Giles Clarke's empire strikes back
Could Lalit Modi have been the saviour of English cricket? Such a notion seems as preposterous as Darth Vader turning out to be the hero in Return of the Jedi, but if Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, gets his way, he won't ever get a chance to prove his true intentions. Fuelled by a personal antipathy that is perhaps unmatched at cricket's highest levels, and armed with evidence of a "rebel" plan to "destroy world cricket", Clarke has swung the boot while his nemesis is down, and sought to crush any uprising in its infancy.
The bombastic language in Clarke's email to the BCCI president, Shashank Manohar, and the excitable reaction in the media following the board's subsequent show-cause notice to Modi, would make one assume that the ECB had unearthed a plot so despicable it put all those other charges of fraud and money-laundering firmly in the shade.
All that has happened, however, is that a familiar ECB refrain has been rehashed - the only difference is that the tune is this time being whistled by a national hate-figure. Modi's stunning success in the three-season history of the IPL has left many in English cricket deeply suspicious and fearful of the power he was able to wield, and the speed of his comeuppance has delighted the vast majority of the country's traditionally-minded fans. Clarke, whose popularity isn't exactly sky-high either, has figured that to take on his enemies' enemy is a good means of winning a few extra friends.
Admittedly, that number is unlikely to include the bosses of the nine counties with Test grounds, whose intentions he has once again dangled in the public domain, but that won't bother him in the slightest. Clarke has long been at loggerheads with most of the names on the email circulated by Yorkshire's chief executive, Stewart Regan, in which the minutes of the "secret" meeting in Delhi on March 31 were outlined, because they represent the most progressive elements of a game that Clarke and his cronies on the ECB Board are determined should remain rooted in the 19th century.
Two years ago, this exact same scenario was played out in the English media, when Keith Bradshaw of the MCC and Surrey's David Stewart drew up a "discussion document" outlining a nine-team English Premier League that could, given half a chance, have provided the ECB with a viable rival to the IPL (which had just completed its memorable first season), while at the same time safeguarding the future of county cricket as a whole.
However, Clarke's response on learning of the proposal was to dump the document in the BBC's inbox, and before it had been read the whole idea was up in smoke. Lancashire's Jim Cumbes - another man copied in on the Delhi minutes - reacted to that move by resigning as chairman of the county chief executives, stating that his colleagues had been gripped by "panic and paranoia".
Clarke clearly intends the same to happen again, and in taking his attack not only to Modi but to IMG, the event management company that is "alleged" to have facilitated the Delhi meeting (as if such a meeting is a crime), it is as if he believes that righteous indignation alone will carry the day. But what he fails to accept - because he surely isn't blind to the reality of the situation - is that this issue simply will not go away. It will keep returning to the table, again and again, in whatever form it requires for change to be allowed to take place.
While the ECB fiddles, the counties are going bust. The England cricket team can do no more to boost the coffers - its schedule is already at breaking point - while the widespread belief among those who were privy to the Delhi meeting is that the bloated and substandard Friends Provident T20, which will be boring cricket fans throughout the prime weeks of June and July, is a cop-out designed to appease the game's have-nots.
What matters most to chief executives of all counties, but most particularly those with the largest stadia and hence the greatest overheads, are bums on seats, and as Bradshaw and Stewart told Cricinfo in February, in the wake of Hampshire's decision to join the Rajasthan Royals franchise, the chance for a sympathetic reform of English cricket has in all likelihood been and gone. India's market has taken off so dramatically in the past two years that any strategy that seeks to exclude it is doomed to failure. But those in the best position to exploit it also happen to be the very same counties with the capacities to attract the biggest and best matches.
Slowly but surely, the have-not counties seem to be coming round to that way of thinking as well. Essex's chief executive, David East, who recently expressed an interest in staging Twenty20 matches at the Olympic Stadium in East London, has joined a working group, chaired by Bradshaw, which intends to take a broad look at the structure and finances of every aspect of the English game, starting with the bidding process for Test and ODI matches, but extending inevitably to the Twenty20 question.
With a bit of forethought, and a shelving of the paranoia, all this could easily translate into a virtuous circle for English cricket. As Regan states in the minutes of the Delhi meeting: "India see England as the PIVOTAL partner in a Northern Hemisphere / Southern Hemisphere deal ... They are absolutely convinced we are sitting on a goldmine!" No other country can provide the venues and the climate to play top-level cricket in the Indian off season, and as the roaring success of last year's World Twenty20 demonstrated, the English time zone is a perfect fit for the Asian market as well.
In fairness to Clarke, he seemed to have recognised the value of his product when he refused to accept anything less than a 25% share in the negotiations over the Champions League. However, the fact that Modi refused to play hard-ball says more about the poisonous nature of their relationship than anything else, because as Regan adds in his minutes, that very contract remains unsigned and the offer is still on the table.
Right now, Modi is being portrayed as the devil incarnate by administrators and media in England and India alike, but for the men who gathered in Delhi in an "educational capacity", he is widely admired as a visionary - and whether or not any of the myriad charges against him are proven, the essence of what he has achieved with the IPL cannot be denied.
Clarke, however, has chosen to mix the business of English cricket with the pleasure of watching his foe squirm. By using the counties' fact-finding as yet more mud to sling in Modi's eye, he's hoping to discredit both in one well-aimed shy. He might well have helped to take out the man, but the plan is sure to endure. For the sake of English cricket, it has to.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.