The rise and rise of Anurag Thakur

BCCI secretary Anurag Thakur speaks at a press conference AFP

"Chalo kuch gup-shup karte hain." [Come, let us chit-chat.]

With that one line, uttered after he had finished his first press conference as BCCI president, Anurag Thakur walked away from decades of well-established board culture that had treated the media with distrust and as outsiders.

When a journalist handed him a paper cup of tea, Thakur wondered why no one else had been served. Over the next half hour, he spoke patiently and as openly as he could, without letting out too many secrets.

Before the chat, Thakur had spoken as if he was a politician at a rally, not a BCCI president. He detailed the numerous social welfare initiatives the board planned to invest in. He did not play the defensive hand. Each time he was asked about the Lodha Committee, he reiterated his point of view that some of the recommendations would tear apart the fabric of the BCCI and damage the interests of the players as well.

In Indian political circles, Thakur's has been a well-known name and face. On Sunday he was unanimously elected BCCI president, one of the most powerful positions - some would argue the most powerful - in world cricket. The BCCI has only had one president younger than Thakur - Fatehsingh Rao Gaekwad was 33 when he led from 1963 to '66.

Thakur's climb to the top of the BCCI might appear unusually swift, but he has always been ambitious. He captained Punjab and North Zone at the age-group levels, and also played a first-class match for his native Himachal Pradesh in the 2000-01 Ranji Trophy season. Thakur reportedly played that match only because he wanted to become a junior national selector. The BCCI administration at the time, under the leadership of Jagmohan Dalmiya, had made it mandatory for selectors to have first-class cricket experience. Thakur made a seven-ball duck in Himachal's only innings, and picked up two wickets in the nine overs he bowled.

In the same year he became the youngest ever president of a state association, when he took the reins of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association at 26. The jury might be out on his cricketing talent, but there is no doubting his clout as an administrator. According to seasoned BCCI officials, Thakur worked hard to turn a "backward state" like Himachal around, and establish one of the most impressive venues on the world cricket map. Thakur created modern cricket facilities not just in picturesque Dharamsala but also in smaller towns like Bilaspur and Una.

"I inherited only seven chairs, one iron cupboard and a typewriter," he said of those early days. "But within five years, we built an international stadium in Dharamsala - not only a cricket stadium but one of the most beautiful cricket stadiums in the world, and also built around five-six other stadiums in the state."

People who have observed Thakur's progress are not surprised. "He has age and experience, a unique combination, in his favour. He has a contemporary perspective," a BCCI official says. "If you look at his development projects in Himachal, that is the classic example of what he has done for cricket. Because he knows what the cricket requirements are at the state level, he has been hands-on as an administrator, which is a big advantage."

A senior East Zone official described Thakur's rise as "tremendous", from the time he began attending BCCI meetings around 2004. This official had no doubt that being a politician has helped Thakur immensely. According to him Thakur's biggest punt, which played a crucial role in his swift rise to the top rung of the BCCI, was his decision to run for the post of secretary during the acrimonious 2015 BCCI elections.

Thakur became a BCCI office-bearer for the first time in 2011, when he was elected joint secretary in the N Srinivasan administration. Srinivasan's not stepping down during the 2013 IPL corruption scandal did not sit well with Thakur, who was one of the few BCCI officials unafraid to express his grievances in public at the time, when he said institutions were bigger than individuals.

"He was just a joint secretary, which is not anything big in the BCCI," the East Zone official said. "But he showed the guts to stand for the secretary's position two years back, which changed things. That he could do that was only because he was a politician. No one else could have dared."

Thakur won the secretary's post by a single vote when he defeated the incumbent, Sanjay Patel, in the elections in Chennai, where Jagmohan Dalmiya returned for his second stint as BCCI president. Srinivasan, the East Zone official who was present during the 2015 election said, had in fact approached Thakur and offered to support his nomination for the president's post. "By the time Thakur arrived, he had decided to be part of the Dalmiya camp," the East Zone official said. "When Srinivasan offered him the president's post, Thakur did not ditch the Dalmiya camp."

