knows how long and it will be sensational. Compare it to what happened there. Nobody mentioned it. I remember we travelled from the Oval [stadium in London] to Durham, where [Sachin] Tendulkar put his hand up in a team meeting and said, “What happened between Viru [Sehwag] and John should remain here”.
You were the media director for India during the 2003 ICC World Cup in South Africa, where India lost to Australia in the final. We often remember Indian teams for their major tournament wins. Where would you rank Sourav Ganguly’s team in that context?
It occupies an important position. Because during the tournament, India was almost on the verge of exiting. We had a must win game in Kenya [correction: it was Zimbabwe]. Had we lost it, we would have been out. And we started off badly. There was a terrible loss against Australia, which invited a lot of criticism and a strong backlash in India. So the turnaround was sensational: you had great games against Pakistan, against England, and then into the final.
Only the other day, I heard Sachin [Tendulkar] during the first game of the World Cup [on October 5] where he said, “Listen, I was a ball boy in one World Cup [1987 edition co-hosted by India and Pakistan] and I played six World Cups. But my strongest memory of the World Cups is the 90-odd I made against Pakistan during 2003 at Centurion.” So that actually gives you an indication of how the players think of the 2003 campaign. If you ask [Rahul] Dravid or Sourav [Ganguly], they’ll say this is one of our biggest regrets—that we went so far and we had a bad game in the final.
The 2004 tour to Pakistan highlighted the potential of sport to ease tensions and foster goodwill, while the 2015 incident reflects the current state of India-Pakistan cricket relations. Should more be done to promote bilateral cricket, and what steps are needed to achieve this?
As a cricket fan, you, me, everybody wants India and Pakistan to play. It’s good cricket, and it also keeps you very invested. I’ve been involved with Pakistan for a while in cricket. When we were in PILCOM [Pak-Indo-Lanka Joint Management Committee, which organised the 1996 World Cup], we worked very closely with the Pakistan Cricket Board. Then, before the 2004 tour, I was part of the security recce trip which went [to Pakistan] after which the tour happened.
That tour was successful in every way. From a cricket standpoint, it was good for India because we won everything. Off the field, everybody was surprised at how friendly, warm, welcoming the Indian team was in Pakistan. There are numerous stories which have been listed by people in a wonderful manner. I experienced it, everybody experienced it. There was no friction at all at any stage, whether among the fans, players, or everybody else.
Just to give you a couple of examples: there was [Lakshmipathy] Balaji on the tour. Surprisingly, Balaji was a rock star. For some reason, he was Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan put together. We were invited to LUMS [Lahore University of Management Sciences], which is their top management institute, and you had an auditorium screaming “Balaji! Balaji!” as if some entertainer’s come to perform. We went to Wagah [on the India-Pakistan border] and we were sitting on the Pakistani side, and the Pakistani side was chanting his name. And after a while, the Indian section realised what was happening and people on both sides were welcoming him. And Balaji was really embarrassed by all the attention and I remember him saying, “Yeh sab toh theek hai [all that is okay], but who will remember me in Chennai?”
So it was a wonderful tour from the perspective of easing tension, improving relations, and from a cricket standpoint, absolutely sensational. Sehwag making 300 [in Multan], Dravid scoring 270 [in Rawalpindi], a phenomenal one day series, especially the first game in Karachi—everybody remembers [Mohammed] Kaif’s magnificent catch which turned around the first game. So lovely memories, both from the cricket and non cricket side.
“As a cricket fan, you, me, everybody wants India and Pakistan to play. It’s good cricket, and it also keeps you very invested.”
In the chapter “Game Changers”, you profiled prominent figures like Tiger Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar, and Sachin Tendulkar. While intimate, your portraits remained fair. How did you maintain objectivity when dealing with such close subjects?
The thing is that the players I’ve interacted with over a long time are Sachin [Tendulkar], Sourav [Ganguly], Mr [Sunil] Gavaskar, and Rahul [Dravid]. So, there’s a sort of comfort built over a number of years. There’s no need for me to be fawning because I’m part friend, part acquaintance, but I’m also not a fan—I’m not a fan of the person. And these are personalised accounts. I’m not writing about them as players because the whole world knows about their cricketing achievements and their career. So I’m only writing whatever I’ve dealt with them in my interaction.
Tiger [Pataudi] I was fortunate to know early when I was very young. And I was foolish that right from the beginning, for some reason I addressed him as Tiger. I later realised that people who played with him for 10 years would not take that liberty with him... But I knew him for a long time, very kind and gracious and very supportive.
In terms of administrators, I worked with Mr Scindia for a very long time. And I’m fortunate that he found me, he trusted me with cricket. In fact, the entire reason for my being in cricket is because of him. I was a young Railway officer, he was a Minister. He sort of just appointed me overnight as Secretary of Railway Sports, which put me on to the BCCI. Normally, that position goes to somebody at least 15 years my senior. Then we were together on PILCOM when he was BCCI president. So in a way, he gave me a cricket credit card with lifelong validity which I’m still using.
Mr Jaitley was a complete cricket person. I remember that very often I’d go to him for some work, because I was COO at Delhi Daredevils and he was the [DDCA] president. And he would give me time immediately. I would get my work done in two minutes, but he was never in a hurry. He would want to chat about cricket.
Mr [Jagmohan] Dalmiya was a bit different: he was a hardcore administrator unlike Mr Scindia and Mr Jaitley. Actually, it was Mr Dalmiya who put Indian cricket and BCCI on the world map. He was the first person to go to the ICC [International Cricket Council]. He was the first person to make India respected at the global level, maybe even feared.
