Though tough to imagine, back in the day, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) lived in a cluttered two BHK apartment. Its South Mumbai address might have impressed those who corresponded with it, but not the postman who climbed those dark, dingy stairs leading to the file-filled rooms with peeling walls. Typical of those wily kinds with old money, they were low-key and conservative. And then Lalit Modi came along. He got the Indian Premier League (IPL) as well as the International Management Group and subsequently, more worrying acronyms — ED, CBI — would follow. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves in this story of how cricket couldn’t handle money and fame.
Those were interesting times, the early days of Modi. The old-timers hated him. He was seen as an upstart. His Twenty20 venture bred mistrust. The maidan cricketers-turned-administrators in safari suits were slowly getting replaced by Armani-clad MBAs. The World Cup veterans of 1987 and 1996 — the ageing administrators who had greased palms, sought countless permissions from governments, worked on shoestring budgets from cubby holes to successfully host cricket’s biggest tournament — were seen as misfits in Modi’s project, IPL season one. They sulked silently. When they spoke, they bad-mouthed Modi. But the whispers would die soon as the IPL brought money, serious money. Franchise teams got sold for $725 million, and the television deal was worth $1 billion.
Not far from its old modest abode, the BCCI was now housed in a sprawling building next to the Wankhede Stadium, called Cricket Centre. When IPL stakeholders would meet Modi at the new headquarters, Bentleys, Mercedes and Rolls Royces sat in the parking area. The team owners had demands, some old, some new. While asking for passes for their celebrity friends and parking tickets for their VIP friends, they would casually inquire if the stadium had a helipad. Many would fly in from SoBo and be air-dropped at the training ground at the D.Y. Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai to see the Rajasthan Royals win IPL 1.
Cricket’s good old political takeover, which seemed unshakeably permanent for eternity and beyond, was now threatened by a corporate coup. Power equations, rules, culture and even the BCCI constitution — nothing was untouched by change. Cricket was in a tearing hurry, thanks to the Twenty20 format. The aesthetics of the game were sacrificed on the field. In the BCCI’s corridors, due diligence and institutional ethics were alien words. There was no time to sit and brood. It was time to make quick millions, virtually everyday. Even Modi-baiters were enjoying the new perks. They had plush offices and revised travel allowance/ dearness allowance at the end of business-class travel. That’s when everybody shut their mouths and, sadly for cricket, their eyes too.
The enfant terrible Modi was now the BCCI’s blue-eyed boy. It didn’t check his homework or his pocket money. Maybe he was too well connected to be questioned. That stingy spender, the BCCI, was now a stinking-rich squanderer. It was one big roaring party. Modi invited his friends and family in. There was no one stopping them at the gate, as everyone was part of the party. Old hand N. Srinivasan helped himself to one franchise, of course after the BCCI had collectively erased those all-important three words — conflict of interest. Now, everyone was connected to someone in the incestuous chain. Any indiscretion could be brushed under the carpet by putting in a word or by making a phone call to an uncle, father or father-in-law. And it is also why the Rajasthan Royals team is still part of the IPL, despite the taint on its players and owners. The Chennai Super Kings had an insider-trader in the dugout but still the franchise wasn’t ejected. The rulebook is still ruthless, but the rulers aren’t non-partisan.
BCCI insiders say that the reason the Modi chapter ended was because he became too brash and stepped on too many toes. There are those who say that he was outfoxed by the more ambitious and masterful vote-manager Srinivasan, combined with the fading power of his mentor, Sharad Pawar. Hardly anyone speaks about his financial misdeeds. This, despite the fact that a disciplinary committee, including senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, Congress MP Jyotiraditya Scindia and cricket administrator Chirayu Amin, would conclude that Modi rigged bids, arm-twisted certain franchises, signed a scam television contract and favoured his stepson-in-law in an internet deal.
Now consider this — Modi did all this while he was being watched by a high-profile governing council, plus the BCCI’s executive. Not to miss the fact that the governing council had the country’s best legal brains, top politicians and legends of the game. None spotted anything amiss while Modi was minting millions. Clearly, the checks and balances were either not there or were not effective. Later, even the Supreme Court, at the end of the IPL corruption case hearing, had appointed a committee to suggest structural changes and propose election reforms for the BCCI.
Despite the controversy, the IPL remains cricket’s most lucrative brand. And there are many, like the BCCI-contracted commentator Ravi Shastri, who still see Modi as Moses. Till recently, while living in London, the flamboyant cricket administrator would regularly receive invitations from universities and business schools to give lectures. A few years ago, during a casual meeting with us journalists on the tour of England, the one-time IPL chief spoke about enjoying his days away from cricket, watching top European football games from VIP boxes as a guest. For any sporting entrepreneur, brand-builder or start-up dreamer, Modi would remain a role model.
As for the IPL, it has many fans in the cricketing world. Fans outside speak about the IPL enviously. For players around the world, India during the early part of their season is El Dorado. Go to any academy and you will find kids with queries about trials organised by franchise teams. The IPL, without doubt, with Twenty20 perched at the top, has a towering presence over the cricketing world. But, time to read that disclaimer in fine print: It has very weak foundations.
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