The IPL brand has been tarnished. Whether or not the loss of sheen is permanent, we have to wait and see, but there is little doubt that peoples faith in what had successfully become Indias only global sports brand is shaken. With scandals tumbling out of the IPL closet every second day and with the power games turning murkier by the minute, IPLs future as a successful commercial entity is also in question.
Till some months earlier, the IPL was all about Lalit Modi. It was his baby and the buck, well and truly, stopped with him. Those were the days of the Modi honeymoon, when every move of the former IPL czar was hailed as marketing genius. As Modis stock soared, his way of functioning turned more and more dictatorial. The interesting thing, however, is that the BCCI, which is on a marketing overdrive to demonstrate itself as taking the ethical high ground, was a silent spectator. It had forgotten the age-old saying that perpetrators of crime and its silent supporters are equally culpable in the eyes of the world. Shady deals worth hundreds of crores were given a pass and Modis dealings continued unquestioned and unabated. In fact, had he not lost his senses and twitted at 2.35 am against former MOS for external affairs Shashi Tharoor, none of what we are seeing today would have transpired. Modi would have continued to be BCCIs poster boy and Shashank Manohars cynical comment that Modi could now come and interview him alongside the journalists would not have made its way to becoming one of the most significant quotes in Indias cricket history.
For the BCCI, even the mention of Lalit Modi is anathema. Nothing else can explain the sudden wrath against the owners of Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab. It is, indeed, true that the government has found serious discrepancies in the shareholding patterns of these teams and the way the team managements have conducted their business. At the same time, one is forced to conjecture if the BCCI would have turned a blind eye to such findings had Lalit Modis credibility not reached rock bottom. That there are problems with the shareholding patterns of these teams has been known for months and yet they were allowed to go on with their business as usual. While the government has been silently conducting a probe into IPL affairs and has, indeed, influenced the BCCIs hardline against these teams, it is also the final act in the crusade against Lalit Modi that has triggered the BCCI reaction to axe these two teams from IPL season four. Modi has stakes in both of them and the BCCI can ill afford to allow Modi to stage a fight back from behind the scenes. Put simply- the BCCI used the governments findings to masquerade its war against Modi.
The question being asked in cricket circles across the world is what does the future hold for IPL Will IPL season four be played or has the league run its course Can the BCCI resurrect the ailing brand or will the continuing corruption and politicisation push the brand beyond redemption
To the facts first. There is little chance that Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab can make their way back to the fold for IPL season four. Theres enough evidence with the government and the board to keep them out and a legal route can only be circuitous and torturous. In fact, it wouldnt be wrong to suggest the Shilpa Shetty and Preity Zintas flirtations with cricketing fame are temporarily over.
The fate of the Kochi franchise, too, hangs in the balance. Kochi has already been given multiple lifelines based on legal advice received by the BCCI. With the south Indian lobby (with the exception of Vijay Mallya and Brijesh Patel) in the Board controlling its reins, the special treatment being meted out to Kochi isnt surprising. Despite continuous bickering among the owners, conflicts that have little chance of being resolved amicably, the BCCI has encouraged the franchise owners to go back to the drawing board to sort out their differences.
It is more than likely, however, that Kochi will continue to be the problem child of IPL and sooner than later the BCCI will go back to the auction table to pick one more team. With Jaipur and Ahmedabad having been freed, Videocon owner Venugopal Dhoots desire of buying an IPL team may well come to fruition in the near future. The new team, to be based almost surely in Ahmedabad or Jaipur, will be the eighth team of the competition.
Now coming to the more nuanced implications of the BCCIs decision to axe RR and KXIP. Firstly, all of the decisions taken in the IPL governing council meeting on September 5 now stand null and void. Players auctions, originally slotted for November, have now been pushed back to January 2011. Player retention, a contentious issue between the BCCI and franchise owners, continue to be in limbo with Chennai Super Kings owner N Srinivasan, influencing Mahendra Singh Dhoni to write to the BCCI, emphasising the importance of player retention for the preservation of brand identity. This letter, almost surely written at the behest of Srinivasan, highlights the arbitrariness in the functioning of the BCCI. Put cynically, the letter was written in Srinivasans IPL office in Chennai and taken to his other office as BCCI secretary. Strangely, the BCCI continues to be silent on this issue of conflict of interest. That it continues to haunt the BCCI, however, is evident from Srinivasans absence from the crucial meeting last weekend when the decision to axe two of the franchises was taken. Also, one of the legal luminaries now running the board mentioned on condition of anonymity, I wasnt hands on involved with the running of the BCCI when Srinivasan was permitted to buy a team and continue as BCCI secretary. Over time, we have to ease him out of the IPL governing council if he continues to be the face of Chennai super kings.
In a situation like this, it is almost impossible to predict what the future holds for the IPL. But just as CWG 2010 could be conducted without major hiccups despite all the negative build-ups surrounding it and tales of corruption eating into its edifice, so also it can be conjectured that once the cricketing action unfolds in the middle, all of the sordid tales of politicisation and corruption will be forgotten.
In fact, it is in the BCCIs interest to hasten the auction process. A full-scale auction will completely divert peoples attention from the tales of mismanagement and corruption currently hogging the headlines and get people to talk cricket. With a huge pool of players turning free after the axing of RR and KXIP, the auction for IPL season is sure to be nerve-wracking and pulsating at the same time.
For Modi, though, the game is over. In hiding and discredited, he is now a lost cause and justly so. Trying to get bigger than the brand itself, Modi lost the plot even before he realised he had done so. For Srinivasan, on the other hand, the honeymoon is currently on. It is a period of heady power when all looks and seems simple with people and voters rallying behind him. But the BCCI, insiders will testify, is a strange beast. A near complete majority can turn a cropper in no time and men in power relegated to the dustbin within days or even hours. Ask comeback man Jagmohan Dalmiya and you will get the answer. Undisputed czar of Indian cricket for well over a decade, Dalmiya found himself completely isolated at the Jaipur AGM of the BCCI on February 21, 2006, when he was suspended by the board on charges of financial misdemeanor. But Dalmiya, to his credit, fought on, and in a near miracle, managed to get the Board to turn back and apologise and reinstate him by dropping all charges. But Modi is no Dalmiya. He is brash and unscrupulous and impatient and pompous combinations that have no space in the BCCIs boardrooms at the moment.
As a result of all this, IPL continues to suffer. To go back to what I had started with, it is now a brand in crisis. But as with all things Indian, we can expect yet another revival once it is time for action in IPL season four. Till then, however, the key actors in the drama will continue to be the political power brokers, men who are working non-stop to make the best of the murky situation. Recently a friend asked me if India is mature enough to lead world cricket. He was concerned about Indias sense of social responsibility towards the IPL brand. From the evidence at hand, it must be acknowledged that the professionalism of the BCCI is a sham and the IPL, too, like most things Indian, continues to be treated with contempt and disdain. Individual egos are more important than the brand and the interest of the cricketers men who have made the IPL into what it ishave been totally ignored amidst all the infighting. But then again, if CWG 2010 could turn out to be successful, IPL shouldnt lose hope at all. It is India, after all.
The writer is a sports historian