There are huge risks involved in venturing into the unknown, drawing new, hungry audiences to a sport and, more importantly, new investors. For close to three years since the concept of the Indian Premier League was unleashed on an unsuspecting Indian public, it rode a high but events in the week gone by have threatened to prick the inflated balloon.
In a classical case of Twitter vs. Twitter, featuring two of India’s widely followed men, Lalit Modi and Shashi Tharoor went at one another’s jugular. India has watched with bated breath as these men fought a no-holds-barred battle in public domain in the wake of IPL’s expansion from eight to 10 franchises in the next season.
No soap opera could have offered a richer menu – allegations of favouritism, nepotism, bribery and threats, income-tax surveys featured prominently. It did not seem to matter that IPL III was heading to its climax. A large audience awaited the unfolding drama that got along more dramatis personae every day and left us with more unanswered and uncomfortable questions.
Let me dismiss any suggestions that cricket will suffer. I have believed that cricket can outlast any controversy like it did Bodyline, apartheid, Kerry Packer-led World Series and match-fixing. The game is larger than anything else that it spawns, including pretenders who wallow in the belief that they are larger than cricket itself.
The fact that last year when the world was battling recession – and India with a slowdown — the eight franchises signed up 17 overseas cricketers and spent more to $11.5 million at the auction was a clear pointer to not just IPL’s health but also that of the cricket economy in the country and, for good measure, the state that India was in.
And this year, the numbers took a gigantic leap with two new franchises promising to raise more than $700 million over 10 years. But naturally, some of wondered if the owners of the two new teams had such deep pockets that would see them through long spells of no return. And we wondered if IPL was reaching for the self-destruct button by inviting uninvestigated investment.
Let us look at some more questions that have sprung up now in the wake of Lalit Modi’s tweet about the shareholding in IPL Kochi. If indeed the IPL Commissioner wanted to check the antecedents of those involved in floating the company that successfully bid for the right to own IPL Kochi, he should have done all that verification before the auction itself rather than fling doubts after the bidding process was complete.
And, if indeed there is nothing wrong in revealing the names of the shareholders in IPL Kochi, why haven’t shareholding patterns of all IPL teams been revealed? Such selective revelations do raise doubts about the motive. So was Lalit Modi peeved that Rendezvous Sport and the others chose Kochi over Ahmedabad?
There is a feeling – and it has been fuelled by the IPL Kochi camp – that Lalit Modi was keen that the franchise be based in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. How true is Shailendra Gaekwad’s allegation that Lalit Modi offered him $ 50 million to withdrawn their bid for the Kochi franchise so that fresh bidding could be called for?
The time is at hand for all IPL stakeholders to prove to the nation at large that the sight-screens in the venues are the only things black now associated with the colourful game. A lot of us will heave a collective sigh of relief if that is not the colour of money likely to come into the game. It would help if we know for sure that there is no slush money being laundered through IPL.
Since most IPL franchises are not to be making a profit yet – and the two new ones are unlikely to in three to five years, given the enormous amounts they are due to invest each year – I wonder if they really want to make a profit and not just balance their books of accounts with a loss-making project.
There is no question that IPL has drawn huge investments in India. Nor, for that matter, can anyone challenge the fact that IPL has gone past the conventional sponsor and appealed to a world beyond. Therefore, it is imperative that IPL is not run on whims but raises the bar as a model of corporate governance in Indian sport.
One of things that must be done is to ensure that all these companies that own IPL franchises and other IPL properties are registered in India rather than in tax havens. The other thing it must do is to develop a self-regulatory mechanism that will ensure that the financial deals by IPL and its franchises are clean as a whistle.
And yes, the Board of Control for Cricket in India needs to exercise more control over what it calls one of its sub-committees, especially in money matters. At the moment, the sub-committee has outgrown its parent leaps and bounds and threatens to over-run it, too. The only whip that BCCI holds is the fact it runs all ‘official’ cricket in India and can withdraw recognition to a product that has grown beyond its control.
Any human endeavour that encompasses body, mind and spirit makes for a heady potion for those who are destined to merely watch it. The idea of drawing new audiences is fine; the idea of taking IPL beyond known boundaries is just as fine; but getting new investment without verifying its antecedents or questioning the motives of the new benefactors does not appeal to me as bright at all.
Cricket needs to guard its reputation fiercely and not become a vehicle for all and sundry to ride piggy back on. The big questions is: Do the mandarins of BCCI have the mettle to say that they would not be drawn by an intense desire – bordering on greed – to make more money for the sport? Your guess is as good as mine.
(This article was first published in Free Press Journal, Mumbai)