April 14, 2010

Enough with the secrecy

The Kochi franchise ruckus may finally force the BCCI into being transparent. About time too

Finally, it has happened - perhaps by accident than by design, but happened nonetheless. The world's fastest-growing sports league, recently valued at $4.1 billion, has revealed the shareholding pattern of one of its two new franchises. Lalit Modi has done the right thing in the wrong way - on his Twitter feed instead of in front of the media - and for reasons unknown, and there are at least three other franchises whose ownership pattern we would love to know.

But it's a start.

One of the main issues with the IPL has always been its transparency; not its threat to the rest of cricket, not its arrogance, nor even the obscene and slightly unreal regularity with which it announced multi-million-dollar deals, but its penchant for grey areas. So far the rest of the cricket world has played ball - and those who can't join 'em beat themselves in frustration. Now, though, the time has come for a change.

In its only official reaction to the Kochi case - the charges levelled by Shashi Tharoor against Lalit Modi, the letter from BCCI president Shashank Manohar to Modi and the latter's response - the BCCI has said it will meet within 10 days and discuss all pending issues. This is not good enough - and not just because one can predict the fate of such "discussions". There is, simply put, too much at stake - the reputation of some of the most powerful men in world cricket, to begin with - and too much muck flying around.

The charges against Tharoor are best handled by the political system; they are not really germane to cricket, except where they show up the inadequacies of the BCCI's/IPL's basic auditing and safeguarding process. Far more threatening to it are the charges levelled against Modi, a man who has, almost single-handedly, created a billion-dollar industry and changed the nature of cricket, a man whose genius - there is no other word - has transformed the lives of hundreds of people directly connected with the game, and thousands, millions, at several removes.

Yet such is the gravity of Tharoor's charges that, should they stick, all of that could be in danger - all those million-dollar deals, the billion-dollar valuations, the TV ratings, the de facto primacy of Twenty20 over other forms of cricket. Everything is at risk.

What does Tharoor - no ordinary member of the public but a minister in the federal government and formerly the No. 2 at the United Nations - accuse Modi of? These are extracts from his statement issued overnight: "Attempts were made by Mr Modi and others to pressure the consortium members to abandon their bid in favour of another city in a different state…" "His extraordinary breach of all propriety in publicly raising issues relating to the composition of the consortium and myself personally is clearly an attempt to discredit the team and create reasons to disqualify it so that the franchise can be awarded elsewhere." "The unethical efforts that have been made by Mr Modi and others to thwart the Kerala franchise which had been won fair and square in a transparent bidding process are disgraceful."

What Modi is being accused of is, effectively, subverting the rules of his own game, undermining the very system he had set up. It's one thing if he was the sole player - quite another when the stakes are as high as a $333.3 million franchise. It is for this reason that the BCCI - the custodian of the IPL and all Indian cricket - needs to act fast. This is a stone cast not just at Modi but at every individual on the IPL governing council, every member of the BCCI's working committee - and, by extension, every single person who has any stake in the IPL. And, indeed, the media.

For too long Indian cricket has been living in an unreal world. Unreal at various levels - the entire notion of the Indian board being a trust (and so saving millions of dollars in taxes), instead of a corporate entity sitting on a billion-dollar empire, or the notion of the IPL being a "domestic league"

This is not about one deal - the implications are far more serious. That is why it is important to get the truth out in the open, and get it out fast. This cannot - more importantly, should not - be brazened out, as is the BCCI's standard operating procedure in the face of any threat. This time the threat comes not from a clearly identified foreign board; it is from much closer home.

There are far too many questions surrounding the auction of the two franchises. Why was the auction deferred on the day it was supposed to have been held? The explanation for the deferment given at the time was that the financial clauses were too stringent. Was that not an issue in the days and weeks before that? The new bids were opened on March 21; the agreement with the Kochi consortium was signed on the night of April 10 - 20 days later. Why the delay? Correspondence between Shashank Manohar and Modi suggests the issue of ownership had been discussed - and questions raised - long before the shareholding pattern was revealed on Sunday afternoon. If there were doubts over the credibility of the successful bidders, could that not have been sorted out before the bids were opened? Could due diligence on the bidders not have been done? I am no legal or financial wiz, but it does strike me as common sense to do a basic fact-check before allowing someone to sit at your table and share in a very lucrative pie.

For too long Indian cricket has been living in an unreal world. Unreal at various levels - the entire notion of the Indian board being a trust (and so saving millions of dollars in taxes), instead of a corporate entity sitting on a billion-dollar empire, or the notion of the IPL being a "domestic league". It is time to get real, to play the part of one of the world's leading sports tournaments, among the most innovative and certainly among the richest. Forget the money, there are too many livelihoods riding on the IPL.

What should the BCCI do now? That's the tricky question. The Indian board doesn't have the credibility to ensure a thorough investigation of the Kochi case from within - that job could, given the money involved, be handed over to criminal investigators, as the opposition party, the BJP has suggested - but it could set the ball rolling by ensuring the nine other franchises declare their ownership structure. And making public its own accounts.

The regime of Manohar and Srinivasan, which has ruled over the Indian board for the past two years, has been likened to the Kremlin for the secrecy with which it operates. Well, now is the time for some perestroika and some glasnost.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India

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