As the days to the Justice Rajendra Mal Lodha Committee verdict neared, the overriding feeling among mandarins of the BCCI and team officials of the IPL—as voiced anonymously in the media—seemed to be that the two teams whose owners were found guilty of betting, irrespective of the punishment meted out to the two individuals, would at most have to pay heavy fines. It would be a rap on their knuckles and an embarrassment to the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which had not been inclined to punish them. In all likelihood, it would also entail a slight tarnishing of the brand image of the two teams. But it would not be enough to shake up the Indian Premier League. The tournament, the money it generates, the teams and players involved, all of it would continue more or less as usual. The show, as the exhausted old cliché has it, would go on.
But as Justice RM Lodha sat on a panel in a crowded hall of Delhi’s India Habitat Centre on 14 July, flanked by two other committee members, Ashok Bhan and R Raveendran, both retired Supreme Court judges, and began to read out a 59-page document for TV cameras, it soon became evident that this was an altogether different script. Gurunath Meiyappan, the team principal of Chennai Super Kings (CSK) and son-in-law of N Srinivasan, and Raj Kundra, a co-owner of the Rajasthan Royals (RR), were handed lifetime bans from all cricket-related activity. The corporate owners of the two teams, India Cements Ltd (ICL) and Jaipur IPL Cricket Ltd (JICL), and by implication the two teams themselves, were suspended for a period of two years.
As the rest of the day went by, the BCCI and the two team owners had gone into huddles with their legal departments, refusing to entertain any media enquiries, trying to come up with their next move.
The Committee’s decision, as it turned out, was momentous. Apart from what it spells out, the verdict undermines the argument that the BCCI is essentially a private body, registered as a society under the Tamil Nadu Societies Registration Act, and hence not answerable to anyone but itself. The Committee was not going to let the BCCI carry on the way it has all this while. In due course, it has announced, it will be making recommendations to restructure the cricket authority in accordance with its Supreme Court-given mandate. This is being done in a comprehensive manner, the Committee says, and a decision is to be taken on the guilt and possible punishment of the IPL’s Chief Operating Officer Sundar Raman.
By the evening, BCCI’s President Jagmohan Dalmiya had issued a press release claiming that it would make its observations public only after the report had been read and a decision taken. A meeting has been scheduled for 19 July in Mumbai, where the BCCI is expected to determine its course of action.
If anyone is to be blamed for the current mess the IPL finds itself in, it is the Board itself. What was required when allegations of betting first broke out was a simple application of law. When the Lodha Committee delivered its verdict, the punitive measures announced were in line with the very rules that the IPL and BCCI had established. Had the BCCI adhered to these back then, or even made a token nod in favour of propriety and fairness, it is unlikely that the highest court of the country would have gotten involved. But the Board and its former President, N Srinivasan, until recently the world’s most powerful cricket administrator, decided to just rough it out.
A former employee of the IPL, who has also been connected with other cricket bodies in the past, claims this decision was sorely needed to straighten out the BCCI and how it functions. “It might appear harsh. It impacts the players and the officials employed by these teams who have had nothing to do with all this muck, and also the fans that have come to be attached to these brands,” he says, requesting anonymity. “But it was really required. The BCCI wasn’t doing anything. And things would have continued to run the same way.”
The manner in which the Board responded to IPL betting allegations was in sharp contrast to the way it had reacted in the past to similar charges. The former IPL professional adds, “When there were allegations of match-fixing against players like Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja, the BCCI banned them either for life or a few years. These players had to go to court to clear their names. The BCCI was very pro-active to ensure that the game itself or their name would not be sullied. In this case too, they were very willing to set a harsh precedent against players who were found guilty of spot-fixing. But once the big names came out, especially Meiyappan’s, it was suddenly unwilling to do anything.”
Meiyappan, who effectively ran Chennai Super Kings, was described as an enthusiast. Kundra claimed he was unaware of Indian laws against betting. A probe panel set up by Srinivasan, the very man who had a stake in CSK and whose son-in-law was under investigation, found none of these individuals guilty. According to the former IPL professional, Kundra was lucky. “He would have been promptly done away with when his name was out but for the fact that Meiyappan was in the dock too. His fate was hitched with Meiyappan’s. And the Board now had to stick it out for two people.”
When the Bombay High Court ruled the probe panel illegal and its decision null and void, instead of taking a cue, the BCCI appealed the matter to the Supreme Court. “That was really the time when the Board should have apologised to the High Court and accepted its ruling,” says Suresh Menon, editor of Wisden Almanac. “But they wanted to fight it out.” The proceedings dragged on for two more years, until the Lodha Committee delivered its findings.
Ajit Wadekar, the former Indian cricket captain who, it is claimed, while serving as the national team’s manager in the late 1990s once tapped the phones of Indian cricketers to find out if any players were on the take, found the proceedings of the last two years extremely detrimental to the game: “Everyone is becoming greedy—the players, the administrators. It didn’t even appear that the Board was interested in cleaning up the mess, even if it was harming the game. It was all very nauseous.”
The issue of conflict-of-interest, which to a large extent laid the ground for the current impasse, had dogged the IPL right from the outset. The businessman Suresh Chellaram, brother-in-law of Lalit Modi, who as the IPL’s first chairman and commissioner ran the tournament for three years, owned around 44 per cent of the Rajasthan Royals franchise. The shares have since then been transferred to a company, Kelowna Investments Ltd, owned by his daughter.