Thakur was perhaps aware that he had more to gain if he was loyal to the men he had originally teamed up with to defeat Srinivasan's lobby. "He is the face of the next generation," the official said. "For the last 20 years BCCI has had presidents who have come from the old school of administration."

As a politician, Thakur knows the importance of reaching out to people who matter. A BCCI vice-president said he received a call from Thakur a couple of weeks ago, when he expressed his desire to run for the board presidency. "He is a man of few words," the vice-president said. "He is a straightforward guy. He likes to interact with people like us. He might be younger to me, but there is a chemistry between him and the young people in the board. Normally in the BCCI, people are very reluctant to open up because they don't want to antagonise somebody. But Anurag is open and makes his opinion very clear - whether somebody likes it or not, he is not worried about."

Veterans and young board members alike say Thakur's biggest strength is his proximity to influential people. Power and positioning are the planks on which he has raised his solid platform. Thakur has been on the right side of both the government and the power brokers within the BCCI.

Thakur is capable of taking independent positions on issues, but as president he will need the support of his key lieutenant. He and secretary, Ajay Shirke, whom Thakur nominated on Sunday, have grown close during these difficult times for the BCCI in the Supreme Court. Shirke was the treasurer when the IPL corruption scandal broke in 2013. He, along with the secretary at the time Sanjay Jagdale, stepped down from their positions in protest against Srinivasan.

"Ajay Shirke has been his biggest advisor," a Thakur critic within the BCCI said. "Shirke's man RP Shah has been a consultant to Thakur since he became secretary."

Shashank Manohar might have been the architect of most reforms the BCCI carried out since last October, but Thakur also played an important role in endorsing those changes. Officials say Thakur was involved closely in preparing the BCCI's initial document on conflict of interest, which was sent to all members last year, and that he also had a say in appointing the global consultancy firm Deloitte as an independent regulator. Thakur also stressed the need to release the domestic cricket schedule in July, well before the start of the season.

Another important decision taken at Thakur's behest was drawing up contracts for India's women cricketers. The news also surprised the players. When India Women beat New Zealand, the BCCI announced an award. One of the players said then that it must be "some five lakhs [approximately US$7500] to be distributed among the team". The actual reward was Rs 20 lakhs ($29,700), which left the player and her team-mates speechless.

Thakur has also earned the respect of his critics. A high-ranking board official is willing to allow him time to grow in his new job. "It is a fresh start, a new innings [for Thakur]. We have disagreed on things, but now that he is taking on a new role, I am actually welcoming it."

All the officials ESPNcricinfo spoke to for this story were sceptical about whether, as an active member of a national political party, Thakur will have enough time for the BCCI's affairs, at a critical time when the board is involved in a tussle with the Supreme Court over the Lodha Committee recommendations. "It takes a lot of effort to get in touch with him," the critic quoted above said.

Other political heavyweights have served as BCCI presidents in the past: SN Wankhede, NKP Salve, Madhavrao Scindia and Sharad Pawar have juggled the job with their political roles.

Thakur's most immediate challenge will arrive in July, when the Supreme Court issues its order on implementing the Lodha Committee reforms. Last Saturday, Manohar revealed that his conscience did not allow him to continue as the board president, because he did not agree entirely with the Lodha recommendations.

Thakur's responsibility as president will be to ensure that things are put in place not only at the BCCI level but also at all the state associations, while having them on his side. Having served as secretary, he is aware of the hurdles he will face. "Now it is about handling challenges the BCCI faces in a unified way," a Thakur critic said.

Despite the challenges, Thakur's camp is confident he is the right man to lead the BCCI in these fragile times. "He is sharp," an official said. "He is not an in-depth man. Not a man of great details. But he has understanding, has a grasp and has an intuitive feel for what should be done."