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Ramachandra Guha

The serpent in the garden

The IPL is representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society

Ramachandra Guha
Ramachandra Guha
Vijay Mallya, the owner of Royal Challengers Bangalore, takes a stroll, Rajasthan Royals v Royal Challengers Bangalore, IPL 2011, Jaipur

Royal Challengers Bangalore owner Vijay Mallya: no M Chinnaswamy  •  AFP

I detest wearing a tie, and do so only when forced. One such occasion was a formal dinner at All Souls College, Oxford, where opposite me was an Israeli scholar who had just got a job at the University, and was extremely anxious to show how well he knew its ways and mores. He dropped some names, and spoke of his familiarity with the manuscripts collection at "Bodley" (the Bodleian Library). In between his boasts he kept scrutinising my tie. Then, when he could contain his curiosity no more, he walked across the table, took my tie in his hand, looked at it ever more closely, and asked: "Is this Magdalene?"
I did not answer. How could I? For the tie signalled not membership of a great old Oxford College, but of a rather more obscure institution, the Friends Union Cricket Club in Bangalore. I joined the club in 1963, aged five, because my uncle, a legendary one-handed cricketer named N Duraiswamy, played for it. I would go along with him for practice, stand by the side of the net, and at the end of the day be allowed to bowl a few balls from 12 yards or thereabouts. By the time I was ten I was helping lay the mat and nail it to the ground. When I reached my teens I was bowling from where everyone else did.
As a boy and young man, I was an episodic member of the Friends Union Cricket Club. In those years I was based in North India, and came south for my summer and winter holidays. In 1994 I moved to Bangalore for good. In the past two decades, I have watched FUCC win the First Division Championship three times, and seen a series of young players graduate from club cricket to representing the state in the Ranji Trophy. My club has produced two India internationals and at least 15 Karnataka players, all of whom I have known personally and/or watched play.
Largely because of Duraiswami - who has been captain or manager for 40 years now - FUCC enjoys a reputation that is high both in cricketing and ethical terms. No cricketer of the club has ever tried to use influence to gain state selection. Where other clubs sometimes adjust games to make sure they do not get relegated, FUCC does not resort to this. FUCC cricketers do not come late for practice, and never abuse the umpire. And they play some terrific cricket too.
FUCC was one of a dozen clubs that provided the spine of Karnataka cricket. The others included Jawahars, Crescents, BUCC, Swastic, Bangalore Cricketers, and City Cricketers. The men who ran those clubs were likewise personally honest as well as fantastically knowledgeable about the game. The cricketers they produced won Karnataka six Ranji Trophy titles, and won India many Tests and one-day internationals too.
This year I mark the 50th anniversary of my membership of the Friends Union Cricket Club. In this time, FUCC has commanded my primary cricketing loyalty; followed by my state, Karnataka, and only then by India. Six years ago, however, a new club and a new format entered my city and my life. I was faced with a complicated decision - should I now add a fresh allegiance, to the Royal Challengers Bangalore?
I decided I would not, mostly because I disliked the promoter. In cricketing terms, Vijay Mallya was the Other of Duraiswami. He had never played cricket, nor watched much cricket either. He had no knowledge of its techniques or its history. He had come into the sport on a massive ego trip, to partake of the glamour and celebrity he saw associated with it. He would buy his way into Indian cricket. And so he did.
It was principally because Mallya was so lacking in the dedicated selflessness of the cricketing coaches and managers I knew, that I decided the RCB would not be my team. So, although I am a member of the Karnataka State Cricket Association and have free entry into its grounds, I continued to reserve that privilege for Ranji Trophy and Test matches alone.
The KSCA Stadium is named for its former president, M Chinnaswamy, who was one of Duraiswami's heroes. When I was growing up, Durai would tell me of how Chinnaswamy supervised the building of the stadium, brick by brick. This great lover of cricket abandoned his lucrative law practice for months on end, monitoring the design, the procurement of materials, and the construction, with no cost over-runs and absolutely no commissions either.
The behaviour of Messrs Lalit Modi and N Srinivasan cannot shock or surprise me, but I have been distressed at the way in which some respected cricket commmentators have become apologists for the IPL and its management
In other ways too Chinnaswamy was exemplary. Never, in all the years he served the KSCA, did he try to manipulate a single selection. Later, when he became president of the BCCI, he met the challenge of Kerry Packer by increasing the fees per Test match tenfold. It was while he ran Indian cricket that our players were for the first time treated with dignity and paid a decent wage.
I wonder what Chinnaswamy would have made of his grasping, greedy, successors as presidents of BCCI. I wonder, too, what he would have made of a man who can't pay his own employees having a free run of the stadium that Chinnaswamy so lovingly built. This past April, the Bengaluru edition of the Hindu carried a front-page story on an summons that the Special Court for Economic Offences had issued to Mallya, who owed the Income Tax Department some Rs75 crores, or about $13.3 million, which he had not paid despite repeated reminders. The police, often waiving the rules for the powerful, told the court that they were too busy to execute the summons.
But let me not single out Mallya here. The truth is that almost all the owners of IPL teams (seven out of nine, by one estimate) are being investigated by one government agency or another, in one country or another, for economic offences of one kind or another. Since this is a shady operation run by shady characters, Indian companies known for their professionalism, entrepreneurial innovation, and technical excellence have stayed away from the IPL altogether. Here is a question for those who still think the tournament is worth defending - why is it that companies like the Tatas, the Mahindras, or Infosys have not promoted an IPL team?
To this writer, that the IPL was corrupt from top to bottom (and side to side) was clear from the start - which is why I have never exercised my right of free entry for its matches in Bengaluru. But as I watched the tournament unfold, I saw also that it was deeply divisive in a sociological sense. It was a tamasha for the rich and upwardly mobile living in the cities of southern and western India. Rural and small town India were largely left out, as were the most populous states. That Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, both of whom have excellent Ranji Trophy records, had no IPL team between them, while Maharashtra had two, was symptomatic of the tournament's identification with the powerful and the moneyed. The entire structure of the IPL was a denial of the rights of equal citizenship that a truly "national" game should promote.
The IPL is representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society. Corrupt and cronyist, it has also promoted chamchagiri (sycophancy) and compliance. The behaviour of Messrs Lalit Modi and N Srinivasan cannot shock or surprise me, but I have been distressed at the way in which some respected cricket commmentators have become apologists for the IPL and its management. Theirs is a betrayal that has wounded the image of cricket in India, and beyond. George Orwell once said: "A writer should never be a loyal member of a political party." Likewise, for his credibility and even his sanity, a cricket writer/commentator should keep a safe distance from those who run the game in his country.
What is to be done now? The vested interests are asking for such token measures as the legalisation of betting and the resignation of the odd official. In truth, far more radical steps are called for. The IPL should be disbanded. The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, played between state sides, should be upgraded, making it the flagship Twenty20 tournament in the country. Then the clubs and state associations that have run our domestic game reasonably well for the past 80 years would be given back their authority, and the crooks and the moneybags turfed out altogether.
Even now, in every city and town in India, there are selfless cricket coaches and administrators active, nurturing young talent, supervising matches and leagues. The way to save Indian cricket is to allow these modern-day equivalents of Duraiswami and M Chinnaswamy to take charge once more.

Historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha is the author of A Corner of A Foreign Field and Wickets in the East among other books