N Srinivasan October 1, 2010

The inscrutable ruler of an impenetrable empire

The president-elect of the BCCI is a man who has made his way to the top of the most powerful cricket board systematically. And silently

If ever a movie was made about the rise of N Srinivasan, it would have to feature a scene reflecting the man's ambition.

The actor playing the man would be standing around with his aides in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) office and charting out before them the course of his destiny.

"All of you are fools," he would say, and then tell them how it was going to be. "First the treasurer, then the secretary, then vice-president, after which the President." Cutting through the deferential silence, the denouement would arrive with a drumroll, "Then I will try for the ICC."

That monologue would no doubt become like the "You just dropped the World Cup, mate" line. A tale so delicious that denying it would have no effect.

Expecting Srinivasan to offer views on the authenticity of that scene is like expecting the sphinx to break into an aria at sunset. Or maybe Ijaz Butt leading the ICC. Ain't going to happen.

In the last decade, though, it is Srinivasan, 64, who has himself emerged as Indian cricket's sphinx. Not the kind that hands out riddles, more the inscrutable ruler of an impenetrable empire.

It is how he operates. Whether it is his life in business as the head of the $770m India Cements or as the BCCI secretary who deals with the vast, heaving horde (us included) of the Indian cricket media, everything is at arm's length, all responses selective. Yuvraj Singh's astonishingly prescient recent observation comes to mind: "Not saying anything can sometimes be more powerful than talking." Yuvi, meet Srini.

As Srinivasan climbs into the shadow office of BCCI president-elect, he is a year away from claiming what many believe is a title he has sought and worked his way towards, methodically and silently.

Silence surrounds Srinivasan's world. It is both personality trait and defence mechanism. The day before he was officially installed as president-elect at the BCCI's AGM, his office in Chennai was wary about uttering even a word. Whether it was about how many clubs India Cements supported in league cricket (18?) or the boss' golf handicap (12?). The only words said were, "We'll tell you all tomorrow."

Srinivasan's tomorrow has arrived. The BCCI top job will put him, industrialist, TNCA president, owner of the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise, in charge of the richest, most powerful and most-pilloried cricket board in the world (excluding, of course, the PCB). It is this very description that has him entangled in a court case that has reached the Indian Supreme Court, over whether he can indeed be both IPL franchise owner and BCCI office-bearer. The case has been brought by former board president AC Muthiah, the man who mentored Srinivasan into cricket administration, only to be suddenly left in splendid isolation.

Not everything is quiet about Srinivasan, though. "Srini" may usually be a warm, chummy Chennai nickname of the sort that belongs to your bridge partner or neighbourhood DVD pirate, but in this case it takes on a tonal range found in Tamil movies. Those willing to speak about Srinivasan use a tense that can be called the "extreme continuous", which comes with a specific set of adjectives: "ambitious", "ruthless", "vindictive", "intelligent", "unemotional", "clever", "cunning".

Here, let the tale tell the story.

For all his association with the city of Chennai, Srinivasan arrived at the TNCA in 2001 as a representative of Vellore district, taking the solitary district vice-presidential slot available in the ranks. It is said he was reluctant to do so at the start but later made it work to his advantage. Much like Jagmohan Dalmiya strengthened his constituency in the ICC though the Asian bloc and smaller associate nations. Srinivasan clambered up the TNCA by getting the numbers behind him, starting with the 30 districts and the city's 100-plus vote-holding clubs. The nominal state vice-presidentship a year later was turned into the top job in 2002, when Muthiah completed the maximum allowed eight consecutive terms as president and nominated Srinivasan as his successor. As TNCA president, Srinivasan went to BCCI meetings willing to stay low-key and network, even if it meant standing for half an hour in a hotel lobby, sandwiched between a Jagmohan Dalmiya loyalist and an opponent discussing the intricate details of their circus operation.

When once asked about Srinivasan's influence and whether he would be able to stand up to player power, a player laughed and gave an answer that applies to everything in Indian cricket: "Srini deals with Tamil Nadu politicians on a daily basis. Who the hell are we?"

