Frankly, it is too tempting not to start this Saturday’s National Interest with a we told you so. On May 10, 2008, K. Shriniwas Rao, then in the brilliant Indian Express sports bureau, laid bare clubby connections, convenient corporate morality and the many conflicts of interest in the IPL in a comprehensive story headlined, most aptly, ‘Indian Parivar League’.
It brought me an angry late night call from Lalit Modi. But not a single fact has ever been denied. I, as an incorrigible cricket and IPL enthusiast, also contributed my bit (‘Conflicts of Cricket’, National Interest, June 20, 2009). But the IPL environment was too testosterone- and cash-driven to bother about any such aberration. The BCCI, in any case, is the most cosily multi-partisan political body in India. One where arch antagonists such as Rajiv Shukla and Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and C.P. Joshi, can all work together with a team spirit they wouldn’t display even at the point of a gun in Parliament.
It was so arrogant at that point that when the Central government said it couldn’t guarantee security for the league, which coincided with national elections, within six months of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, instead of considering a rescheduling, the IPL moved to South Africa, unmindful that it would hurt India’s image. After all, the only other country to shift its cricket overseas on security grounds has been Pakistan.
Google the images of that edition of the IPL, and you will find the incredibly stupid and pompously legend in my own eyes image of Lalit Modi, giving away freebies from IPL profits to schools in black and underprivileged neighbourhoods after each match, as if he was the head of some oil-rich Gulf sheikhdom, or Mahatma Gandhi in a time machine. And IPL-controlled cameras and rented commentators followed his every movement as if he was Elvis Presley and Jerry Maguire, sorry Tom Cruise, rolled into one.
Then, when stuff hit the fan, as so many of us had feared and predicted, the other honchos of the BCCI got together and threw all the blame on Lalit Modi and sent him into exile in London.
But this article is not about Lalit Modi. Nor is it specifically about the betting/fixing scandal currently rocking the IPL. It is, in fact, about the institutional flaws in the way Indian sport’s finest and most valuable brand is being governed, its conflicts of interest that border on corporate fraud and a sense of cricketing permissiveness (let me emphasise again, we are only complaining about cricketing permissiveness, not the cheerleaders and late-night parties). This is also being written as the prime minister and finance minister give homilies on corporate governance at Sebi’s 25th anniversary function in Mumbai. If you asked Sebi to look into the goings-on at the IPL/BCCI, you might find Ranbaxy and iGate sparkle in comparison.
Also form: Conflicts of cricket
The usual suspects we named in that June 2009 article haven’t disappointed us. We had then spoken of the ridiculousness of a situation where the BCCI’s powerful secretary, N. Srinivasan, also owned an IPL franchise (Chennai Super Kings, or CSK), employed as his brand ambassador Krishnamachari Srikkanth, whom his BCCI also had as paid chairman of the national selection committee.
In fact, I had hesitated then in mentioning yet another coincidence, that Srikkanth’s son, Anirudha, was also in the CSK squad, because I didn’t want to be unfair to a youngster who may have made it on merit. But this kind of approach to conflicts of interest would make investors dump a company’s shares as fast as they have done with Kingfisher Airlines. To allow this in what is, after all, a non-profit society, was suicidal. That is what the IPL is paying for now.
And it is no surprise that hitting the headlines is Srinivasan, now as the all-powerful BCCI chairman, so powerful, in fact, that even the tiny electoral college of captains from Test-playing countries can only select his candidate as their representative on the ICC’s important Cricket Committee. And now he heads, probably, for an ignominious departure, and his son-in-law into the arms of police interrogators. This is some backdrop for his team to prepare for this Sunday’s final.
We can talk about much else that is wrong. But it is good enough to focus on the top, because everything flows from there. Remember how this year, after Tamil Nadu political parties objected to Sri Lankan players, the IPL decided to ban them from playing in Chennai, rather than shift the CSK’s games outside the state. In a way, it amounted to a giant fix, because unlike the CSK, several other teams had Sri Lankans as their key players. So, Hyderabad and Delhi had to play in Chennai without their captains (Sangakkara and Jayawardene), Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore without Malinga, Ajantha Mendis and Muralitharan, respectively. No such consideration was shown to Hyderabad when the Telangana agitation raged in 2010 and matches were shifted out of the state. Nobody would even suggest that, in fairness, the same treatment should have been given this year to the CSK.
In similar situations, two sets of rules were created for two franchises. And who can complain when one is owned by the big boss? In the Hindi heartland, they would call it a case of saiyyan bhaye kotwal, ab dar kahe ka… (my lover is the police chief, what do I worry about now). Further evidence of this institutionalised fix is not needed, but if you need convincing, remember, the BCCI being a non-profit society, had a constitution that barred any of its office-bearers from having a commercial interest in it. It was amended to specifically exclude the IPL. This is a most remarkable constitutional amendment to suit just one individual. And that is the gentleman staring at you from the headlines, along with his son-in-law, now.
Also read: Life, mind and times of Lalit Modi
How do we define this thing we call cricketing permissiveness, and which we are complaining about? It is whatever that takes players away from the serious business of playing, trivialises the game, and dilutes the cricketing side of the IPL.
The BCCI has to make a fundamental choice. Either the IPL is a serious cricketing league, on the lines of the EPL, or it is a tamasha, like WWE wrestling. Since the intention seems to be the former, because that is the only way you can build a large enough fan-base to satisfy advertisers and sponsors and create club and city loyalties, nonsense, like commentators talking to players while they are on the field, must stop. You will not see that anywhere in the world, in any sporting league that is taken seriously.
The owners must be denied access to the dugouts, limiting them to players and team staff. Where is the justification for two 2.5-minute strategic timeouts in a 20-over game? These break the momentum of what is supposed to be a really fast game. These also, truth to tell, give bookies and fixers more time to exchange notes and fine-tune their own strategies with their accomplices.
And finally, why do all IPL commentators have to be your own hired guns, who are paid not to speak independently? Why is there no discussion on a controversy the previous day? Why is no umpiring decision debated? Do you see such rented commentators bring the EPL to you? And why reduce your commentators, some of your most respected cricketers from around the world, into ridiculous jhampak-thampak comedians? You cannot bring about this Sidhu-isation of your entire television coverage and still expect the fans, and more importantly, the players, to take the game seriously.
It could be because of these factors that some of the delinquent players may have thought they were betraying no one in general, and the game in particular. The IPL is a serious cricketing league, not the cricketing equivalent of Bigg Boss, Jhalak Dikhla Jaa or any other such.
Some controversy hits the IPL every year. But this controversy is by far the most crippling. Because this has put the credibility of the very league in doubt. It has brought criticism and apprehension to the minds of all kinds of stakeholders, from politicians, who want to nationalise the BCCI or ban the IPL, to Pepsi, which may want out as its lead sponsor.
This time, the BCCI cannot blame a mere individual and hang him. Nor can it rely on the old cynical and lazy notion that cash will solve all problems. It has to clean up not just the IPL, but itself, make a promise of transparency and offer itself voluntarily to some kind of an impartial, outside oversight, if not RTI. Or the world will be laughing, not just at the IPL, but at Indian cricket, and India.