And the beauty about him was that he understood numbers. I give no credit to anybody for bringing money into cricket—money is there. It comes automatically into Indian cricket. So nobody can take credit for the fact that I got X amount of crores into the BCCI, it comes on his own. What Mr Dalmiya did was he maximised that money: so if the deal was of Rs.10, he would make sure to get 15. Because he had this way of extracting the maximum value out of a cricket deal. Secondly, I’ve never seen anybody more prepared. He was never tired. And if he was a cricket player, he’d be playing all three formats today and never ask for a break. He was 24x7.
Given your initial observations about the BCCI’s priorities and governance structure, what is your stance on the current situation where a former cricketer, Roger Binny, holds the presidency but the actual power seems to rest with BCCI secretary Jay Shah? Do you believe having former cricketers in administrative roles can shift the focus towards cricket itself?
Firstly, the BCCI has always been run by a few people. The top decision making is done in a restricted manner: that’s always been the case. I’ve seen it from the time I was in the BCCI in the late 1980s and early 1990s. From then, successive presidents or powerful secretaries have run cricket. That’s how it’s done.
To give you an example: the shortest BCCI meeting is the AGM [annual general meeting], where you have an agenda that goes into 50 points but it’s always the shortest meeting. If you meet in the morning, you’re done by lunch. And the reason for that is there is consensus reached on major issues earlier; or on sensitive matters, you allow or authorise the president and secretary to take a call. So it’s not any different now from what it was earlier in terms of the way it functions. Maybe it receives more attention now but that’s always been the case.
Another thread running through BCCI is that sometimes there seems to be not enough focus on domestic cricket. Because the attention is primarily on the Indian team, the tournaments being organised, and more energy is invested in that side of cricket. Now you have 38 Ranji Trophy teams (after the addition of teams from the north-east) and that is the largest cricket network in the world in terms of first class teams and number of matches. Because we have Under-14, Under-16, Under-19, Under-23/25, Ranji Trophy: for men and women. So if you look at the sheer amount of cricket that is played it is amazing. If you total the cricket played in Australia, South Africa, England, India alone have more cricket than all of them put together.
What the BCCI does is provide you a ladder. It provides you a platform to literally come and perform and showcase your skill, and then you go up. But more needs to be done at the State levels. The State levels are pretty inactive in terms of promotion, scouting, and coaching. Things are changing in some States. Some are now being very, very active in the last 2-3 years. So things are changing but more effort needs to be on coaching, cricket development, grassroots at the State level.
“I really don’t think that you need to be a cricketer to be a good administrator. If the competence and efficiency of running a State association comes from a non-cricketer, fine with me.”
But what about placing former cricketers in control of administration?
There will be many cases of cricketers running State associations. Recently, you had Brijesh [Patel] in Karnataka, M.S.K. Prasad in Andhra [Pradesh] who did a terrific job, Sanjay Jagdale in Madhya Pradesh, Vikram Rathour in Himachal [Pradesh], and many such instances.
But I really don’t think that you need to be a cricketer to be a good administrator. It’s a matter of competence: if the competence comes from a cricketer, great. If the competence and efficiency of running a State association comes from a non-cricketer, fine with me. I’ve seen both sides.
How does the buzz around the ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup compare to previous editions held in India, considering the delayed schedule, stadium issues, and fan complaints?
The buzz is not as much as I would have expected. And all the conversation is only about India winning, it is not about the World Cup. The entire conversation is centred around “India jeetegi kya?” (Will India win?) And will Rohit Sharma do what Dhoni or Kapil Dev did, etc. So there’s a shift from cricket to the Indian team. That again is a reflection of the time we are living in: everybody identifies more closely not with the game, but with the top stars and the national team. It’s not a matter of good and bad. It is just an observation.
You spoke about the problems of ticketing: those are genuine issues. It should have been done much in advance. Recently, the ECB [England and Wales Cricket Board] has put out their schedule of 2024 and 2025. There’s a ballot on for the Lord’s Test match next June. Wimbledon does it, the British Open (golf) does it. So we are far behind in terms of that kind of certainty to be offered to a fan to enable him to make bookings and organise his travel.
In terms of the stadium experience, there has been a major change for the better because we were at a very low end 10 years ago. But thanks to IPL, there has been improvement because the IPL teams realise that they want the fans to come back as they have to organise seven matches in six weeks.
So while we’re nowhere close to Australia or England in terms of standards and facilities at a stadium, there is improvement. There’s been massive investment for this World Cup. Some stadiums have been transformed. I saw pictures of DDCA Kotla [in Delhi] and they look damn good. There is an improvement and there is awareness that you need to do it. And if the facilities are not up to scratch, there is criticism now.
Earlier, there was no criticism: you just lumped it. You went there—you were pushed around by the police or security, you had problems going in, no parking, maybe dirty loos—and you accepted it and you went back. Now there is a noise because you’re paying good money and you expect a certain level of arrangements at a big game.
What do you think about the Indian team that is going to play in the World Cup and its chances at winning?
It’s the best Indian team which has been chosen. I don’t think anybody can complain about somebody being omitted: the best 15 have been named. At the same time, it’s impossible to pick a team. We all want India to win but you can’t really explain and say “India hi jeetegi” (only India will win) and not others.
So, as a fan, I enjoy the game. And if India wins, we are thrilled. But ultimately, I enjoy the cricket that’s being offered by the top teams, whether it is even in small spells: a good knock by a Pakistani player, some good bowling by a Netherlands cricketer, or anybody. I prefer to enjoy the good moments of cricket and not just get obsessed with who’s winning.