The Indian tycoon who changed cricket
Bollywood stars, flamboyant corporate moguls and million-dollar cricketers.
Lalit Modi couldn't have hoped for a better mix of team owners and players to front the new Indian Premier League he has masterminded.
In just three years Modi has helped turn the Board of Control for Cricket in India into one of the richest sporting organisations in the world, with annual revenue of more than $1 billion.
Next month Modi will launch his pet project, the officially sanctioned Indian Premier League — a tournament so rich that international cricket may never be the same again.
The pre-tournament hype has been a promoter's dream. First, some of the biggest names in Bollywood chipped in to buy teams in the league, then six cricketers fetched more than $1 million to play in the tournament at a player auction.
Modi's influence has been compared with Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket experiment that revolutionised the game in the late 1970s. But there is one crucial difference: Modi is not a rebel. He has the financial might and the monopoly power of India's cricket establishment behind him.
I met Modi in the plush Mumbai offices of Modi Enterprises, the industrial conglomerate owned by his family. Founded in 1933, it has interests in agro-chemicals, tobacco, tea and beverages, education, entertainment and marketing.
So why did Modi decide to add cricket administration to the demands of running a family-owned business empire? "Cricket is what drives this country. It cuts across religion, it cuts across age groups and every facet of our lives here in India," he said. Promoting cricket in India is a good cause that he "finds enriching".
But there is also a hint of revenge in his motivation to get to the top of the Indian cricket establishment. More than a decade ago, Modi tried to launch an officially sanctioned professional cricket league, only to be thwarted by what he describes as "vested interests" in Indian cricket.
"We were burnt very badly by the powers that were," he said. "It became an ambition of mine to go out and clean it up."
It took Modi 10 years to break into the crusty world of Indian cricket administration. He finally succeeded by concealing his true identity to join the Rajasthan Cricket Association. He makes no excuse for this deception.
"It was a very close-knit club and they just wouldn't allow you to get in," he said. "I just used my first name and my middle name — not my last name — and that gave me the entry."
With the help of the Rajasthan chief minister — the equivalent of an Australian state premier — Modi eventually became president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association, a position that gave him a seat on the national board.
In 2005, Modi figured in a power struggle that resulted in Sharad Pawar, an influential politician and national cabinet minister, ousting former Indian cricket supremo and ICC chief Jagmohan Dalmiya in BCCI elections.
But even then, Modi's bid for membership of India's main cricket body hit a snag. The outgoing board appointed a committee to investigate drug charges against Modi when he was a student at a US university in 1985. Modi claims the allegations were dragged up to unfairly discredit him.
"When I was in college I was in a fraternity and the fraternity was charged with a conspiracy to buy drugs — there were no drugs," he said. "What I may have done in my past, when I was in my teens, is not something that I am today. The court system has looked into this and found nothing in it."
Cricket insiders say Modi was viewed as a brash upstart when he became one of the youngest men to be vice-president of the BCCI, but he has been in the forefront of the Indian board's commercial activities since.
Modi says the financial strength of the BCCI vindicates his long fight to get involved. The deals he negotiated for Indian sports channels before joining the BCCI taught him that the rights to televise cricket in India were being sold to middle men on the cheap.
"In the past, what the broadcasters made and what the middle men made was far more than what the board made. We've redressed that balance," he said.
Modi was listed among India's 30 most powerful people by India Today magazine this week. He was included because the BCCI's revenues have increased seven-fold since he joined the board in 2005 and because "no one in cricket wants to be on his wrong side".
Modi had been toying with the idea of a city-based Indian cricket league for more than a decade but it was the emergence last year of the rebel Indian Cricket League that gave the venture urgency. He believes cricket has become more popular in India with the emergence of cable TV.
"You have to keep in mind we don't have other sports like you have football or tennis that take viewers and followers away. Here it's really only cricket."
The Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 tournament sanctioned by the International Cricket Council, will include eight city teams — Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Jaipur, Chennai, Chandigarh and Hyderabad.
Fifty-nine night matches will be played in April and May. Because Twenty20 games last only three hours, the tournament will be perfectly packaged for prime-time TV in India.
At last count, IPL deals — including TV rights, team franchises and players — came to $2 billion. In Australia, Network Ten bought the rights to show every IPL game live for the five years at a cost of $10 million to $15 million.
To plan the new cricket competition, Modi studied the world's major sporting competitions, including the English Premier League, European soccer leagues and the American basketball and baseball leagues.
"We came up with a hybrid model looking at all these," he said.
At the extraordinary pre-tournament player auction last month, Chennai paid $US1.5 million for India's one-day skipper Mahendra Dhoni, while Australia's Andrew Symonds went to Hyderabad for $US1.35 million. It was cricket selection and accountancy rolled into one.
The auction, which took about nine hours, was covered by more than 200 journalists.
"We expected it to be big," Modi said. "But, with the amount of the interest that came from the media and the advertisers, we have surpassed our own business plan."
The ownership of the IPL teams is a heady mix of corporate moguls and movie stars. Lachlan Murdoch picked up a stake in the Rajasthan Royals team, which will be captained and coached by Shane Warne.
Despite the power and money behind the IPL, some analysts are sceptical about its chances of developing a solid fanbase. Indians are very passionate about the fortunes of their national team but will they feel strongly about a mixed-nationality team based in a city?
"I don't think you can cultivate club loyalties and city loyalties very easily when they don't exist," says Ramachandra Guha, a renowned academic and cricket historian. He believes the IPL could ultimately damage Indian cricket.
"It's a manifestation of a very short-term perspective — you know, 'Let's just cash in on the hype and make some money quickly' — rather than think of the long-term future of the game," he said.
If many fans are suspicious of the money flooding into Indian cricket, many outside India are also worried about how the IPL will change the game.
Last month, Australian captain Ricky Ponting expressed concerns the rich new league could entice players to retire early. Modi admits the huge IPL salaries will have an effect, but is adamant paying players more is good for the game.
"I see no reason why players shouldn't be paid more money if we can afford it."
Modi argues players still have a strong incentive to play well for their national teams because that's the only way of maintaining their place in the IPL.
The new league in India means players can look forward to some "secondary revenue" if they continue to perform for their national teams, says Modi.
"At the end of the day, a player's motivation is to earn more money."
Modi shows little sympathy for traditional cricket powers, England and Australia, as their financial cricket clout dwindles relative to India's.
"In the past 20 to 30 years India made very little money in world cricket — Australia and England made all the money," he says.
"Their television markets were more developed so they were earning more money — so be it. But now the market has turned around. The Indian market is driving cricket revenues and there is no reason the Indian board should not make money out of it."
Similar forces will affect many other aspects of Australian life over time, as India's economic and political power grows. Cricket is probably just a bellwether.