Quiz Srinivasan Narayanaswami about cricket and the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)—cricket world’s wealthiest administrative body—will dish out rote responses with his much-publicized, trademark straight face. But talk golf, and the 67-year-old beams, gushes and even jokes, no longer sounding like a scratched vinyl record.
I’ll save that for later.
A lunch meeting being firmly ruled out due to paucity of time, the venue for this meeting is Srinivasan’s 10th floor office at the Chennai headquarters of India Cements Ltd—south India’s largest maker of concrete, co-founded by Srinivasan’s father just a year before India’s independence.
The 4pm appointment on a Monday squished any likelihood of rusticity arising from dining at the company’s second-floor canteen. So I found myself seated in his roughly 2,000 sq. ft office overlooking clear blue skies over the Bay of Bengal instead of digging into a masala dosa—Srinivasan’s choicest meal—to break the ice.
It took months to nail this meeting with the BCCI chief and India Cements managing director and vice-chairman, who also wears the top hat at the Tamil Nadu Golf Federation. This is in addition to running a cement business through which he is the de facto owner of Chennai Super Kings (CSK), labelled in 2011 by UK-headquartered valuation agency Brand Finance as the most valuable cricket franchise in the five-year-old Indian Premier League (IPL).
With more sports than cement plastered on his résumé, it sounds unconvincing when Srinivasan says, “Cement is not only my heart, it is my job and it is what I do well.”
The disbelief over his response also stems from quarterly profit announcements where Srinivasan frequently glances sideways for prompts from company managers shuffling through financial statements a few feet behind him. Of course, just a fraction of the time is generally spent on discussing the cement business—Rs 4,203 crore in revenue for April 2011-March 2012. The rest is usually cricket chit-chat.
During one such February meeting, journalists probed for titbits on the tiff between the BCCI and the Sahara group, which had withdrawn its 11-year sponsorship of the Indian cricket team a few days earlier. Srinivasan’s face was deadpan as he hinted that things would be sorted out.
Two weeks later, BCCI and Sahara buried their differences.
This is why Srinivasan is often stamped with superlatives such as “the most powerful” and “the most influential”. But his stocky build, neatly patted-down salt and pepper mop, suspenders, and the slightly smudged kumkum on his forehead, exude the demeanour of a conservative Tamilian accountant rather than a cricket honcho. The only overt signs of his status are the Swiss luxury watch Rolex on his wrist and his voice, an undertone that reminds one of acclaimed actor Kamal Hassan’s award-winning act as an underworld don in the 1987 Tamil blockbuster Nayakan. In that gravelly, yet assertive voice, Srinivasan tells me about his serendipitous entry into his father’s cement business.
Non-playing captain: N. Srinivasan’s term as the BCCI president extends till 2014.
Srinivasan was the eldest of two boys and two girls born to T.S. Narayanaswami—a mathematics major who jointly set up India Cements with S.N.N. Sankaralinga Iyer. The latter’s family, which divested its entire stake in India Cements by 2007, runs the Chennai-based Sanmar Group, with interests in shipping, metals and speciality chemicals.
As an engineering student in the 1960s at Madras University, Srinivasan played cricket, hockey and tennis. But he figured he should stick to his books.
“I knew I wasn’t going to become the best sportsperson and would do better concentrating on my studies,” Srinivasan says. He became a chemical engineer and travelled to the US in the early 1960s to get a postgraduate degree in engineering and business from Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology.
When Srinivasan was on the cusp of his final semester of management education at Illinois, he contemplated doing a master’s degree in economics. However, his 57-year-old father died and the reins of the cumbersome, government- controlled cement business were thrust on the shoulders of the 21-year-old.
It’s been nearly half a century of cement in Srinivasan’s life, with sales growing at an average 10% clip every year for the past 20 years. Yet, his name is glued more to cricket.
“From my father’s time, India Cements has been supporting cricket,” he says. “Many Ranji Trophy players were employed in the company. When there was no money in the sport, we were promoting cricket and cricketers,” he says.
I go down a laundry list of questions on fatigued, ageing cricket players and his contentious ownership of CSK as a BCCI official. He’s heard these questions before and his responses may as well be lip-synched to a recorded tape.
“We’ve had some reverses in England but overall the scorecard is good,” he responds, referring to India’s losses in all versions of cricket played in England just months after winning the 2011 World Cup. The downtrend in audience ratings for cricket’s miniature version (IPL) has been an added thorn for the game’s sponsors.
But if Srinivasan is worried, he’s adept at masking it.
“People expect all three formats of the game to perform at the same level all years,” he says. “That’s not possible.”
“Today, the audience for all three formats (five-day Tests, One Day Internationals and Twenty20) put together is higher than what it was for any one form previously,” pitches in Srinivasan, who hiked from state-level cricket administration to the BCCI top slot in a little over a decade, stoked by his company’s early association with the game.
The sexagenarian’s game face slips only when I query him about two of his adversaries: former BCCI president A.C. Muthiah and IPL founder Lalit Modi.
Four years ago, Muthiah, who last year retired as chairman of the troubled Southern Petrochemical Industries Corp. Ltd (Spic), lost to Srinivasan in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) presidential elections. In 2010, he filed two petitions in the Supreme Court, claiming there was a conflict of interest in allowing Srinivasan, who was then treasurer at BCCI, to bid for an IPL team through his company.
“I didn’t think Mr Muthiah would stoop to this level after he lost an election to me,” says Srinivasan brusquely. “I think he should be concentrating on his business.”
On Modi, currently in London, Srinivasan is even more caustic. “I will say nothing because I don’t respond to him.”
Knowing I’ll have to confront the blistering Chennai heat as I step outside, I shift the focus to golf. It’s the only time during the interview that Srinivasan smiles. Both Srinivasan and daughter Rupa Gurunath, who is likely to succeed the India Cements managing director, are ardent golfers.
At one point, the grandfather of Gurunath’s two daughters had an enviable handicap—a numerical representation of a golfer’s ability, a lower score being better—of 6. But it now stands at 14. “There’s nothing more frustrating than missing a short putt,” Srinivasan says about his passion, for which he has had less and less time. But things aren’t as green as the golf course otherwise.
His cement business posted disappointing fourth-quarter results—the company’s 2011-12 profits came short of analyst expectations as energy and transportation costs weighed. The company posted a net profit of Rs 293 crore for the year ended 31 March and fourth-quarter profits rose 18% to Rs 65 crore. The profit numbers were lower than average analysts’ forecast of a net amount of Rs 302.37 crore for the full year and Rs 85.25 crore for the quarter.
And CSK seems to be losing sheen in the IPL—the defending champion team was in fourth position after 15 matches before Thursday’s match.
“Everyone knows there’s an economic slowdown and growth expectations have been belied and are being revised downwards,” says Srinivasan. “That coupled with high interest has increased uncertainties and so capacity expansion in the cement industry has slowed down. I will hesitate to borrow money to expand.”
On the personal front, recent news of the arrest of his son Ashwin—who Srinivasan says isn’t interested in the cement business—after a brawl in a Mumbai pub is keeping up the heat.
Add to that the controversy of five cricketers being accused of spot-fixing in the ongoing IPL.
It might be a while before Srinivasan lowers his golf handicap.