Cricket scandal reopens divisions between the haves and have-nots

The Indian Premier League was meant to be the jewel in the country's sporting crown. But then the allegations of corruption began to emerge. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent Online

As the final battle between the Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings reached a hot and humid climax last night, one might have ordinarily assumed that cricket fans transfixed by the drama of the Indian Premier League would have to wait another year for a fresh instalment. But while the contest – eventually won by Chennai – marked the end of the sporting drama in this year's IPL, off the field there is plenty more sensational action to come.

Amid a series of revelations and allegations over bribes, corruption, match-fixing and money-laundering that have already cost a government minister his job and led to a tax investigation of the £2.7bn sports franchise, the world's most successful cricket tournament has also become its most controversial. For traditionalists already opposed to the glitzy version of the game – which has bought together Bollywood stars such as Shilpa Shetty with politicians and businessmen in a commercial bonanza – the ensuing rows will be further confirmation that this incarnation of the sport simply isn't cricket.

"This just reinforces the image of corporate India and the vulgarity of the system that has come from liberalisation and globalisation," Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former sports minister and now member of the upper house of the Indian parliament, told The Independent. "The underbelly of the IPL is the same as the underbelly of of rampant capitalism. I would rather we returned to the simplicity of Gandhi, which would include providing sports facilities for every child in India."

Fresh drama might come as early as today. It has been widely reported that Lalit Modi, the flashy 46-year-old chairman of the IPL, who has a passion for private jets and glamorous women, is to be fired. Last week, tax inspectors raided Mr Modi's offices and spent hours questioning the businessman.

The inquiry has so far revealed nothing illegal and the entrepreneur has insisted he has nothing to hide and has resisted demands for his resignation. But reports say that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which oversees the IPL, has already decided Mr Modi's position is untenable. Some reports say that he is likely to be replaced by the former national captain Ravi Shastri.

Mr Modi, a regular user of Twitter, has so far stood his ground. "People pressurising me to resign – I can tell you will not happen," he tweeted.

A little ironically, it was Mr Modi's love of Twitter that initially sparked the storm that has left him fighting for his position. Two weeks ago, Mr Modi breached confidentiality agreements and used Twitter to reveal the members of a consortium who had recently made a successful bid for a new IPL team to be based in the Keralan town of Kochi.

He announced that one of the members was Sunanda Pushkar, widely reported to be the girlfriend of the junior foreign minister, Shashi Tharoor. It was subsequently revealed that the Dubai-based businesswoman, who had no background in sports management or promotion, had been paid £10m by the other members of the consortium, which the minister, in his capacity as an MP for Kerala, had been "mentoring".

An articulate and polished performer who also happens to be India's most popular Twitterer, Mr Tharoor immediately hit back. He denied allegations, levelled by Mr Modi, that he had interfered in the auction process and had tried to pressure the IPL boss not to look into the make-up of the Kochi consortium.

Yet for all his diplomatic skills and despite the support of many of his 750,000 Twitter "followers", Mr Tharoor found himself unable to pacify the growing controversy. After meeting with Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, and senior members of the ruling Congress Party, Mr Tharoor was forced to offer his resignation.

Met by large enthusiastic crowds when he returned to Kerala this weekend, Mr Tharoor posted a tweet that read: "Looking forward to thorough inquiry into the IPL. If my resignation leads to real reform, it will be worthwhile. Our cricket should be clean."

In India, as elsewhere in South Asia, cricket is more than a sport. Igniting the sort of passion and devotion usually reserved for religion, cricket is also dreamt of as a means of escape from grinding poverty and hard-pressed, hunger-filled lives. On scraps of land alongside railway tracks and in the filthy alleyways of wretched shanty-towns, one constant sight is that of young boys with home-made bats and balls seeking to emulate stars such as Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

But as India's middle class has steadily grown and as more people gain access to television, so cricket has become a marketable commodity. It was against this backdrop that the IPL was established in 2008, combining a television-friendly, shorter version of cricket with the latest in marketing and promotion and international stars. Mumbai Indians are co-owned by Nita Ambani, the wife of Mukesh Ambani, the world's fourth-richest man, while the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan is co-owner of Kolkata Knight Riders.

The competition immediately started earning millions of pounds in advertising and licensing rights. Even when the contest had to be held in South Africa last year – because it coincided with India's election and the government, in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks – was concerned that it could not ensure adequate security for both events, the franchise continued to grow.

Many in an increasingly self-confident country looking for recognition as a major power saw Mr Modi's cockiness and ability to operate despite the red tape and bureaucracy that inhibits initiative, as a welcome sign of the country's potential, of the new "shining India" that is so often talked about. The IPL boss himself termed the new-look sport "cricketainment".

At the same time, however, the IPL has attracted the attention of critics who found its brashness unsettling and who believed the sight of celebrities sitting in seats that cost £600 in a country where half the population struggles by on little more than £1 a day was unseemly and wrong. "IPL can be seen as a metaphor for the new Indian middle class which thrives on excess," one commentator, Ronojoy Sen, wrote in The Times of India.

The furore has also had political implications. The Congress-led government, now facing a confidence vote over rising food prices, initially responded to the controversy by ordering the tax authorities to look into Mr Modi's affairs. That investigation has now been extended, with officials examining the records of several of the IPL teams, among them the Kolkata Knight Riders, as well as former deals and auctions. The behaviour of sponsors and broadcasters is also being investigated.

Yet the controversy has not sat still. With the media poring over every aspect of the IPL, other allegations have emerged, including claims that the IPL's hospitality manager used her influence as daughter of the country's aviation minister to cancel an India Airlines flight and use the state-owned plane to transport an IPL team. The Congress Party has also had to fight off allegations of hypocrisy after one of its ministers, who is also a member of the BCCI board, initially backed Mr Modi to retain his job, only to then change his position.

The opposition, led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is now hounding the government and has demanded a parliamentary inquiry into the workings of the IPL.

Even though parliament was briefly suspended by a ruckus caused by BJP MPs, the government has so far resisted their demands, although Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, said "all aspects of the IPL – including its source of funding, from where the funds were obtained, how it has been invested – all these aspects will be looked into".

Some commentators expressed shock at the scandal, which has exposed an ugly nexus of politics, sport, Bollywood and powerful businessmen.

While it has undoubtedly tarnished the image of some of those involved in the IPL, most cricket fans still appear enthusiastic about the competition itself. This may be because this is not the first time that cricket in India has been the focus of corruption allegations – in 2000, several Indian players were involved in an international match-fixing scandal – or simply because in India corruption is utterly embedded in so many aspects of life.

Nishant Singh, a lawyer who was last night cheering on the Mumbai Indians, said: "People are still going to be watching. They know what's happened but... they hope the teams will still be trying their best."

Money talks

£1.6 billion

The value of the nine-year broadcast rights deal struck between IPL management and a subsidiary of Sony World, Multi Screen Media, in 2009.

12 per cent

The size of the stake that Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty and her partner hold in the Rajasthan Royals, valued last year at £11m.

£1.6 million

The amount Lalit Modi declared in tax last year, which suggests that his annual earnings may be in excess of £10m. His official IPL salary is unknown.

£216 million

The amount Rendezvous Sports World Limited paid for the Kochi IPL franchise. The team will join the IPL in 2011.

£1 million

The price paid by the Bangalore Royal Challengers to sign England batsman Kevin Pietersen for this year's event.