April 20, 2010

The crisis the IPL needed

The controversy surrounding the league is a chance for the Indian board to set its house in order

It's ironic that the Indian Premier League's most compelling week, cricket-wise, has been overshadowed by events off the field. But it is perhaps appropriate. In the noise and the din that the IPL has generated, cricket has often felt like a sideshow. From the very beginning, the IPL's creators have chosen to measure its success on the yardsticks of money, clout and glitz; and the attendant side-effects are now threatening the future of the league. There is no pleasure in saying it, but there has always been an inevitability about this.

The coming days may tell how deep the malaise runs and how far-reaching its impact will be, but for everyone in a position of power in Indian cricket, this is a moment of truth. That the matter was precipitated by two Twitter-happy protagonists lends it a touch of caricature, but the questions it raises about the governance of cricket by the game's most powerful, and important, organisation, go far beyond Lalit Modi.

The allegations against Modi are serious. They have been made by a stake-holder in the IPL, and on the front page of a leading business newspaper in India; each day the papers carry, in stark detail, fresh allegations of collusion, cover-ups, and underhand patronage.

But no evidence has been offered yet to back these, so that's what they remain, allegations. Government agencies will go about their investigations at a pace of their choosing. And Modi must, as he has threatened, sue to clear his name if he has been wronged. But it is now incumbent on the BCCI to not only investigate the specific allegations but turn the whole affair into a broad self-enquiry. And fast.

The entire system, and not one person, stands complicit if things have gone wrong. Modi's profile, self-created and obsessively nurtured, makes him the most visible target, and his brusque manner has earned him some powerful enemies, but who allowed him to acquire the omnipotence that he has been perceived to have?

In that, this is both a wake-up call and an opportunity. Certainly, the BCCI, and the IPL governing council, have men in their ranks capable of the task. Both Shashank Manohar, the BCCI president, and Arun Jaitley, are lawyers; N Srinivasan, the board's secretary, runs a huge business of his own; in MAK Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, they have three former cricketers of considerable repute. But will there be the will?

In the best case, the IPL has been a cosy club. In the worst, it is collusion of self-interest. Srinivasan owns a franchise; Gavaskar and Shastri also have commentary contracts with BCCI and the IPL, apart from being influential columnists in newspapers; the chairman of the national selection committee is a brand ambassador for a franchise. And this is merely what is publicly known. Whispers abound about proxy ownerships, offshore deals, relatives and friends. Even more than will, does the governing council have the credibility?

It is likely that an expedient solution will be found. Those familiar with the Indian political system, and indeed any political system, will know the broad contours of this. A politician besieged by a controversy is often banished to temporary obscurity before the inevitable rehabilitation. It is possible that some positions and power equations will change in the IPL. Modi may even lose both his positions, or have his influence curtailed. But all that will be a fudge.

It shouldn't be forgotten that without Modi's enterprise and drive, the IPL wouldn't have come into being. That he was allowed to run it as an oligarchy is a indictment of the system

Nothing will be gained from merely finding a fall guy. If it is considered a good idea to carry on with the IPL, it shouldn't be forgotten that without Modi's enterprise and drive, the tournament wouldn't have come into being. That he was allowed to run an oligarchy is a indictment of the system. That is what the BCCI needs to address.

At one level, they must conduct a thorough, transparent investigation, involving professional agencies if required, which either allows those charged with impropriety or financial misconduct to be punished adequately, or walk away with their heads high. But more importantly, they must seek to establish a system with in-built checks and balances, where deals are struck transparently and accountability is not merely a notion.

Without doubt, the IPL is the single most significant development in the game since World Series Cricket, and the changes it has brought about have been even more seminal. Even the direst IPL sceptics will not deny its sway over a growing number of fans, whose sole interest in cricket centres around the IPL. Sports must take care of their followers, and the IPL has built itself a massive constituency.

But a far more fundamental question confronts the BCCI. It is an age-old question. Does, and should, a sport exist to make money, or should it make money to exist?

For over a decade, India has been a country in a hurry. Economic growth has been robust, and its relative immunity from the global recession proved that it has acquired internal strengths. It is a country bustling with entrepreneurial energy and ambition. In many ways, the IPL is symbolic of India's growth and the desire to stamp its will on the world.

However, to a great extent the IPL has also been overrun by its eagerness to measure up, in financial terms, to sports leagues that have been around for years and have had the opportunity to grow organically. Its value has been driven up by speculation rather than sound business logic. Everything surrounding it has been marked by excesses. And at many levels its growth has seemed both unreal and unsustainable.

Seen in that light, this is crisis that the IPL needed. How well it is used will decide its future.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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