As Muthiah lost his influence and the BCCI presidency upon the return of Dalmiya, Srinivasan moved on, without a backward glance at ally or adversary. It is obvious that on Planet Srini all that matters is the moment and the move it requires. No wonder he became president of the All India Chess Federation, which is now taking apart a previous secretary and treasurer, PT Ummer Koya, in the Chennai High Court. No wonder that when his eight consecutive terms as the TNCA president were due to be up in June 2010, the TNCA voted in late 2009 to delete the one paragraph in their rule book which pertained to the limit on the maximum tenure of its office bearers. Now that the BCCI has identified former IPL commissioner Lalit Modi as its numero uno persona non grata, the slate listing Dalmiya's misconducts has merely been wiped clean. Cometh the moment, cometh the BCCI move.

A Tamil Nadu cricket insider describes Srinivasan as a streetfighter who will do anything to win. Those on his wrong side are neither forgiven or forgotten, but loyalists, he said, are looked after. "Money is never an issue. He doesn't cringe about spending." Subsidies given out to the districts are regularly increased, the clubs are catered to with equal generosity, keeping enough voters on his side in the next round of elections. After an annual accounts meeting, TNCA's paid staff, from the peon upwards, routinely receive six months' salary as bonus. It is an empire created out of patriarchy rather than pluralism. It is a message that will soon enough resound around the rank and file of the BCCI.

Srinivasan's first three years in the BCCI were spent checking the temperature of the waters, sending a flurry of letters to Dalmiya about a TV rights issue, and finally, after Dalimya was ousted, becoming BCCI treasurer in Sharad Pawar's 2005 board. His closest ally in those heady days? Lalit Modi. And so it goes.

This is a man who loves position and office - the higher and better, even if it means having to move through smaller ones. It would seem that Srinivasan collects "posts" like people do stamps, or perhaps, more appropriately, coins. Along with cricket and chess, he is a president also of the Tamil Nadu Golf Federation. He was once Sheriff of Madras, and it is obvious that the avalanche of titles on his CV will have shaken a few foundations in the cement-manufacturing business as well. India Cements' company website says he is a postgraduate in chemical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Businessweek has him down as a chartered accountant, and his office will, of course, confirm everything tomorrow.

Srinivasan's enemies in cricket - and their tribe can increase rapidly - say that cricket is merely a vehicle for him to further his business; not merely cement but shipping, power, sugar, trading and finance. And that all he does is driven by self interest. Those on his side, or on some neutral ground, say that he remains a "cricket person". India Cements is involved in club leagues in two cities, supports three clubs in Chennai's first division and one in Hyderabad, and close to a dozen others in other divisions.

The cutthroat corporate rivalry of Chennai first division clubs, in which rival companies "support" privately owned clubs, comes with generous salaries for frontline players, including Rahul Dravid, Hemang Badani and S Badrinath among others. One of India's more famous early-season "invitational" tournaments, the Moin-Ud-Dowla Gold Cup, is now sponsored by India Cements and called the Coromandel King Moin-Ud-Dowla Gold Cup, after a brand of cement. Many among the current India players, particularly those established and confident enough to speak to him, think of Srinivasan as the go-to man to sort out BCCI problems.

Harish Thawani, chairman of Nimbus Communications, which owns Neo Sports, the rights-holder to all cricket in India, admits to a few fractious business meetings with the man, but says, "On the professional side I have found Srini to be clear-headed and decisive," he says. "He loves the game and wants India to do well."

The practical administrator is also a superstitious man, now suddenly a believer in astrology and religious ritual, his chief advisor in those primordial arts being a man known across Chennai by the delightful name of Vaastu Venkatesan, who was introduced to Srinivasan, it is said, by Muthiah. The fates do move in mysterious ways.

As secretary, Srinivasan controlled almost everything in Indian cricket, which he did with maximum emailed announcements and minimum press. It was a job he relished, whether it was handling macro issues like tour fixtures or whether it was micromanagement like the appointment of umpires. As convenor of selectors Srinivasan held meetings briskly, kept them light and tight; those who attended say he would even throw in the odd one-liner.

Yet the most common cricketing criticism of the secretary (who will become president) is that all India selection leans towards his zone, and therefore, "his" players, from Tamil Nadu. Once again, in the House of Hush no selector is directly allowed to answer questions, and the chairman of selectors, K Srikkanth, also the Chennai Super Kings brand ambassador, blusters his way through any queries with a guffaw or a denial. One selector says, "Srini has had to take the most flak for Dinesh Karthik being a repeated replacement, but that's more to do with how much Gary [Kirsten] believes in DK". Kirsten, the India coach, thinks, the selector said, that Karthik is "India's best young batsman". Kirsten can't be contacted to test this theory because, along with being gagged by the BCCI, he instinctively censors himself.

