January 1, 2011

The IPL has fallen, long live the IPL

This was the year it all came crashing down for cricket's next big thing. But fundamentally hardly anything has changed

What about IPL 3 will you most remember? There's a damned good chance it won't be the cricket.

The IPL began 2010 as the league about to take over and roll over world cricket. It had expanded its competitive footprint from eight franchises to 10, its two new teams cost as much as its previous eight. Its brand value was pegged (out of thin, venture-capital air) at $4.13b. Season four would feature 74 matches instead of 60. The IPL was poised to obliterate ODIs, turn Tests into sepia-toned throwbacks and virtually redefine the stratosphere itself.

It has ended the year like a rattling jalopy, still moving towards auction day and opening night, but navigating by a roadmap that seems to contain more roundabouts and fewer exits.

In only its third year, this glitzy, ditzy "domestic" Indian event, which seduced the highest of priests, will leave 2010 looking like something out of, say, Indian hockey or weightlifting. It is swamped in public mudslinging, legal wrangles, ownership disputes, territorial battles, stay orders and stay orders on stay orders. Less than 10 days before that auction it is still not clear as to exactly who will be allowed in, how many teams will play in the next tournament and whether it will or will not feature playoffs.

Between October and December that number has oscillated between seven and 10. Everyone and his lawyer is involved in the scrimmage - the Enforcement Directorate, the Chennai police, the CBI, the Bombay High Court, several high-profile politicians and their kin. The IPL now has the full attention of all arms of the government - the executive, the legislature, the judiciary.

The single biggest "learning" from IPL 2010 must surely be that schoolkids now know what "facilitation fees" and "recusal" really mean. Kickbacks and abdication.

If the IPL has suffered nine months of infamy, both side are to blame. The events that followed El Modi's tweeting on about Kochi's ownership were the result of two years of utter lack of regulation within the BCCI. On Modi's part when doing IPL business in the BCCI's name. And on the BCCI's part for turning a blind eye to everything except the bottom line, under the excuse of the protection given to Modi by the Sharad Pawar regime.

The IPL was, in essence, a private club of Modi and his friends, where rules (whether the inspired invention of the "strategic time out" or the one of ads during overs) were made up as they went along. Its governing council did not govern and officials responded to questions about the IPL's practices by saying, "Look at how much money he makes for the board."

He has gone from being King Midas to the IPL's most rotten apple. Today, with two franchises fighting their termination by the IPL's new, unimproved governing council in courts, let's just say, he sure has company.

What should now be more than evident is that the tussle over the ownership and control of the IPL, between Lalit Modi and the men who were once his best buddies in the BCCI, is not that of new India versus old India. This tug of war is, in fact, a re-assertion of the BCCI's arrogance of monopoly and its overall lack of operational professionalism. On both sides of the argument we only see the self-importance of the Indian cricket establishment, differentiated merely by age. It is the worst of an India that has power, money and influence.

If the old BCCI's patriarchy handed out favours like Indian team managerships or committee posts to those who controlled its votes, Modi's IPL empire was built on business deals struck with friends and friends of friends, and IPL jobs doled out to well-connected children. The IPL was a 21st-century old boys' network, swirling with crony capitalism disguised by corporatespeak. It was nepotism in a Ferragamo suit, and it led to allegations of money-laundering and financial irregularities.

When the first of the dust settled and Modi was swiftly excised, all we could see was dirt. While many believe the departure of Modi was a chance for the BCCI to clean up the system, all the realist wanted was order and the installation of a stringent set of rules with little room for messing about. It was necessary because 2011 was to be a big year for the IPL. It should have kicked off phase two for the league, during which the entire player pack would be reshuffled in a new auction, and the arrival of two more teams would alter the league's geography and economics.

The tussle over the ownership and control of the IPL, between Lalit Modi and the men who were once his best buddies in the BCCI, is not that of new India versus old India. This tug of war is, in fact, a re-assertion of the BCCI's arrogance of monopoly and its overall lack of operational professionalism

What took place instead was a clumsy hatchet job. After Modi was booted out, hollering and tweeting, the BCCI then went about restructuring its governing council, seizing back control of the IPL by changing the constitution that Modi had himself pushed to get changed in order to allow BCCI office bearers a financial stake in his gold rush. Once that was done came the termination of the two franchises seen to be closest to Modi, Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals. Done without warning, done without discussion, negotiation or arbitration.

In what is a Modi-esque move, the IPL's rules continue to be constantly tinkered with, particularly those that benefit its most influential. This time it's about the "retention" of players. In a league where the Chennai Super Kings are successful on the field and owned by BCCI president-elect N Srinivasan, and the Mumbai Indians are, well, both very rich and very powerful, the IPL's playing field is bumpy for its less privileged. Only 12 players were retained in all, eight between these two teams.

The lone smart move from the IPL this year has been to ally itself with the other national boards and so channel the supply of overseas talent into the league. The overseas players' boards will send out lists of certified players available for the IPL and also receive 10% of these players' contracted salaries. In putting this Soviet bloc-style system in place, the IPL has sidelined the player-agent completely and created a new source of earning for less wealthy boards. All the better to carve out tomorrow's unofficial IPL window with. And while IPL 4 will not have any after-parties, it will continue to remain out of bounds for Pakistani cricketers - and the Kremlin will not talk about that.

For all the fireworks of its first two years, the chest-thumping pride of India's "global branding" through it, and despite the regular announcements of new sponsorships, the IPL still looks and acts like what it says it is: a BCCI sub-committee rather than a contemporary cricket operation.

Between now and opening night, the IPL will be scrambling. Even the croniest of capitalists knows that only the cricket can improve the IPL's image, bolster its precious brand and rescue its reputation. It begins five days after the World Cup and the cream of international players must refresh themselves to provide both sparkle and stature. Many fingers will be crossed. Not merely those of the franchises but also of the IPL's governors. As much as all of India will want to win the World Cup, the BCCI top brass will want to stage an IPL that is efficient, successful, lucrative. And Modi-free. If it happens they will befriend the franchises again and all will be forgiven. And all will stay the same.

A few months after Modi was sent into the outer darkness, a journalist predicted great gloom for the IPL. Without "Lalit", he said, the IPL was doomed to be "middle class." Maybe he had actually been misheard. Perhaps he was actually being prescient. The IPL today is distinctly muddle-class.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo