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Back in Control of Cricket in India

The Indian Premier League ends tonight. The stint of its tainted commissioner Lalit Modi is likely to end a day later. After that, the turf, changed as it is, will once again return to the powers of old, writes Anand Vasu.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2010 00:16 IST
Anand Vasu
Anand Vasu
Hindustan Times

The best place to begin any introduction is the name. Meet the BCCI —The Board of Control for Cricket in India. Not the Board for Control of Cricket in India, which would make logical and grammatical sense, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India. There are many theories about how the body that governs India’s most popular sport got its name, but none makes any sense.

In its current construction, though, the operative word is control, and not cricket. And today, with IPL Gate providing a powerful lens with which to shine a light on the BCCI, that one fact comes through more clearly than anything else: like all battles, this one is about control.

A history lesson won’t be out of place here. Way back in 1926, when the concept of a free India was still only that, two men from the Calcutta Cricket Club, claiming to represent India’s interests, took the steamboat to England to attend a meeting of the Imperial Cricket Conference. They were permitted to speak for a nation that didn’t yet exist as a sovereign state, and the seeds of a revolution eight decades in the making were sown.

From an association with no defined purpose to the richest sports body in country, and the richest cricket board in the world, the BCCI’s rise has been equal parts serendipity and cunning.

Compared to today’s shenanigans, the early luminaries that led India’s cricket body were positively angelic. At a time there was no money in the game, they worked for the development of sport. Still, our obsession with administrators is evident in that at least three grounds — the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai and the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore — are named after former board presidents.

Rise of the treasurer

The first seminal shift in the way cricket was run and the Indian board’s functioning occurred late in the day, coinciding with the year India won the 50-over World Cup in 1983. A wicketkeeper of modest abilities and a man fast making a name for himself in his family’s construction business, Jagmohan Dalmiya, was elected treasurer of the Board. Working closely with then-ally and later sworn enemy Inderjit Singh Bindra, Dalmiya ensure that the 1987 World Cup came to India.

More critically, Dalmiya won a landmark judgment in the courts, asserting the BCCI’s ownership of the telecast rights to cricket played in the country. Suddenly, from a situation where the BCCI had to cajole, plead and sometimes pay broadcasters to air cricket matches, they were sitting on a gold mine.

Having hit pay dirt, Dalmiya was unstoppable. He taught cricket administrators how to make money, but at no stage did his ambition stretch to taking the game to a new level. All he was interested in were incremental gains — if TV rights sold for Rs 20 crore one year, he’d aim for 25 crores the next time around.

What Dalmiya was after really, was control. With a flawed democracy ensuring that all that counted at the end of the day were the votes of 28 affiliated state units, Dalmiya became a master of winning BCCI elections. Even after he became the first Indian president of the International Cricket Council, Dalmiya had his man installed at the helm of Indian cricket, and never loosened his grip on the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB). When an interviewer asked him why, after reaching the pinnacle of administration in the world game, he still wanted to run Indian cricket, his answer was : “What will I do, if I don’t run Indian cricket?”

Pawar-point cricket

The first signs of change came in 2004, when Sharad Pawar, flanked by Bindra and Lalit Modi, launched a campaign to overthrow Dalmiya. In the most contentious election in history of the cricket board presidency, Dalmiya held on to power by the most tenuous of threads. Ranbir Singh Mahendra, Dalmiya’s candidate, polled 14 votes to Pawar’s 15, but Dalmiya tied the lot with his vote as president, and then won 16-15 by using his casting vote. Already, he had voted twice, as representative of the Cricket Association of Bengal and the National Cricket Club. For the first time in his life, Pawar had lost an election.

But the retribution was swift and methodical. In 2005, the Pawar faction, powered by Modi’s army of lawyers, ran the BCCI poll campaign as though running for the office of the president of the United States. All potential voters were billeted in a five-star hotel in Kolkata two days before the polls. No state body representative was allowed anywhere near Dalmiya. The fence sitters were lured and the reluctant brow-beaten into falling in line.

Now, Pawar became the first serious career-politician to head the BCCI. As a cabinet minister, he had plenty on his plate, but this did not prevent him from putting together a team of Dalmiya-haters to run Indian cricket.

BCCI Modi-fied

One of the unprecedented things the Pawar camp did was make public a Vision Document for Indian Cricket. Sample the first paragraph:

“Some of the happenings during the last few years have grievously dented the board’s image. Our first priority should be to restore its glory by creating confidence among the followers of the game ... the question being asked is, as the richest body in world cricket, has it fulfilled its obligations towards the players and paying public? For that we all need to introspect and touch our hearts before saying “yes, we have.”

Ironic, wouldn’t you say, that Pawar should come to power on the plank of transparency, only for that very catch word to bring down his protégé five years down the road.

With Pawar at the helm, the manner in which the BCCI functioned changed. To begin with, Modi was made the money-man —single-handedly responsible for all deals.

He began with television rights and drove such a hard bargain that the money Dalmiya brought to Indian cricket looked like small change. A shirt-sponsorship deal that was worth more than what Juventus or Manchester United could garner, followed and Modi was well on his way. Every aspect of Indian cricket was monetised, and the word ‘exploitation’ suddenly meant a good thing as it referred to making the most of the rights one owned.

What followed, however, was the first instance of a BCCI tussle being taken out of the constitution of the board and into the hands of a governmental agency. The Pawar faction accused Dalmiya of misappropriating funds to the tune of 20-odd lakhs from the CAB. An FIR was filed and Dalmiya summoned by the police for questioning.

Pawar’s reign changed the way the board functioned. From an old boys club, it became a platform where politicians converged to crush all dissent. Where previous Board presidents handed out favours to state associations, the new dispensation demanded loyalty and got it. The old checks and balances and the red tape was cut to adopt a two-pronged approach: going corporate in the form of Modi and his commercial deals and autocratic in the way the rest of the Board bowed to Pawar.

Premier leak

All went swimmingly well till Modi hit upon his billion-dollar baby, the IPL. Just as this took the game to the next level — increasing the inflow of money ten-fold, to the extent where each association could afford to build a new stadium, rather than just perform running repairs —it made Modi more important than some of the officials in the Board themselves. Modi still reported to the president, but the reality on the ground was something else.

The old boys had brought in an outsider and he had grown to be bigger than them. He no longer consulted them when making decisions, and before they knew it, had control of the BCCI purse strings.

Even as whispers of a power struggle in the Board grew, with the old guard of president Shashank Manohar and secretary N. Srinivasan on one side and Modi, backed by Pawar and Bindra on the other, a Tweet on the ownership details of the Kochi IPL team set off a pressure point. Just as a car crash in his backyard brought the world into Tiger Woods’ bedroom, a Tweet and its fall-out turned governmental agencies against Modi.

They’re smarting now, Manohar and Srinivasan, but when the dust settles, and Modi is long gone, it will be back to business as usual, perhaps in millions instead of billions of dollars and the Board of Cricket will be back in Control.

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