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Let’s play it straight

Let’s play it straight

Here’s a story that perhaps best exemplifies how far Indian cricket has travelled. In the mid-1950s, India was playing New Zealand. At the time the players were paid a princely sum of Rs. 250 for representing the country. When India beat the Kiwis in four days, a cheque of just Rs. 200 was handed out.  When asked by the players, a board official replied, “Who told you to win the match in four days? Fifty rupees per day is what we give you and since the match has not gone into the fifth day, we can’t pay you the full amount!”

Five decades later, the Indian Premier League (IPL) has dramatically altered the rules of the game. There are IPL players who may not even represent their state side, leave aside the country, but will still in the span of seven weeks earn more than what distinguished Test players from a previous generation earned in an entire lifetime. Which is why the success of the IPL should be celebrated: the era when even some of the finest cricketers struggled to make ends meet is well and truly over. The IPL is easily the biggest blockbuster of our times, a multi-million dollar entertainment brand which, to use the words of its chief impresario, Lalit Modi, has become ‘recession-proof’.

But as the controversy swirling around Modi and Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor now suggests, being ‘recession-proof’ doesn’t make you immune to sleaze and scandal. The staggering sums of money involved in IPL means that the ‘gochi in Kochi’ was waiting to happen. That it took a series of tweets to expose cricket’s grimy underbelly is also not without irony. Tharoor, after all, is India’s most famous twitterer, while Modi too tweets daily. Twitter is premised on the principle of making information flow open and transparent. Often, information that may have been considered sensitive in a pre-Twitter era is now available almost instantaneously through a one-line tweet.

Unfortunately, the IPL, for all its phenomenal success in becoming a global brand in barely three years, has lacked a certain transparency in its functioning. Do we, for example, have full disclosures of  all the stakeholders of the IPL teams, including ‘related parties’ and ‘associate businesses’? Do we know how bids and valuations were decided in the first auction and who were the other bidders who lost out and by what margin? Isn’t there a conflict of interest when a senior cricket board official also owns an IPL franchise?

These are questions that haven’t been fully answered because the IPL has been run like a tightly-knit Boys Club, a clique of  the rich and famous who appear to have mutually decided the rules of  engagement with Modi and Mammon as the presiding deities. IPL Kochi, let’s be honest, tried to gatecrash into the party. The owners weren’t business barons (or at least none we’d heard of), nor were they filmstars. The only recognisable ‘face’ they possessed was a high-profile minister with an unquestioned passion for cricket.

Of course, not every passionate cricket fan would choose to ‘mentor’ an IPL team with uncertain financial connections. Not if you happen to be a public figure in a responsible position. Tharoor may have had the perfectly justifiable ambition of  becoming a Kerala folk hero, but it was naïve of  him to confuse a primarily commercial enterprise with the so-called ‘spirit’ of the game. By allowing himself and his friends to be drawn into a high stakes IPL auction, Tharoor left himself exposed to charges of  influence-peddling.
But why single out Tharoor? Sports, especially cricket, has always been an intoxicant for our netas. Virtually every sporting body in this country is headed by a politician. At least a dozen state cricket associations are presided over by politicians, many with little interest in or knowledge of the game. A majority of them run the cricket associations like fiefdoms, with decision-making confined to a small group of people who are accountable to no one.

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The BCCI, the country’s richest sporting body, exemplifies this culture of non-accountable administration. A few years ago, a lawyer Rahul Mehra had petitioned the Delhi high court claiming that the cricket board was functioning like a private empire. While ruling that the BCCI was subject to judicial review, the court observed, “We must not forget that cricket is no longer what it used to be. It is not just a sport which people dressed in white flannels and rolled up shirt-sleeves enjoyed on lazy summer’s afternoons in England between sips of tea and munches of scones. It is no longer the reserve of the nawabs, the maharajas, the brown sahebs and the rich who had the time and the inclination. It now permeates all levels of society.”

Unfortunately, the democratisation of Indian cricket has not transformed the way it’s administered. The IPL, in a sense, was uniquely positioned to effect a change since it is not dependent on political patronage. But while it has achieved great success in integrating the sport with consumer needs and market demands, it has failed to usher in the ethical standards of corporate governance that professional Indian sport so desperately needs. The Kochi controversy is a timely wake-up call for the IPL to clean up its act and observe due diligence before it’s too late. The IPL needs to become the Indian Public League, not end up as a secret society.

Post-script: The 250-rupee story was told to me by the sardar of spin Bishen Singh Bedi. Bedi’s classical style might have been ill-suited to 20-20 cricket but you can bet your last rupee, he wouldn’t have minded being auctioned for a few crores!
The views expressed by the author are personal

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