Indian Premier League 2010 April 25, 2010

Lalit's last hurrah

Modi made the dangerous mistake of trying to become bigger than the system that created him. The system has now ruthlessly cut him to size

It couldn't have got more surreal. After staying away from him most of the evening, the camera panned on Lalit Modi during the concluding minutes of the IPL final. He sat a few feet away from the boundary, dressed, as he always does, in a suit that is so incongruous for the Mumbai summer. He tried to look as if he didn't know the camera was on him, but it was apparent he knew. There was a self-conscious gleam on his face. It hid the storm that raged outside, and must have within too.

It would be only be a matter of minutes before he would be stripped of everything that he had so bloody-mindedly built. He had fancily designated himself the chairman and the commissioner of the Indian Premier League: in reality, he was the impresario, making and breaking his own rules; pulling every string; and running the enterprise as if it belonged to him. So bedazzled was Ravi Shastri, who used to be a fine commentator, that he hailed Modi as Moses. And somewhere along the way, Modi began to believe his own propagandists; nothing about IPL was ever lesser than the greatest, apart from Modi himself.

Of course, the seas didn't part. Modi's fall has been even more swift and spectacular than his rise. For sure, he will not go without a fight. Like a prisoner about to be executed, he got his final words at the presentation ceremony and he made a production of it. Throughout the past few days, when stories about dodgy deals, income tax raids, and political wrangling flooded newspapers and news television, the IPL broadcasters had pretended to be oblivious. But Modi wasn't about to let the opportunity slip. If you were still a believer, he delivered a rousing speech, full of indignation, righteousness, self-congratulation, and playing to the gallery.

It was part farewell speech, part declaration of war, for which he solicited support. He called the IPL the Indian Peoples League, invoked the Gita, and played both saviour and martyr. He then presented the trophy to MS Dhoni - it was impossible to miss the irony of the situation, for Dhoni captains the team owned by N Srinivasan, the BCCI secretary, and the man in the forefront of the oust-Modi campaign - posed briefly for photographs before disappearing into the night.

The IPL has created a new constituency for itself, but those who have been around wouldn't miss the irony about the circumstances of Modi's fall. Three years ago Jagmohan Dalmiya, who pioneered the commercial rise of Indian cricket, was hounded out from the BCCI over charges of corruption and embezzlement. Among those arrayed against him, Modi was the shrillest, announcing on one occasion that Dalmiya would be sent to jail.

Modi has now been dumped even more unceremoniously, and the charges against him are far more severe. Among other things he has been accused of fixing the auctions; of creating slush funds; manipulating broadcast deals - the payment of a facilitation fee, otherwise known as commission, being the most tangible of them all. All of these are unproven of course, and it is unlikely that Modi would be without his own ammunition, but Modi made the dangerous mistake of trying to become bigger than the system that created him. The system has now ruthlessly cut him to size. Arguably, he has been singled out somewhat perversely, but there is poetic justice in what has happened to him and no tears should be shed for him.

The IPL represents the best and worst of India. It is at once a demonstration of Indian enterprise and confidence, as it is, as borne out the recent events, of sleaze and moral turpitude that has never gone away.

While watching the IPL final it was impossible not to feel this conflict. The cricket was both absorbing and of high quality; the stands were full and without doubt millions more were watching the game on television. Both, the intensity of the players and the engagement of the fans, felt real. But at another level, it was so unreal. As the winners had their merry dance on the podium and fireworks lit the sky, Modi was being served his suspension letter.

It is unlikely that we have seen the worst of the IPL yet. The tragedy is that it didn't have to be this way.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo