Modi shaped the financial growth of Indian cricket and helped bring it to a position of global dominance.The ultimate insider, now on the outside, provides a unique perspective to the state of the sport
By Siddhanth Aney
Securing the perimeter is, perhaps, a military phrase. It refers to the act of setting up a secure defensive perimeter so that those within stay protected and those without cannot gain admittance. We begin our story with the BCCI Annual General Meeting (AGM) of September 2010. Let’s call it Operation Secure Perimeter. A six-month operation against Lalit Modi, the Commissioner of the IPL, culminated in the AGM, at which the BCCI set out to redraw its perimeter and secure itself from infiltration and ensure that never again would a Modi-like monster rise within its ranks.
Over the previous three years, the Commissioner, a title Modi had borrowed from American sport and hung on to, and his league had been wildly successful. It was new ground and Modi had grown into an almost all-powerful position. The rules and contracts and agreements were forever changing. Perhaps because this was all uncharted territory, Modi had felt he could write the rules as he went along. The BCCI constitution became putty that could transform as time passed.
The tumult of that period threatened to alter not just the existing order of the BCCI but of cricket itself. And so the old order decided it was time to cut off the monster’s head—by treating its own constitution in much the same way the IPL chief had. The changes were substantial. Modi was suspended—a life ban would follow—from all involvement in cricket. The IPL governing council was halved in strength (from 14 to seven) and renamed the IPL governing council committee. From being the epicentre of the new cricketing order, it became just another of the BCCI’s 13 sub-committees—all equal in power. Every decision required the approval of the Board secretary and the governing committee members went back to holding honorary posts in the highest traditions of the BCCI. The old boys realised that what they had unleashed would consume their ilk if not shackled at this early stage. That was the mission of Operation Secure Perimeter.
Modi’s ouster was a consequence of the old order’s desire—and ability—to fight the corporate takeover of cricket. The BCCI was afraid of this new creature and Modi’s ambitions for his league did him no favours. But as we revisit those dramatic years we will find several intriguing elements. Modi was able to, in a relatively short time, become the centre of all things cricket. He treated BCCI rules and regulations as though they did not exist. And this was down to the fact that the Board was so outdated in its functioning that it could not even comprehend the direction in which change would move, or come from. And as a reaction to that change, instead of making it an opportunity to modernise, the AGM became a forum to protect things the way they were.
The story of this period of unfettered capitalism in Indian cricket administration predates the 2010 AGM by a few years. It predates the IPL too. It goes back to where we left off the previous chapter of our story—the creation of the brand that Indian cricket has become and the positioning of the Indian team as arguably one of the biggest money-spinners in global sport, certainly in global cricket. It is this story of unfettered capitalism that has brought Indian cricket—and by extension world cricket—to where we are today.
Unfettered capitalism runs in Modi’s blood. At a meeting, more by chance than design, in the coffee shop of a hotel in south London, Krishan Kumar Modi, his father, says, “You have to ask what makes Lalit Modi the way he is.” He then relates a story that gives us some insight.
The story goes back to when Modi Senior’s father was just a school-going boy. “My father’s mother died when he was young and, soon after, my grandfather married again,” he says. “My father knew that his stepmother would always have a major influence on his father and that she would favour her biological children. All the children had an allowance of two paise back then and my father thought the best way for him to gain an ally in his stepmother was to deposit half of that amount with her. So that’s what he did. At the same time he knew he needed that extra paisa to get by and so decided that he would earn the balance himself.” In the mind of the young man perhaps the argument was not as sophisticated, but that is how deeply ingrained the capitalist system is in the Modi family psyche.
Lalit is the third generation of a family that went on to create enormous wealth and continues to do so. It began with the establishment of Modinagar in Uttar Pradesh, which his grandfather founded after migrating from Patiala. From there the family built a diversified industrial portfolio. Some of their businesses have been more successful than others but the lessons of entrepreneurship and opportunism have been passed from father to son.