As for his next round of ambitions, Srinivasan has already spent two years on the ICC's Chief Executives Committee, and one of those in the meetings says he was head and shoulders above the BCCI's previous representatives. "It was a massive difference" he says, though the standards Srinivasan improved could not have been at dizzy, exacting heights. An ICC official said, "He is a traditionalist but a flexible one. Remember, he was on the CEC that has pushed through the Powerplay, the UDRS proposals, an ODI league." Srinivasan counter-balanced Modi, the ICC man said. "Modi was over-ambitious, he jumped into every issue, he could be rude. Srinivasan has run a business, so he knows how to address an audience." Holding an argument may not make Srinivasan popular in the ICC, but "he's always prepared and thorough".

It is the labyrinthine politics of the BCCI, combined with the IPL's own complicated financial structures, that caused Srinivasan's two major slip-ups so far. Amending the BCCI's constitution over the franchise ownership issue as an afterthought remains questionable, despite having sought approval from the India Cements board. Srinivasan was BCCI treasurer when India Cements won the Chennai franchise, and by the time the event got underway he was secretary and one of the more important people on the IPL's governing council. Theoretically, not only could he be in the game, whether it was cricket or the valuations business, he actually belonged to the body that made its rules. In any other sport or industry, it's a classic conflict-of-interest scenario, but to the BCCI it's a mere glitch that keeps the lawyers of its powerful somewhat busy.

What has also been swept neatly away from Srinivasan's centre stage is an alleged Rs 25 million loss the BCCI sustained during his tenure as BCCI treasurer. It happened due to a lapsed bank guarantee from Zee Telefilms over a TV rights deal that was later cancelled. Dalmiya raised the issue in 2007, but the likelihood of its reappearance is just like that of that sphinx singing.

Srinivasan's adversaries must already be uneasy, and much of their hope rests on the Supreme Court case - whether its comment about his batting at both ends will be turned into an order. At worst, Srinivasan will have to make a choice between the company his immediate family owns and the cricket board he has spent a decade ascending.

The cricketers probably understand him best. When once asked about Srinivasan's influence and whether he would be able to stand up to player power, a player laughed and gave an answer that applies to everything in Indian cricket: "Srini deals with Tamil Nadu politicians on a daily basis. Who the hell are we?"

And Srini the Movie? Never mind that monologue, maybe it will have to be a silent one.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Santosh on October 4, 2010, 10:00 GMT

    Sharda, kudos on a fantastic article. A BCCI law was in place prohibiting administrators from being involved in commercial affairs of the BCCI. Mr Srinivasan demonstrating all his "ambitious", "ruthless", "vindictive", "intelligent", "unemotional", "clever", "cunning" qualities has simply used his political powers to get this rule amended. Once amended, now we have a cricket administrator who owns an IPL team through his ownership of India cements and who can also formulate IPL rules, player salays caps and policies that can benefit Team Chennai. What a genius. Eagerly awaiting the supreme court's verdict. Its an open secret that all club secretaries from TNCA are on Srinivasan's payrolls. Votes are bought, power and presidency is guaranteed, age old TNCA laws ammended to ensure this era of "ambitious ruthless" is never ending. We have all seen the rise and fall of the Dalmiyas and the Modi's - time will only tell how long before we see the next fall, supreme court verdict pending.

  • Sajin on October 4, 2010, 4:04 GMT

    I am not quite sure about Mr.Srinivasan. But, i really appreciate the way he is handling BCCI is admirable. The transparency in the selection with few exceptions like Dinesh Karthik, quest to clear the dust in IPL, all have made him reputable man in Indian Cricket. However, his own baby Chennai Super Kings ,while holding a position in BCCI and running CSK has not attracted goodwill to his credentials. Let's say, better than formers, and wait what he will do for Indian Cricket. I recently noted that number of ardent indian cricket pandits are mostly voting for the inclusion of former great cricket stalwarts like Javagal Srinath(presently ICC Match Referee) and Anil Kumble(Head of NCA). I believe this is really a good thought. Srinath & Kumble are well known for their selfless cricket life and an admirable persons throughout their entire cricket life and a reputed administrators. Hope for the best, and congrats to Mr.Srinivasan for his journey of elevation to BCCI Head.

