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