Lalit Modi is an engaging, effusive man of slight build. He wears spectacles that frame a round, open face and speaks rapidly with a tiny hint of a lisp. Down the years, the lisp might have made suckers of a few.
As of today, Modi is the most influential man in cricket (and one of the most powerful in all sport anywhere). As of today, he will change the way the game is played and watched. There is more chance of repulsing global warming than of keeping at bay the apparent force of nature that Modi has unleashed in all its full, contentious glory.
For it is today in Mumbai that the world's top cricketers will be sold and bought for hire in the Indian Premier League. This will be the most significant step so far in the all-singing, all-dancing competition that will take Twenty20 cricket on to a new, heady plane.
From there it will challenge all other forms of the game, including the great inviolable, beautiful invention, Test cricket. Modi is the IPL's chief progenitor, its chairman and commissioner, and the canniest of operators though he is, he may not be quite aware of what could be upon us.
But something of its possibly colossal effect can be gauged by events in Kuala Lumpur. There, the chief executives of the various national cricket boards which comprise the International Cricket Council are meeting today and tomorrow. They have added the IPL to their agenda for urgent discussions on where it should fit into the international calendar with all the other cricket being played. Prominently is the best advice to give them.
The auction today will involve almost all of the world's top players, some of them supposedly retired, more than 80 in all. They will be signed for sums unprecedented in cricket to one of eight franchised teams based on Indian cities and, starting on 18 April, they will be playing for money undreamt of in the sport. Which is why the retirees have reconsidered their need to be with their families.
Almost all of the world's top players, that is, except those from England. The tournament coincides more or less precisely with the dawn of the 2008 English season and England's centrally contracted players have obligations in their own country. They are bound to cast eyes enviously on what is happening.
Overseas IPL players have already been recruited centrally by the Board of Control for Cricket in India for sums ranging from $150,000 (£77,000) to $400,000 (though the latter only in the case of Shane Warne, who may not be the most effective exponent in this form of the game but is predicted to be the biggest drawcard).
They will receive salaries in addition, which will depend on the proceedings today. With prize-money some could earn above $1m (£512,000). For no more than 14 matches in six weeks.
And they can come back next year for more. For anybody who needed convincing either of the booming state of India's economy or cricket's place in it, this should be the clincher. This drags cricket up to the levels of other sports.
By now, all that is required is a proper, earnest competition in which the highly rewarded players are seen to care. It is by no means a foregone conclusion. Too many top cricketers are still unsure that T20 is the real thing.
Modi may be the man to disabuse them of that fond notion.
All this is also taking place with world cricket in the most brittle condition. All over there is rancour and dissent: in South Africa, where the row about quotas in selection continues; in Pakistan, because of the state of the government; in Australia, because they are due to tour Pakistan at the time the IPL is being played and there is the suspicion that, while they might claim it is unsafe to do so, the players would rather reap the IPL dividend; in New Zealand, because players can sense untold of riches to be had; in West Indies, where they have virtually no access to TV rights money worth speaking of.
Twenty20 was a game England gave to the world only in 2003 and with which India at first refused to have any truck. It was devised, the offspring of a million midsummer English village matches, to save county cricket and now here it is transforming world cricket.
There are those who are still scornful about its status and it is true that it is not Test cricket, never will be, never could be. But it lasts for under four hours, not more than 30 and it is played at frenetic pace, with the potential for rapid, heart-stopping changes in fortune. It is irresistible but in its irresistibility a way must be found to save, above all, Tests. T20 may be thrilling but a dumbed down society cannot live by it alone.
The IPL is cricket's most gigantic creation. It has not quite come from nowhere but it is hard to grasp that it is almost here. Modi and the BCCI took a bit of convincing about the potency of the short form of the game.
He is a scion of one of India's great industrial families, involved in the manufacture and marketing of several commodities. Cricket daft, he was elected as vice-president of the BCCI in late 2005 on a platform-for-change ticket which saw the old guard ousted. Sharad Pawar, the government's agriculture minister, was elected as president and while nobody should question the influence he wields behind the scenes it is Modi who has been the organisation's public face and most articulate voice.
From the beginning, he was agitating for change and a fight with the International Cricket Council. Modi was anxious to make for Indian cricket the money its vast popularity dictated it should have and wanted the ICC to recognise its status and importance in the game.
If he is engaging, he also speaks in certainties and has the capacity to disjoint noses. One of the ways he did so was to reject T20 almost out of hand. India were not for turning on the issue. When I visited him him in his well-heeled, though cluttered, Mumbai office in late 2005, he was all but adamant that T20 was not for him.
He enraged the ICC in other ways. Indeed, in October 2006, its chief executive, Malcolm Speed, was damnably patronising about Modi's contribution to that point. "He has shown a lot of promise as a cricket administrator in the one year he has been in the BCCI and the two years he has headed his state or provincial association, but the fact remains that he has not attended a single meeting of the ICC."
Speed was being characteristically procedural. But by then Modi had secured for India a TV rights deal worth $612m (£314m) over four years. He confidently expects to double that next time.
Gradually, he was won over by Twenty20. All at once, it seemed, he was announcing the IPL and the so-called Champions League, which is scheduled to take place in India this autumn and is intended to feature the champion T20 teams and runners-up from the domestic competitions of four countries: India, Australia, England and South Africa.
In some quarters the word is that the Champions League will not take place, but by now Modi should not be underestimated. In some ways, his hand was forced over T20. First, it was clear from games elsewhere in the world that the punters loved it. And then the Indian Cricket League was announced.
The ICL was a rebel league. It had no BCCI backing and was frowned on by the ICC and member boards, who sniffily objected to their players joining.
