A sticky wicket: Scandals in Indian cricket


Regular Member
Aug 7, 2009

BRASH, glitzy and growing like greased lightning, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is a powerful emblem of the emerging India. An ultra-commercial cricket tournament, which has brought foreign stars to India on huge wages and is due to complete its third annual season on April 25th, it has found myriad ways to make money out of a venerable game. Roared on by millions in India—and available on television, YouTube and mobile phones—the IPL has been valued at over $4 billion. Last month two new IPL teams were sold at auction for a total of $703m (32 billion rupees). But there is a downside, which a row over that auction has brought sensationally to light.

Recent allegations of corporate sleaze and suspicions of tax-dodging by well-connected businessmen and politicians make the IPL sound more representative of India's economic rise than its cheerleaders would like. Its boss, Lalit Modi, one of the world's most powerful and charismatic sports administrators, could lose his job in the current furore—many expect him to be forced out at a meeting of Indian's cricket board, the BCCI, on April 26th. A minister, Shashi Tharoor, has already lost his. Indian newspapers have aired separate rumours of illegal betting in the league. What's going on?

It started with a Twitter tweet from Mr Modi, in which he revealed the identities behind Rendezvous Sports World, a franchise that successfully bid $333m last month to form an IPL team in the Keralan city of Kochi. They included Sunanda Pushkar, a Dubai-based friend of Mr Tharoor. Despite having a relatively modest background in marketing, she had been awarded a 4.75% stake in the team—worth $16m—against her future work for it. Mr Modi also claimed that Mr Tharoor, a Keralan and self-described "mentor" to Rendezvous Sports, had asked him not to reveal Ms Pushkar's name.

Mr Tharoor denies this, and says he has done nothing wrong. He and his staff have levelled various allegations against Mr Modi: including a claim that he petitioned the junior foreign minister to block a visa application on behalf of Gabriella Demetriades, a South African model and erstwhile friend of the IPL chief. The spokesman of Rendezvous Sports, Shailendra Gaikwad, who has reportedly since quit, said Mr Modi had offered its members $50m to withdraw their winning bid. Mr Modi offered no comment on the first allegation and denied the second.

At the request of Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, Mr Tharoor resigned on April 18th—despite Ms Pushkar having said she would forgo her stake in the Kochi-based team. The next day Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, announced that an investigation had been launched into "all aspects of IPL including its source of funding, from where the funds were obtained, how it has been invested."

The investigation seems to have begun last September, with an inquiry by the finance ministry into the ownership of the Rajasthan Royals team. This was launched in response to an application by the team for approval of a $5.8m foreign investment in it. The probe established that the Royals are owned by a company based in Mauritius, in turn owned by companies based in the Bahamas, British Virgin Islands and Hong Kong. The ministry did not approve the proposed investment.

The Royals are one of three teams in which relatives of Mr Modi are alleged to have stakes. One of these, the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), denies the allegation; and Mr Modi denies having any conflicts of interest. On April 16th inspectors descended on the offices of the IPL and BCCI in Mumbai and requested all ten IPL teams—whose owners include some of India's most famous industrialists and film stars—to provide details of their ownership. Tax officials searched offices belonging to four teams, including the Knight Riders, on April 21st. Akhilendu Jadhav, a senior tax official, told reporters: "We have some incriminating documents related to IPL and KKR." On April 22nd the inspectors questioned Mr Modi himself.

If he is forced out, it would be remarkable. Mr Modi has powerful allies, including Vijay Mallya, a brewing tycoon, whose UB Group owns the Bangalore-based team, and Sharad Pawar, India's agriculture minister, an ally of Mr Singh's Congress party and president-elect of the International Cricket Council, the game's world governing body. Yet the government is eager to put an end to a scandal that has already set back important government business—perhaps including a bill to approve the budget, expected in Parliament on April 27th—and risks tarnishing India's name abroad. Then again, even if Mr Modi's coiffured head rolls, the scandal may go on. It is easily one of the biggest stories in India this year—much more entertaining, the game's cognoscenti agree, than the IPL's knockabout sort of cricket.

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