Watching the sleaze drip off the Indian Premier League (IPL) I was reminded of a man I’d encountered in my early days in cricket journalism. He was a suave, laid-back Englishman, had dabbled in the global sports-rights industry for some years as a middleman and found he hadn’t the stomach for it. “The dirtiest business in the world,” he called it.
The players: (top) IPL commissioner Lalit Modi’s fate will be decided at the end of the tournament. Marvender Vashist / PTI; and Shashi Tharoor stepped down as the minister of state for external affairs, while his friend Sunanda Pushkar gave up her stake in the Kochi team. Aman Sharma / PTI
I write this piece six days before publication. Things are moving fast. Some hours ago the semi-finals were moved out of Bangalore after more bombs were discovered around the stadium. Shashi Tharoor’s fate as minister had just been sealed over his lady friend’s sweat equity. Meanwhile, reports of Lalit Modi’s conduct, too formidable a list to summarize, mounted and mounted. By the time the piece appears, I do not know if he will have taken a terrible fall, emerged heroically triumphant, or merely survived with wounds. What I do know is that cricket has been grabbed at so hard that it can barely be discerned any more. To get a taste of how this game is played, have a look at Shantanu Guha Ray’s report in Tehelka. I cannot vouch for every fact, of course, but it is a pretty vivid illustration of “the dirtiest business in the world”.
As the raids and reports and rumours escalated, I briefly indulged in the thrilling fantasy that the whole league might go up in flames in a spectacular blaze of corruption.
Who would be the loser? Not the Indian team. England’s examples in both football and cricket have shown, as have India’s own Twenty20 performances in the past year, that a league only exists for the sake of the league. The effect on the national team, many argue, is deleterious if anything. Neither, in the long run, would young Indian cricketers lose, because the T20 fixation that the IPL encourages, and the “IPL Nights” culture that it advances, will not make them superior cricketers. The spectator, perhaps—but not if he can be given something entertaining in place.
A relatively minor point in the Tehelka report caught my eye. It had to do with Jagmohan Dalmiya’s efforts at rallying state cricket associations against Modi for a larger share of the IPL pie. This was interesting not only because of BCCI’s (Board of Control for Cricket in India’s) realpolitik. It is much more relevant than that.
“The IPL is, logically, the brainchild of a party animal, for it is the most ingenious private party organized in the history of independent India,” M.J. Akbar wrote recently. For this private party the state provides stadiums, security and tax waivers. Cricket associations (the Indian state associations that Dalmiya is trying to galvanize, as well as others from around the world) groom and supply the cricketers. The Indian business and glamour-world elite then comes in and buys and sells.
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In IPL bubble land this may be lovely and exciting but on the ground there are problems with the structure. It leaves the sport more susceptible to the kind of indiscriminate commercialism which has appalled many genuine cricket lovers. It allows more dubious wheeler-dealers a stake in the easily manipulable property that goes by the name of cricketainment. And it provides no incentive for these stakeholders to plough back anything into the sport.
There might have been a more meaningful way for Indian cricket to use corporate imagination and energy. Rather than owning teams, tenders could have been floated for partnerships with state cricket associations. This would have avoided creating the parallel team structure that now exists. More importantly, it would have avoided the murky ownership issues that the league is now being investigated for.
As partners, the companies/consortiums could be mandated to invest in grass-roots cricket, take the sport into disadvantaged communities, support first-class cricket and help build spectator infrastructure. They could also be enlisted to try and tackle the most nefarious problem blighting domestic cricket: nepotism, especially in player selection. This could be done by establishing ombudsman panels comprising a nominee of the partner, one of the association, and an independent, each “of outstanding repute”, to whom any matter of impropriety may be referred.
The prize for the partners would have been a shot at a three-week-long Indian Premier League. This would feature eight teams, qualified through the domestic tournament, with each team allowed to contract three foreign players in the XI. From the IPL they would draw the invaluable brand exposure and a share of revenue, as they do now.
The job of the partners would not then be so superficial and self-aggrandizing as that of the owners now. At present they are super-selectors in a fantasy game, buying and selling and managing their playthings under rules set by Modi. In the alternative proposal they would be compelled to help create the strongest possible cricket system in the states, without which their team would not be able qualify for the IPL. It would be a far more equitable arrangement too, as Ramachandra Guha argued the other day, because a city or state would be rewarded for its cricketing merit rather the money power of someone who has bought a franchise there.
Any system is as corrupt as the people who run it, but the benefit of this enterprise could be profound. It would lead not just to better teams—the results of last year’s Champions League were instructive in this regard—but to a better culture. It could help make India a healthier and sportier nation, and I think, though this is debatable, create an environment a little less vulnerable to grabbers.
But I run on. This is not the IPL we have or will have; the IPL we have is in the papers every day.
Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the cricket tour book Pundits from Pakistan. He writes a monthly cricket column for Lounge.
Write to Rahul at email@example.com