Some might call it business acumen and entrepreneurial ability; others might say big business is all about cut-throat capitalism where the end, creating wealth, far outweighs the means. There can be an endless debate on the inherently unethical nature of markets where only the fittest, and those willing to go the farthest, succeed. It is not very different in Modi’s case. Much has been written about his meteoric rise and even a cursory Google search reveals the extent of divergent opinions.
From his time in Rajasthan as a close associate of Vasundhara Raje, to the unimagined success of the IPL, there is little that is free of controversy. The fact is that there is no going back from a world driven by market forces. Not, at least, until Apocalypse arrives. In the world of free, or even regulated, market economies, businesses are encouraged to find any advantage in the system that they can exploit to create wealth faster and in greater volume. Our lives are lived in an inherently corrupt world. We might choose to embrace it, fight it, or stick our heads in the sand and make like ostriches. The fact is that the system will always prevail.It is in the same world that Modi came to the BCCI, through I.S. Bindra and then Sharad Pawar, and assumed the role of marketing the product that everyone in India wants—cricket.
“People forget how the brand (Indian cricket) was built,” says Modi. “It wasn’t built overnight. It was built with a vision that, by the way, at the time no one except Mr. Pawar was interested in listening to. And Mr. Bindra. No one else was concerned. I came to meetings with agendas that were this big [gestures to indicate a thick file] but no one wanted to get into the details. They wanted to collect their allowances, sign the register and go back home. We did all the hard work.”
It began with the Nimbus TV deal that brought in over $600 million—the kind of money Indian cricket had never dreamt of. “I took on all the big boys,” says Modi. “I said, If you’re not interested because you’re used to making easy money, I’ll get it from someone else because the business is in cricket, not in you. Viewers don’t watch your channels, they watch cricket. So don’t think you are a bigger brand than Indian cricket. Indian cricket is the brand and it will make its fair share. I could do it because I believed in it, because I never needed the money for myself so I didn’t take any, and I had no middlemen taking a cut.” The attitude of the Board also changed with the TV deal. It realised, and proved to the world, that India was the biggest revenue generator in world cricket. And so India became willing to flex its hitherto unused muscle.
“There was a clear objective in raising all this money for the Board. At the time, 26% of the revenue went to the players. We saw them getting real money for the first time and wanted to keep doing better. They were the product. Today the figure is much lower, and that is the biggest shame,” says Modi. “We were also getting the short end of the stick until then,” he continues. “If you look at the time when the Malcolm Speeds and the Ehsan Manis were in charge of the ICC, India never got its due. So we took the carrot and stick approach. When the time came for the ICC to sell its TV rights (for the 2007–15 period, which included the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, the Champions Trophy and WorldT20 tournaments), I told Mr. Pawar that they are going to undersell, so let’s make a bid. There was a major uproar and the ICC told us the BCCI can’t buy the rights. But we put our foot down. The BCCI had no interest in buying the rights and selling them, but it was the only way to get what we thought was the right price. And that’s how, eventually, ESPN-STAR Sports paid $1.1 billion for the rights.”
It was a difficult period for global cricket. India’s pathetic showing at the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies led to a complete debacle. The event was a disaster and the sponsors for the next couple of editions were having their doubts. At the same time, the BCCI was hit by a double whammy. The domestic deal with Nimbus was under a cloud because the courts in India decreed that the broadcaster had to share the signal with Doordarshan. That meant a serious drop in revenues, both through ads and subscriptions. The overseas deal with Zee followed a similarly unfortunate path. Because countries such as England and Australia had their own TV deals, the Board was forced to look at alternative venues like Malaysia, the UAE and even Ireland. Those series didn’t work either. Modi, who was the brain behind Pawar’s new BCCI, was becoming an isolated figure within the Board.
