March 2006

Today India, tomorrow the world

Anand Vasu profiles Lalit Modi, India's new power broker and the ICC's enemy No. 1

Anand Vasu profiles Lalit Modi, India's new power broker ... and the ICC's enemy No. 1

Lalit Modi - not just an Asian businessman, but a world player © Getty Images
When Jagmohan Dalmiya's bottom was unceremoniously unglued from his near proprietary position on the seat of power in Indian cricket last November, a question fi rst began to do the rounds: just who was Lalit Kumar Modi, and more pertinently, who the hell did he think he was, emerging from nowhere and trampling all over the greybeards that had been masters of the board for decades? If you have ever wanted something so badly that it hurt, then got it and discovered that it hurt even more, you may understand what makes Modi tick.

The rise and rise of Modi is the kind of story that would have been dismissed as fanciful had a Hollywood scriptwriter tried to sell it to a producer. Modi's forays into Indian cricket began with the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA), which had been ruled by the Rungta family for as long as anyone could remember. The Rungtas had held every known post of any importance in the Indian board (BCCI) and treated Rajasthan as their own fiefdom.

Modi, who had been learning the Machiavellian manoeuvring inside the BCCI under the able tutelage of Punjab's Inderjit Singh Bindra, overthrew the Rungtas via the courts. That in itself caused few ripples, for cricket had truly gone to the dogs in Rajasthan. In short the RCA was ripe for the picking. Modi took it.

It was here that the fi rst indications about Modi's personality emerged but, surprisingly, went largely unnoticed. Sure, clean management was at the heart of the RCA's success but equally Modi was not shy of using his clout with people in power to apply pressure on corporates to cough up the cash. Why else would anyone pay £1,600 for a single seat in the corporate boxes to watch India thrash Sri Lanka? Even Ashes black-market tickets did not sell for that much.

Having emerged as a mover in Indian domestic cricket, with a playground to cut his teeth in, the next step came in late November when anti-Dalmiya forces rallied around for what would turn out to be the most acrimonious board election in decades. Modi threw the RCA's weight - and the services of his immensely talented and manically driven staff and army of lawyers - behind managing the campaign to overthrow Dalmiya. Before Dalmiya knew it a virtual parallel BCCI was running out of a Kolkata hotel and the opposition was running its election campaign like one for the seat of chief minister of a state. When the opposition group swept the polls with an unprecedented 20 votes, Modi emerged, grinning triumphantly as one of the youngest-ever BCCI vice-presidents.

It is here that the story suddenly ceases to be straightforward. Once in harness the Modi machine broke into a breakneck gallop. The marketing committee awarded television rights, sold a shirt sponsorship deal bigger than anything Chelsea or Juventus have managed and put policies in place in the time the BCCI usually takes to convene a meeting and have a cup of tea.

Suddenly no one was sure what Modi was up to. Every time he popped up in public - and he was not shy of being on TV - he appeared cocky, arrogant and utterly insufferable. He treated cricket as a business, not a sport, the Indian team as a brand, not a team. He wanted to take Indian cricket's most successful product - games against Pakistan, Australia and to a lesser extent England - and reproduce it in large quantities on an assembly line, ignoring anything less profitable. At best this is inspired by shortsightedness - a disregard for the well-being of countries whose cricket does not draw in the megabucks - and an obsession with monetising Indian cricket and exploiting the brand for all its worth. At worst it is a rampant disregard for what the game means to people around the world.

Modi bangs on about how he is merely trying to make Indian cricket the money it deserves. That every extra million is needed so it can be pumped back into the grassroots. He screams about transparency to anyone still around to listen when he has done beating his chest about the millions he has made for Indian cricket. If Dalmiya was bigoted and acted unilaterally because of the votes he controlled in the ICC, Modi is blinded by the fi nancial clout India wield on the world stage. You can say most things to Modi and get away with it but calling him the new Dalmiya is the one thing that will ensure you are permanently in his bad books.

This latest Indian cocktail is one part visionary, one part madcap, chased down with cockiness and a dash of contempt. If world cricket can sip it carefully, there could be a giddy high to be had at the end of a long, tiring evening. But it is just as likely to end in a painful hangover with no simple remedy.

This article was first published in the March issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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