IPL Season-16 will be the first of cricket’s biggest ever success story as TV and digital rights will fetch in excess of Rs.48,000 crores over five seasons. It’s extraordinary that the shortest version has made cricket one of the biggest gainers of pro sport in the postmodern era. But the man who made the revolution possible has been away from cricket admin for well over a dozen years now. If the story of Lalit Modi, the maverick commissioner as Boria Mazumdar’s bio-tale tells it, is any indication, the game still owes a huge debt of gratitude to the dreamer who made it all possible.
Cricket is a microcosm of India, and it comes with the whole baggage of games of power, political and corporate, manipulation and manoeuvring, sleaze and an underbelly rendered dark by the influential hand of the betting market and mafia. Lalit Modi, by virtue of his rich corporate background, was able to conquer this peculiar Indian sphere marked by how much influence one has over the people in power to decide things. The game’s wealth of today is, however, not the only factor that breaks down the obstructionism that is a feature of red tape-loving bureaucracy.
Lalit Modi’s vision, broadened by his experience as a privileged youth in American universities, and his early exposure to American pro sport enabled him to dream big of a similar league in cricket. He was one of the first in India to think up a sport played to a limited-overs format with USA’s auction processes thrown in for recruitment. It may have taken him years to break through BCCI resistance to new ideas, but he managed it to become the Commissioner tasked with creating something as complex as the IPL, with glitz and glamour of the world of cinema and Aladdin’s Cave riches of the corporate world.
The concept of cricketers as commodities to be sold at a cattle auction was frowned upon but that was not the only barrier the Commissioner broke. Lalit Modi was the ultimate salesman who marketed this city franchise league played by international and Indian cricket stars. But you must tread on toes to shape anything so new, especially in the Indian cricket administration that had resisted the idea of limited-overs cricket and the T20 slog until Team India’s fairy tale triumph under the game changing MS Dhoni came in South Africa in 2007.
The rise and rise and then the equally dramatic crash and fall of Lalit Modi, sacked by BCCI in 2010 on the very night of a grand finale between two of the most popular franchise teams, is a fascinating story so typical of India, and perhaps the world too, where success can be even more devastating than failure. Maybe, the book does not delve enough into why Lalit Modi faced what he did and why he had to become a fugitive to live in London on an empathetic visa because his wife had cancer. What is the true story behind the $80 mn facilitation fee transfer? Was the Rs.425 crore hijacked personally by Lalit Modi and is that why he is unable to step back on Indian soil?
Most charges on the BCCI sin sheet listing his extra constitutional role and his “misdeeds” going far beyond the board’s brief were not so overwhelming as to keep a person out of India forever. In creating a league from scratch he may have overstepped boundaries in building the franchises with not so transparent shareholding. Far too much of “insider” privileges were handed out to kin and friends. Yet, without an embezzlement charge, things could not have been so serious that Lalit Modi had to skip town in the dead of night and go to his UK haven.
Notwithstanding his run-ins with Lalit Modi wherein he was denied accreditation for the opening season of 2008, the author’s admiration for the Commissioner comes through. A lot of it is laudatory, even if the revolutionary thinker deserves due praise for creating something so unique for Indian cricket. Lalit Modi was a wheeler dealer who may not have been averse to taking some of the lolly as big business came into sport and TV rights began spiralling into billions of dollars.
The wishful thinking that Lalit Modi would one day stage a comeback into Indian cricket betrays the bias in the author, but it was bold of Boria to go to great lengths to bring out the story behind the IPL, its success as well as its shenanigans, many of which were the creations of the progenitor of the IPL.
Maverick Commissioner: The IPL-Lalit Modi Saga
By Boria Majumdar
Simon & Schuster
pp. 220, Rs.524