In response, he chose to get even more aggressive. “India, in those days, used to play more cricket overseas than at home,” says Modi. “According to the ICC rules, matches were supposed to be on a home-and-away basis and there should have been as much cricket in India as there was overseas. But that didn’t suit the people running the Board because they were making money by selling overseas rights through middlemen. So we drew up a list of matches over the previous 10-year period and said to everybody that we have played so many games outside India, so you owe us so many games. If you don’t give us those games, we aren’t playing with you guys. It was justifiable because it was ICC policy. We were just asking for our due. England refused and so we told them to go jump in the lake,” he says, without a hint of a smile. Australia, on the other hand, were agreeable. So it became that India would tour Down Under once every two years but, to make up the backlog, the Aussies would visit every year. It was the same with Sri Lanka and that’s how things started to turn around.
I was then tasked with getting the 2011 World Cup to India. That tournament was to be in Australia and the 2015 one in India. We used leverage to benefit the country, but not to the detriment of everyone else. For everyone to benefit, we had to get the most out of the rights and the maximum out of the sponsors. So I proposed that if we were to move the World Cup to India by 2015, the game would be in a much better state. Today you see the BCCI using the same leverage, like what happened with India’s tour of South Africa (in 2013), because they don’t like the face of the guy running cricket there,” says Modi.
“When we ran cricket, it was for the benefit of everyone at the table. Today if you go to an ICC meeting nobody talks; if you go to a BCCI meeting, it’s the same,” he says. “You cannot have yesmen everywhere. It had become the same with the IPL. The person running the show from Chennai was doing all the talking, all the documentation, preparing all the papers. And worse than that is everyone in the Board works for India Cements. The lawyers, the auditors, the other staff, they were all India Cements people. Back then we were all blind to what was going on. But now that it’s all out in the open, we can see what Mr. Srinivasan’s plan has been all along. And hats off to him for getting so close to pulling it off. Do you know, under Mr. Pawar, the BCCI had commissioned Tata Consultancy Services to carry out a study on how we should be structured—from the state association level—so that we could modernise and bring professional management into the game? It was a very good study too, but it was buried. And if anyone was wondering why—now we know. It was to control it all himself. People will say I have an axe to grind. And I do. But that is only because I see people systematically eroding the good game of cricket. We ride on the glory of the players. They are the product. It is not us. But we are taking cricket away from the players and the fans. My aim, when raising money for the Board, was to get in more so that we could give more to the players, improve our infrastructure and make fans want to watch the game.”
Today, despite the success of tournaments such as the recently concluded World T20 in Bangladesh, cricket is losing credibility.
And ironically, it was Modi who led the BCCI on its path from an old boys’ club to capitalism and then on to its current dreams of empire. When he had achieved an astounding revenue target of `8,000 crore, he went to Pawar and asked for the opportunity to realise his dream of a city-based league. A lot has happened between then and now. Much of that is of historical record and we don’t have the liberty to get into the details. But Modi managed to—and this is the only thing that everyone will agree on—pull off the impossible. He took his unfettered capitalism to the next level through the IPL. It was a whirlwind three seasons of glamour and cricket and cheerleaders and parties, and Modi was in the thick of it all. That was when the old boys decided enough was enough. Operation Secure Perimeter.
The ICC Big Three proposal is just an extension of what has been a logical progression. Without getting into the merits of the plan it has to be said that it was Modi who taught the Board to flex its muscle. It might have actually been him who told them they had the muscle in the first place. And now, secure in the knowledge that without Indian money world cricket is doomed, the BCCI has set about establishing global cricket colonies. It is daring—you have to give it at least that much.
“I was a relatively new player in the game,” says Modi. “But please understand that the cricket coterie, with people like Mr. Srinivasan, Mr. Arun Jaitley, Mr. Rajeev Shukla, Mr. Jagmohan Dalmiya…they have been in the game forever. I did not understand when I was working for the BCCI that my colleagues were building this empire.” It is difficult to accept such naïveté in a man so sharp. Perhaps a more palatable explanation is that he didn’t see the grand design because he was so consumed by what he was doing on the ground.