Chennai Super Kings was purchased by India Cements, a stockmarket-listed company of which Srinivasan, the then BCCI treasurer, was managing director and vice-chairman (and his family the single largest shareholder). When Srinivasan became BCCI secretary, he brazenly had a clause amended in the Board’s constitution that could have papered over this glaring conflict-of-interest. According to Clause 6.2.4, administrators, managers, players, umpires and team officials could not hold direct or indirect commercial interests in any BCCI event. But Srinivasan’s amendment made an exception for the IPL.
“It was a glaring issue. And every one of us (cricket writers and media personnel) made a hue and cry over it,” Menon says. “But it did not really make any difference.” The explanation offered was that Srinivasan did not actually own India Cements but was just one of its many shareholders.
The issue of conflict-of-interest became endemic and its repercussions began to be felt elsewhere. Srinivasan was not just the BCCI’s president, and effectively the most powerful man in world cricket. He was also, through his group company, the owner of an IPL team. He even had MS Dhoni, the captain of the Indian national team, employed with India Cements, apart from appointing him the captain of CSK. After a string of poor performances by the national team against Australia and England in 2012, the selection committee unanimously wanted to sack Dhoni as India’s captain, but Srinivasan had the decision overturned. The tenure of Mohinder Amarnath, the selector who made this information public, ended abruptly soon after, although he was the frontrunner to become the selection committee’s chairman. The message was clear: one couldn’t cross Srinivasan’s path and get away with it.
Until recently, Srinivasan ran the BCCI like an impenetrable empire. He himself had made it to its top by constantly networking and making powerful friends. Once there, he continued to play this game. He would garner loyalists by generously using the ample funds at his disposal as BCCI head and handing out plum positions. When I tried speaking to some of his loyalists while working on a profile of the former BCCI czar, nobody wanted to talk about him, and, if they did, they only spoke about him in glowing terms.
Those who did have anything negative to say from the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, which Srinivasan has been ruling as president for a record 14 successive years, were those close to AC Muthiah, Srinivasan’s mentor-turned-bitter-rival. According to them, Srinivasan was doing at the BCCI what he had been doing at the TNCA for several years—throwing money and positions to buy loyalty, and then using his influence to glare down any protest against his misrule.
When I pointed out to them that all the public scrutiny and pressure to quit—from the media, politicians and fans of cricket— would have ruffled just about anyone, one of them said, “You don’t understand, do you? Srinivasan really does not care what you and I think.”
It is unsure how the Lodha verdict will affect Srinivasan. There is a new dispensation at the BCCI, but it is said that Srinivasan still has significant clout. He is finishing the first of his two-year term as head of the International Cricket Council (ICC) this September. “He is like Keith Richards,” Menon says, alluding to an old joke which goes that since The Rolling Stones guitarist has survived drug addiction, fires, poison and stage accidents among other threats, he is sure to survive a nuclear apocalypse in the company of cockroaches. “You can never be sure if anything, no matter how serious, can affect him.”
According to an Indian professional who was connected with the ICC, given that Meiyappan has been found guilty, someone who Srinivasan tried to shield, it’s possible that the BCCI will ask Srinivasan to step down as ICC chief. “Anurag Thakur has an influential position in the BCCI now [as its honorary secretary]. He is a young BJP member, definitely eyeing a Cabinet berth,” says the professional, surmising that, “He would love to be the guy who cleaned up the BCCI and IPL.”
As of now, it is unclear how things will pan out. There is talk that CSK’s owners might appeal against the decision to buy themselves time. The owners of RR may follow suit. If the two teams are suspended for two years, it would lead to an overall reduction of IPL matches, from 60 to just 34. The tournament’s official broadcaster, Sony, and its sponsors would view this as a violation of the terms on which they bid. The BCCI would also lose money from the suspension of two teams. The Board has to pay salaries and pensions to players and officials, apart from investing in infrastructure.
One way out would be to float two new teams. And after two years, once CSK and RR return to the arena, expand the tournament to 10 teams. According to some experts, the two teams might just be able to stay in the game via an expedient ownership switch, since the judgment suspends India Cements and Jaipur IPL, not specifically their teams. “Team owners might be unwilling to sell after having invested so much money and time on the tournament. And if the BCCI forces its will, it can lead to further issues,” says Dileep Premachandran, editor-in-chief of Wisden India.
There is also the issue of the teams’ players and officials left in the lurch. The concerned players could be auctioned off to two new teams, if these are created, or perhaps the services of all players of all teams could again be put up for auction.
Of course, the Lodha Committee is not done yet. It is looking into charges against Raman and also how the BCCI itself can be restructured. According to many close observers, what follows next will be even more important. The former Chief Justice Mukul Mudgal, who headed the panel that established the wrongdoings of Meiyappan and Kundra, told a news channel, “They are going into [the constitution of the BCCI] as far as I know. They are going into it very deeply and they are hearing a lot of people. Even journalists. I’m sure if you want to give your point of view, you can go and do it. They have already spoken to 40 people, which Lodha [has] said, and they intend to speak to many more. I think if you were to wait for Justice Lodha’s recommendations, they are looking into all these aspects.”
According to Premachandran, while this might appear a difficult time for the BCCI, it is also an excellent opportunity for it to restore public faith. “The coming days will really test the BCCI. There are questions about the tournament next year, credibility, the fates of players and officials. The BCCI has a lot to do with the mess,” he says, “and if it is really serious about setting things in order, this is its golden opportunity.”