Home >Opinion >The cutthroat politics of Indian cricket

In all the ups and downs of India’s post-liberalization Gilded Age, one sector of the nation’s economy has proved utterly recession-proof: cricket.

A series of conjunctures have, over the last three decades, turned India into something more than just the largest field seeded with cricket by the British empire. The most populous by far of the world’s major cricket-playing nations, India has become the sport’s financial powerhouse. Television broadcast rights, a marquee league, advertising and endorsements, sports management firms, even betting and the odd bout of match-fixing: The white and black economies of cricket today all revolve around India.

At an extraordinary meeting last year of cricket’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), India’s representative claimed (with only a touch of exaggeration) that the country deserved a bigger share of the ICC’s profits as more than 80% of revenues were generated by India. Think of America’s power at the United Nations, and you have some sense of India’s place in the cricket world.

Luck and chance may have had something to do with it, but the rise of Indian cricket was not an accident. For every person who would ascribe its meteoric ascent to demographic factors—the appearance of satellite television in the early ‘90s, the Indian diaspora, India’s own rise to become a major power on the field of play itself—there is another who would point to the role of the governing body of cricket as the (often shadowy) mastermind of this revolution.

As many wits have remarked, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is well-named: The emphasis falls on the word “control." The BCCI is a fascinating economic entity—registered as a non-profit society, run not by professional management but by a board of elected members, and with monopoly rights over most cricket in India and all Indian cricket abroad, including, most important, television rights, the biggest source of cash in the game.

In absolute terms, the revenues and annual profits of the BCCI are smaller than those of hundreds of Indian corporations. (Last year, the BCCI’s surplus was 364 crore, approximately $60 million.) But its business profile is equal to those of major Indian companies—Reliance Industries, Infosys, Tata. Many of those firms have extensive interests in the cricket economy, dealing in goods and technologies that need the emotion and the stars generated by cricket to sell them.

In fact, the personal perks, access to funds and discretionary powers that come with being a “voting member" of the BCCI’s 30-member board, as well as the cachet of Indian cricket and the global profile of the group’s president, make being an officeholder in one of the world’s richest sporting bodies more desirable than almost any corporate post in India. Even if the job is unpaid: Most of the posts are “honorary," and the board only created its first paid position in 2006.

This mix of power, intrigue, patronage and glamour—membership in an exclusive secret society controlling the more visible sporting drama and energy of bat and ball—is utterly irresistible. And never more seductive than to the career politician, who sees in Indian cricket an enormous opportunity to leverage and redouble his own power.

So which prominent names in Indian politics have a foot planted in cricket “administration"? Well, let’s begin right at the top of the pyramid of power.

Last June, the Gujarat Cricket Association called a special meeting to appoint a new president. The sitting president, Narendra Modi, had just resigned, having become prime minister. Modi had not only been chief minister of Gujarat since 2001, but he had also taken over control of the association in 2009, bringing an end to long years of domination in the post by Congress Party politicians.

Who would replace Modi? The association elected as its president Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man in the national election and now the second-most powerful man in India. Shortly afterward, Shah was also appointed head of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Up in New Delhi, Arun Jaitley (now India’s finance minister) had brought an end to his 13-year-long presidency of the Delhi District Cricket Association at the end of 2013, with one eye on a future role in government. Had the BJP not won the national election, Jaitley would have in all likelihood made a run for BCCI president this year.

The BCCI is so powerful in world cricket that even dishonour on the job—such as that experienced by a previous president, the powerful businessman N. Srinivasan— only brings further gains. In 2013, Srinivasan was forced to step down after serious charges of corruption were levelled at his son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan. He failed to get reinstated, and he was told by the Supreme Court of India that he was “killing the game of cricket."

With the report of the inquiry against him still pending, Srinivasan decided to run last year for head of the ICC instead. In June, he was handed charge of cricket administration globally, a development the BCCI called “a proud and historic moment for Indian cricket." But to most cricket fans, including many Indian ones, Srinivasan’s presidency is nothing short of scandalous.

What will the future of the cricket world be like? That depends almost entirely on India and—this is not something that will reassure any cricket fan—on the uncontrollable Board of Control for Cricket in India. Bloomberg

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