The ICL was formed effectively by Zee TV, miffed at losing out on the rights deal for Indian cricket, but desperate to have some cricket. It was a qualified success late last year despite being played in the foothills of the Himalayas. An Englishman, Chris Read, finished on the winning side. He also earned some £50,000 for three weeks' work.
When India won the inaugural world T20 last September – they had played only one game of the format before going to the tournament – the country went wild. Any lingering doubts were blown away when the TV rights were sold and franchises came up for grabs last month. The TV deal was worth $1.025bn (£525m) over 10 years, demonstrating immediately that this is no short plan for the short form. It was won by Sony Max and the World Sports Group. Rich individuals and corporations then elbowed each other in the rush for team rights like housewives at the January sales.
For the kudos of the league, of course, it is essential to have a stream of players who have made their names elsewhere. There is also a regulation to ensure players do not simply retire and play only in the IPL – though Adam Gilchrist and Stephen Fleming appear to have done just that.
Some sanctimonious bleating about dashing for the dollars can be dismissed. With the sums on offer who wouldn't? The other imponderable is the public response. Traditionally, Indian cricket fans worship Indian cricket, not necessarily cricket itself. The eight teams, for 10-year franchises, went for between $67m (Jaipur) and $111.9m (Mumbai). The total raised was twice the estimate.
Rules and regulations are still being finalised, such has been the scramble, but teams will have to field four players under 22 and can sign only eight foreigners, of whom four can play at a time. There is a cap on the auction today with a maximum of $5m a team. But there is no cap on how far this can go.
Pride of three lions keeps Cook and Co away from Twenty20 – for now
Noticeable absentees from the Indian auction are England players. As yet no current player has signed up for the Indian Premier League, a tournament that clashes with domestic cricket and would adversely affect the preparation of England players for the home Test series with New Zealand in mid-May. However, the IPL has a 10-year deal – worth more than $1bn (£513m) – with an Indian television network and it can only be a matter of time before England's biggest names receive lucrative offers.
Alastair Cook, the England opener, does not believe that any of his team-mates would jeopardise their place in the Test or one-day side to play in the IPL or Indian Cricket League. "We get very well looked after as England players," said Cook prior to last night's fourth one-day against New Zealand in Napier. "When I was 10 years old I didn't dream about playing in an Indian Twenty20 league, I dreamt about playing for England and I am very happy with what I am doing.
"There is nothing bigger than walking out for England, wearing the three lions and representing your country. At the end of your career, when you are just playing county cricket and you have no chance of playing for England, it would make sense. But I can't imagine anyone trading in wearing the three lions and giving up the chance of playing for England to do that. I do not believe it is an issue for England players. We do not have the time – England play 12 months of the year. As an England player in the situation we are in I don't think it will work."
Peter Moores, the England coach, will have been delighted to hear one of his brightest young players talk in such a way. England players joining the IPL would only cause him greater heartache. "All we have had from our players is the desire to play for England," he said. "We are hoping that all our players share Alastair's view. Hopefully, the financial reward they get for playing for England will act as an incentive too. The balance of the two make it a very good incentive for people to stay in and work very hard to stay in the team."
Cricket Pads And Money Bags: The players on offer in the Indian Premier League auction
Adam Gilchrist and Mahendra Singh Dhoni are top of the wish lists for the eight teams participating in the today's auction in Mumbai. The dynamic wicketkeeper-batsmen are regarded as prime selections for the sides, whose spending per team is capped at $5m (£2.6m) for a maximum of eight contracted players.
Dhoni's starting price has been reportedly set at $400,000 (£205,000), which places India's one-day and Twenty20 captain in the highest bracket on a par with Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh, who will not go under the hammer.
League rules state that so-called "icon players" must play for their city teams – Tendulkar (Mumbai), Ganguly (Calcutta), Yuvraj (Mohali) and Dravid (Bangalore) – and will be paid 15 per cent more than the next highest-paid player in their respective sides. The other four teams are Delhi, Madras, Hyderabad and Jaipur.
Teams will have to watch their bidding and not exhaust their pot with just two big buys.
The complicated auction process will take place in the Hilton Oberoi, Mumbai. Players will have a base player fee, where the bidding starts, and be sold individually. The fee will represent the wage they will be paid in each of the next three seasons. Teams must spend a minimum $3.3m (£1.7m).
Each franchise can sign up to eight non-Indian players for their 16-man roster, but only four foreign players can feature in the starting line-up and each XI must also contain four Indian players under the age of 22.
Australia: Nathan Bracken, Andrew Symonds, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee, Adam Gilchrist, Cameron White, Justin Langer, Simon Katich, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne, Mike Hussey.
Bangladesh: Mohammad Ashraful, Mashrafe Mortaza
New Zealand: Scott Styris, Stephen Fleming, Daniel Vettori, Jacob Oram, Brendan McCullum
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Yousuf, Shoaib Akhtar, Younis Khan, Mohammad Asif, Umar Gul, Kamran Akmal.
South Africa: Graeme Smith, Shaun Pollock, Jacque Kallis, Justin Kemp, A B de Villiers, Herschelle Gibbs, Ashwell Prince, Loots Bosman, Makhaya Ntini, Mark Boucher.
Sri Lanka: Sanath Jayasuriya, Farveez Maharoof, Mahela Jayawardene, Chaminda Vaas, Dilhara Fernando, Muttiah Muralitharan, Nuwan Zoysa, Kumar Sangakkara, Prasanna Jayawardene.
West Indies: Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul.
Zimbabwe: Tatenda Taibu.
Sachin Tendulkar (Mumbai) Rahul Dravid (Bangalore) Sourav Ganguly (Calcutta) Yuvraj Singh (Mohali)Reuse content