  • johnny on October 3, 2010, 16:29 GMT

    I see a lot of 'State based' sentiments in reponse to Sharda's article. We really need to cut out such rubbish! Pls argue for or against the INDIVIDUAL being discussed - in this case, Mr Srinivasan, instead of bringing State (or for that matter, religion) into question. Let's discuss topics as ONE-INDIA. I have noticed state-based sentiments MOSTLY from TN fans - cut it out! I, for one, believe in 'TOTAL CRICKET' for India - that is, former Indian international players holding all posts within the cricketing administration instead of politicians! Pls kick out the Srinivasan's and the Modi's and replace them with people like Kumble, Gavaskar, Srinath and Vishy - people who understand the needs of Indian cricket rather than filling their own pockets!!!

  • sathish on October 3, 2010, 16:10 GMT

    Since when did cricinfo started posting these kind of articles???...it has always left these to the newspapers...please do not convert this great site for hate propaganda.

  • Mohammad on October 3, 2010, 7:36 GMT

    This article can be seen more as a personal agenda rather than honest journalism. Too much hatred toward a man who is actually nowhere near Powar, Modi in terms og allegated corruption.

    Can you please write a same like piece about Modi? That would have been more appropriate I guess. When too much allegation against Mr. Modi, hardly any writer want to write about this!

  • Karthik on October 3, 2010, 3:02 GMT

    Its really amazing to see how still the North Vs South point prevails even in the mindset of educated people. When Mumbai & Karnataka players were dominating Indian team everyone felt that deserved people got their chance. But when someone from TN get selected with Sreekanth as selectors everyone they feel suspicious. I still believe Dinesh Karthik is good in middle order but given chance only as opener and still no one sees this point. Why the so called Kohli, Sharma, Yuvraj bat as openers??? Also he is in team primarily as backup wicket keeper and batting is his added advantage. Comparing with the chances given to likes of Jadeja, Sharma, Ishant, Agarkar, I still believe DK should be given few more chances.

  • Rajan on October 2, 2010, 19:53 GMT

    Sharda needs to check her facts before writing such a big article about any person.Srini is MD of India cements as she mentions in the article.she just has to check the company site to know his educational qualification-B.Com, C.A, instead of confusing the educational qualifications of the erstwhile Chairman of India cements, N.Sankar , who is the Post Gradiate in chemical engineering from Illinois Inst.Tech, USA.

    Besides that, Sharda is more or less on the money.she has received reliable info about Srini from her sources.one thing she could have added is the fact that Srini is extremely close to the Maran Brothers, cabinet Minister-Dhayanidhi Maran and Sun TV Group head Kalanidhi Maran and their father, former Union Cabinet Minister for Industries-Murasoli Maran, who played a significant role in Srini wresting control of India cements from the other co -promoters, N.Sankar's family.

  • Dummy4 on October 2, 2010, 16:44 GMT

    Before the AICF affair this year I didn't know that he exists. He is just too cunning and will probably be end up like Lalit Modi. Btw he looks deliriously happy nowadays.

  • Dummy4 on October 2, 2010, 16:39 GMT

    why do you hate Mr.Srninivasan so much? I guess because you people dont like us, south Indians esp tamilians. When a Modi can make so much money from the IPL why cant Mr.Srinivasan who, as you have pointed out,has been associated with Indian cricket be the President of the BCCI? I dont understand why it is always said that Tamil Nadu players are selected to the national team because of Mr.Srini's influence or Srikanth being the chief selector. Our players deserve to be in the Indian team as good as Yusuf Pathan or Rohit Sharma or Ishant Sharma or the young "gun" Ravindra Jadeja do, or for that matter Ajit Agarkar who was always a regular in our team even though he didnt deserve it one bit. When the Mumbai and Karnataka players are picked ahead of our players who have better performances in the domestic matches, certainly Dinesh Karthik is a better player and more talented than them .

  • Rajul on October 2, 2010, 14:02 GMT

    There is no problems with a man like his stature and this is not an issue of south/west/east or north India. We all should be focussed to select best available players doesn't matter if all 11 belongs to single zone.Doubts about Dinesh Kartik are genuine.

    But I support Mr Sri to become BCCI's next president. Wish you all d best....:)

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