When we were having these conversations at his London home in March, Modi could not have had a premonition of the interim judgment that the Supreme Court would pass a few weeks later. On March 25, the court gave Srinivasan no choice but to step down. Three days later, on March 28, in their order, Justices A.K. Patnaik and F.M. Ibrahim Kalifulla said, “Mr. N. Srinivasan, the President of the BCCI, has made a written offer through his counsel that till investigation into the allegations against him is completed he will not discharge any of the functions of the President of the BCCI. Mr. Harish N. Salve, learned Senior Counsel appearing for the Cricket Association of Bihar, however, submitted that no further investigation into the allegations against Mr. Srinivasan is necessary as the findings of the IPL Probe Committee appointed by this Court and the materials relied on by the said Committee for the findings are sufficient for this Court to remove Mr. Srinivasan from the post of the President of BCCI as prayed in the PIL filed before the Bombay High Court. As we are yet to hear all the parties in these matters, we cannot at this stage form any opinion and pass orders on the basis of such opinion for removal of Mr. Srinivasan from the post of the President of the BCCI.”
The court accepted Srinivasan’s offer to relieve himself of the duties of the post of president. It will pass a further interim order on April 16 to, “…ensure that all those who love cricket continue to watch cricket in IPL 2014 and the matches are played by the players in accordance with the IPL Rules”.
The court order rejected the claim that Gurunath Meiyappan was merely an enthusiast on the grounds that he is the son-in-law of the BCCI chief who is also the owner of the Chennai Super Kings. It also said that till it delivers its final judgment, no India Cements (or associate company’s) employees, with the exception of players and commentators, would perform the duties assigned to them by the BCCI.
In the context of the Western press, particularly that of the United Kingdom, India has often been treated with the air of disdain that a subject would receive from its not-so-benevolent master. On the question of whether Speed should resign as head of the ICC, Gideon Haigh had written in The Guardian on May 2, 2007, rather disparagingly, “At times like these, people go all wistful about sport being turned into a business. Leading this push at the moment are Indian administrators, which is a little like a bunch of tobacco company CEOs speaking in favour of corporate social responsibility. ‘My board is of the belief that cricket is a simple, enjoyable game, but that is not how it appears at present,’ said the secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India this week. Oh, spare us. The BCCI is ill placed to be giving advice on the management of cricket to anyone, incapable as it is of producing a world-class cricket team from a billion cricket-crazy people, and with a bureaucracy that is an international byword for incompetence.”
Haigh, it seems, had as little clue that these Indians would one day in the not-so-distant future produce a world-class cricket team and a plan to make everyone else in world cricket a junior partner. He, perhaps, could have imagined even less that the English cricket board would jump at the opportunity to be one of those junior partners as long as it meant sitting at the head table.
A few years later, after the dismissal of Modi and the September 2010 AGM, David Hopps (in a blog on The Guardian website) wrote far less disparagingly. He even proffered multiple defences for his post-colonial affliction. In one, rather humorous, passage he wrote, “Most of us have become fairly bored by the power struggle. If you are over 30 then I would recommend boredom as a sensible response because you might be dead when the courts have had their final say and it is always irritating when you sit through a long film that you do not entirely understand only for someone (in this case the grim reaper) to come knocking at the door.”
He was correct in that we do not know when, if ever, we will finally get a judgment from the Supreme Court. We know even less of what that final judgment might say. But, on a serious note, he did underline the need for the BCCI to modernise to keep pace with the rate at which the game, or at least the money in the game, was growing. Hopps could not have imagined that Modi was by then already privy to an early attempt by Pawar to initiate this process of modernisation. I suppose none of us were. Now the court has presented the BCCI an opportunity to reform. Or at least to grow up. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.
And where does that leave Modi? When we texted him on March 25, his reply came not in the form of words but in emoticons that could best be deciphered as him doing a bit of a jig. He still has court battles to fight and a passport to win back to be able to come home. Maybe, at least as far as his life in cricket is concerned, the road to vindication has been opened up. But the end of that road is still a long way off. Until then his life continues in an über luxe limbo. Waiting.