September 26, 2013

From pioneer to pariah

There is no one in the BCCI with Lalit Modi's marketing savvy, but don't shed any tears for his expulsion. He was far from an innocent victim

About an hour after the BCCI decided to expel Lalit Modi, Ravi Shastri - who had once famously hailed him as a cricketing "Moses" - was welcoming the teams out onto the pitch at Jaipur for a Champions League Twenty20 match. The irony was inescapable: the BCCI had moved on from Modi, the man who had set it on its very lofty and power-fuelled pedestal. Without any sentiment or ceremony, the bus had moved on, with a different driver at the wheel.

The temptation today is to feel bad for Modi, a man who was essentially strung up and lynched - "scapegoat" is too mild a word - by his peers and his bosses. It is common knowledge, borne out by the hundreds of thousands of pages of documents Modi submitted as evidence in his defence to the BCCI, that Modi's running of the IPL was not in the shadows of the BCCI nor without the formal approval of the league's governing council.

Anonymity was not Modi's style - he flourished in the limelight and usually the light was bright enough to dazzle his bosses and peers. As Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, a member of the governing council in those early years, put it, "We were carried away with how well everything was going." And officially Modi was only the chairman of a board committee. It can even be argued that only few of the transgressions he was charged with took place without the express or tacit approval of those above him. The "cosy club", as he called it, gave him a long rope - and then hanged him with it.

But Modi was no innocent victim. He was ruthless, manipulative, politicking, interested only in the bottom line and in maximising his cause. If you were not with him, you were against him - and if you were against him you didn't stand a chance. He made enemies in the media, on other boards, in government. He even went against his own colleagues. In short he was the forerunner to N Srinivasan, the current BCCI president and Modi's bête noire.

It's fair to say that without Modi there wouldn't have been a Srinivasan - not in the literal sense, for he would still have been the BCCI president but without the priceless bargaining chip that is the IPL.

Rewind almost exactly six years ago, to September 24, 2007. One ill-judged shot by Misbah-ul-Haq gave India the World Twenty20, a tournament they were reluctant to enter. Within weeks the IPL - already formally announced - was rolling; within months the first sale of franchises had netted around $700 million and the TV and sponsorship deals an additional $2 billion. The first player auction in February 2008 yielded several millionaires, and by the time the first season started in April, the stage was well set. All of this - and the pathbreaking deals to come - was down to Modi's vision and his ability to see it through. An indulgent board looked the other way, happy to count the unprecedented money headed its way.

The problems were too often overlooked or, when they were too glaring, ignored. The first came with the allocation - or auction - of the franchises themselves. Some went to Modi's friends, some went to the BCCI's friends, and one went to its secretary. Everyone knew what had happened but the bus was too big to slow down. A bigger problem - and one that is haunting and hurting the BCCI and Modi to this day - lay in the remarkable last-minute move of the 2009 IPL from India to South Africa, a move necessitated by India's general elections being held at the same time. Modi had to bow before the political elite but proved a point with that stunning rescheduling of the tournament an entire continent away; he did so, it now appears, by allegedly failing to observe the complexities of India's financial and currency laws.

Modi was no innocent victim. He was ruthless, manipulative, politicking, interested only in the bottom line and in maximising his cause. If you were not with him, you were against him. In short he was the forerunner to N Srinivasan

There were stories galore of rules being changed, made up, and abandoned at the last minute, to accommodate one or other interest. Any reporter whose pitiful job it was to cover the IPL in those Modi years will tell you of being asked by his editor to verify some IPL rule and then spending hours on the job with little success. An email exchange between Modi and Srinivasan, written two days before the 2009 auction, shows how Modi manipulated matters - including dealing with an angry Shane Warne - so that Andrew Flintoff, then a prized catch, would join Srinivasan's team and not Warne's. When Modi informed Srinivasan of what he'd achieved, the response was remarkable: "Thanks. You are most sweet. Srini."

The screws were already tightening on Modi, though. Srinivasan by then had his sights set on the BCCI presidency and, perhaps aware that the board was big enough for only one of them, had begun clamping down on Modi's powers, especially his powers to sign cheques. By then it was also clear that the IPL, which at its inception was almost a punt, was now the hottest property in the sport and everyone wanted in on it. The auction of two new franchises the next year proved the final straw in the relationship. Modi's antipathy to Kochi's investors getting a franchise, at the expense of more high-profile candidates, led to his alleged bullying and threatening, culminating in the indiscreet tweet that cost him his job.

Today the IPL rolls along, hamstrung by controversies that are a legacy from Modi's time at its helm. Apart from the severe crisis of credibility wrought by the fixing cases is the awareness that at some point in the near future the tournament will need a rethink just to keep pace with changing viewer behaviour. And that in the next couple of years some of the big-money deals will be up for renegotiation.

It can safely be said that there is no one in the BCCI with Modi's imagination and marketing savvy - nor, indeed, his ability to smell money where none exists. Srinivasan is a bully bean-counter; the other heavyweights are politicians with their eyes on bigger prizes. Moses has merely led his latter-day Israelites halfway to their promised land; they will have to negotiate the rest of the journey on their own.

As for Modi, it is possible that, like the prophet, he will spend the next 40 years wandering the desert, blinded by his own brilliance. Don't feel sorry for him - he has bequeathed us Srinivasan.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo in India

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