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Drama in the fabric of the Indian Premier League

April 4, 2014

The most powerful sports official in the most cricket-mad country on earth was on the verge of taking global control of the game. Now a corruption scandal could scupper those plans.

Narayanaswami Srinivasan rules the Indian board that generates enough money to keep the game afloat, so it seemed a logical progression — to him — to control the International Cricket Council as well.

But last week, India’s Supreme Court ordered Srinivasan to stand down as president of the national cricket board for the duration of an investigation into corruption in the sport’s most lucrative competition — the multi-million-dollar, revenue-spinning Twenty20 Indian Premier League, which pays players exorbitantly high salaries in a shortened, “disco” form of the game.

So what’s next for Srinivasan, who is due to become chairman of the International Cricket Council in July? He hasn’t commented, although the Indian media is reporting that he will probably attend ICC meetings later this month as planned.

The Supreme Court didn’t make a ruling about Srinivasan’s ICC functions when it appointed high-profile former player Sunil Gavaskar as interim head of the Indian cricket board, which gives him oversight of the IPL — the sport’s undisputed cash cow.

With its 1 billion-plus population and burgeoning economy, India has been wielding increasing influence over cricket. The game-changing IPL — initially a polarizing concept — has been an extraordinary success with elite players from all over the world and with fans since it was launched in 2008. Billions of dollars have flowed from commercial rights and sponsorship.

Srinivasan runs India Cements, which owns IPL club the Chennai Super Kings. His son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan, variously described as either a former team principal with the Super Kings or just a “cricket enthusiast,” spent two weeks in jail last year and was indicted in February on charges of betting on the IPL and passing on information to illegal bookmakers.

The controversy was sparked after the arrest of Rajasthan Royals players Shantakumaran Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan by Delhi Police, who said they have proof of spot fixing — when players are bribed to perform in a pre-meditated way at a pre-determined time.

At least one owner of another club was also questioned by police.

A two-member BCCI panel initially cleared Meiyappan last year, but the Bombay High Court said the panel was “illegal and unconstitutional.”

Srinivasan’s position as BCCI chief has been considered untenable since then, although he refused to budge voluntarily.

Justice A. K. Patnaik last week said the Supreme Court was not expressing any opinion on the merits of the allegations until the investigation is complete.

But former BCCI president Shashank Manohar thinks the 2014 IPL tournament should be suspended “until the faith of the people in the integrity of the game is restored.”

Gavaskar is confident it will proceed. The first half of the season is due to start in the United Arab Emirates on April 16, taken off shore for the second time in five years because Indian authorities can’t guarantee security for the tournament during a federal election period. The playoff series is expected to be held in India.

The BCCI “members should remind themselves that money/profit is neither the aim nor the objective. The primary duty is to promote a clean game of cricket,” Manohar said in a statement. “What has been lately revealed could well be the tip of the iceberg.”

The Twenty20 format magnified the fervent following that cricket already had in India, making it shorter and simpler for people who no longer had the time or patience to follow test matches that could last five days and sometimes end without a winner. Games last two or three hours.

India’s rich and famous, including actors Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, clamored to be involved in T20 — the abbreviation that has become widely known — shelling out millions of dollars to buy IPL franchises and snap up the best players from as far away as the Caribbean and Australia.

It was a hit with players, many of whom can earn more in six weeks in the IPL than they can in a year for their national teams and some of whom can win a contract in India without ever having played at cricket’s highest level.

A T20 game can be finished in three hours but the high-risk, high-reward nature of the abbreviated game that has made it so popular with a younger audience also makes it a target for illegal gambling.

The unprecedented finances of the league, and the number of investors wanting to buy in, also opened IPL organizers up to rumors and suspicion from the start.

Lalit Modi, regarded as the architect of the IPL, was suspended in 2010 on suspicion of corruption in the awarding of two new franchises.

He triggered that controversy himself when he revealed details on his Twitter account about the ownership of one of the two new clubs, questioning why a large stake in the $330 million Kochi franchise was given to a group that included a friend of India’s junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor.

Tharoor resigned, but denied any wrong doing. There were calls for a parliamentary inquiry, and India’s taxation authorities launched an investigation.

Modi denies all charges. He lives abroad, and has a case still before the Indian courts. Despite his exile, he still supports the underlying concept of the IPL but is among the biggest critics of the current leadership regime.

He supported Manohar’s call for the 2014 IPL to be abandoned, saying if a proper investigation had been launched last year when the latest match-fixing allegations broke “we would have been on a better wicket today.”

“All the more critical to conduct a meticulous probe and ensure all the culprits are punished so that this generation ... (is) able to view the gentleman’s game without an iota of doubt or suspicion,” Modi said. “It is critical that this happens ... so that the game is able to retain its popularity and the billions of viewers that worship the game.”

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