Cricket’s New Pied Piper

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Our leisure is his business. First, in running it, and now in reformatting it with the spectacular success of the Indian Premier League (IPL), Lalit Modi is indeed the badshah of the great Indian cricket extravaganza. The game’s “super selector” — an appellation given to him by Shah Rukh Khan — has seen to it that his new cricket league is the only game in town at present.

Most Indians eat cricket, sleep cricket… but the world’s most important cricket administrator breathes, eats, sleeps…running cricket. Attending a wedding last week, his mind was on his game: his BlackBerry beeped constantly, and he responded to each message in nanoseconds. With IPL, Modi has shown his detractors — once omnipotent cricket czar Jagmohan Dalmiya and Zee Telefilms Subhash Chandra Goyal whose much-hyped Indian Cricket League might have beaten Modi to the launchline but has been hammered by IPL’s price punchline — how to rewrite the rules of the great game.

Modi doesn’t think, he knows, that IPL will soon be one of the most powerful brands in the world. “Did you think a month ago that Ishant Sharma would be a star and earn mega millions?” asks the 44-year-old vice president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Clearly, the wunderkind had envisaged the possibility. “People believe in the magic only when it delivers the wonder. IPL is the latest wonder of world cricket,” he explains.

If Modi has been able to blend the game’s glamour with serious business intent, it’s because he has credentials in both aspects. After studying sports management at Duke University, he returned to India to introduce ESPN and its high-voltage, 27-camera coverage to cricket. This scion of the Rs 4,000 crore Modi Enterprises also handled global brands like Estee Lauder and Phillip Morris, and was instrumental in getting FTV to India. Never lacking the imagination to think of the next big idea, Modi conceived the IPL, along the lines of Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League, in 1994. But the time was not right, and the field not ripe: he was nowhere in cricket’s command structure, dominated by Dalmiya at the time. He considered moving to establish a football league, and discussed a gameplan with India’s soccer boss Priyaranjan Dasmunsi.

Meanwhile, he needed to consolidate his own regional position. Locked in battle with the Rungta family to take charge of the Rajasthan Cricket Board, his manoeuvres bordered on the Machiavellian: he persuaded corporate captains to pay over Rs 1 lakh for a single seat (for an India-Sri Lanka match in Jaipur). Then he acted decisively to improve the team. Former captain Ajay Jadeja recounts that when Modi was told the state team lacked facilities, “He reacted within seconds and things started changing within minutes.” Modi smiles when reminded of the incident. “In a constantly changing world, it is important to be on top of everything,” he says.

Once Sharad Pawar ended the Dalmiya reign at the BCCI in 2005, Modi’s management mantra took over. He brought instant professionalism, which even detractors admit silenced Dalmiya, who had run BCCI from his briefcase, doling out benefits like the media or tour manager’s jobs to confidants. BCCI now has a manager who handles print and electronic media, but is not allowed to write any columns. In fact, barring the captain, players have been told not to write. “Modi is the ultimate professional. He has marketed the game properly, got the best deals and the right kind of people in key positions. See the way he wooed Sundar Raman for the IPL CEO’s job,” asserts Inderjit Singh Bindra, widely regarded as his mentor.

“He’s dynamic, thinks on his feet and has infectious energy,” says Sundar Raman, who resigned from Mindshare to join IPL. “We were checking out URLs to register IPL and Lalit was on his laptop, furiously typing away. In precisely three minutes twenty five seconds, he had registered the website.”

Today, Modi is on a good wicket: he has the stars, a huge war chest, a cricket-crazy nation and in Twenty20, a format made for television. But Modi, a wiser man now than the brash Young Turk who once boasted he would put Dalmiya behind bars and throw away the keys, is far more circumspect. He doesn’t say that Dhoni or Symonds will become international brands like Tiger Woods or David Beckham. “If you are in the market, the look and feel of what you have to offer is immensely important,” Modi said. “The day of run-of-the-mill cricket management is over. I must offer a new menu to the world.”

His management has seen the world’s richest cricket board get even richer: BCCI’s income has crossed the $1 billion mark (from $67 million). Look at his deals: a four year television deal with Nimbus worth $612 million, team and shirt deals worth $641 million with Sahara and Nike and a television deal with Zee for India’s matches on neutral venues worth $219 million.

The Zee deal shows he doesn’t let petty vengefulness get in the way of business. “If you do things professionally, no one will have the guts to attack you,” says Modi, who also surprised many by choosing Greg Chappell as the Rajasthan coach.

A micro-manager and the ultimate detail man, Modi is never without his laptop, all facts and figures at the ready. A chain smoker, his friends agree he is a perfectionist and workaholic. He hardly takes a break from cricket and hasn’t found the time recently to use the telescope in his drawing room, let alone read the Paulo Coelho books he enjoys.

But his long-range vision is intact: he plans to use BCCI ’s money to redesign more than 20 of India’s stadia and add state of the art facilities. “The money is not to flaunt but to develop the sport. If you don’t show the money, do you think parents will let their sons become cricketers?” asks Modi. Former Indian skipper and ace spinner Bishen Singh Bedi makes the same point: “He is taking cricket to a greater height. And it will benefit the game,” he says. Agrees Joy Bhattacharjya, former ESPN producer and a core member of Shah Rukh Khan’s Kolkata IPL team: “He is the first man in India thinking cricket, cricket and only cricket — because he does not want anything to fail.”

He also wants to take cricket to the Indian diaspora, and to have India play as many as 25 matches a year, mostly against Pakistan, in neutral venues such as England, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and the US. BCCI will keep the television revenues, paying the host nation a match fee. Can you stop this man? “As long as it does not rattle the world cricket, whatever he is doing looks fine,” says former Indian captain Krishnamachari Srikkanth.

But he is rattling the ICC — and the Dubai-based controlling body is nervous. CEO Malcolm Speed recently warned players against avoiding planned tours to participate in IPL matches. Given Modi’s abilities and BCCI’s financial muscle, can he become the Bernie Ecclestone of world cricket? It may not be a fait accompli, but it’s almost certain Modi has a formula for that too.

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