Rajeev Shukla: Meet the smooth operator really running cricket

The IPL chief has a plan to protect Tests, he tells Stephen Brenkley in Chandigarh. Just don't inform the players

Rajeev Shukla
Friday 28 October 2011 10:10

There is an unmistakeable swagger about Indian cricket. It was barely put out of its stride, it appeared not to notice, when its Test and one-day teams were being hammered by England a few weeks ago. In the grand scheme of things and it is a very grand scheme indeed, the feeling seems to be that it mattered as much as a jot.

"As far as the fans were concerned they were not very happy, but in games, defeat and victory go together, you lose and you win, that happens," said Rajeev Shukla. "England have been losing for the last 10 years, most of their teams, and at football also. So therefore we're absolutely happy because we want cricket to grow in England."

The inference to be drawn was that by losing India were doing England a huge favour. In any case, redress is now being sought and so far gained in the return one-day series between the sides which India have so far dominated with, well, with a swagger.

Rajeev Shukla has been elevated to one of the most important roles in this country, as the new chairman of the Indian Premier League. In five turbulent years it has become the richest and most influential cricket tournament in the world and taken Twenty20 to a position of dominance. If it frequently seems to be more showbiz than sport, it embodies the sheer heft of Indian cricket. It engenders a mixture of suspicion, fear and grudging admiration from outside.

The IPL is viewed by many as the barbarian at the gate with the underlying fear that its success will eventually cause the demise of Test cricket, the longest and oldest form of the international game. India has remained at pains to point out this is far from its intention.

Shukla, whose primary mission is to increase the spread of the IPL, said: "The effect IPL is having on Test cricket is also our concern. That is why we are doing our level best to promote Test cricket now.

"We are playing more Test matches, there will be a focus on the Tests. We need to promote all three forms of the game and we are not thinking only from the position of money. There may be more money in Twenty20, more money in one-day, but it does not mean that we should compromise with Test cricket."

Sometimes it has been possible to believe that India says one thing and does another, but perhaps that is merely an irrational distrust of its obvious clout. Shukla, with the enthusiasm of the new office bearer, warmed to his theme. As well as slicker marketing, he forwarded another idea to save the Test game.

"We are thinking that we should organise more Test matches in B towns because in the populated metropolises people are always in a hurry, they're busier, they want Twenty20, they want the one-dayer. But in B grade cities in India where they hardly get any international cricket but still have large populations, if a Test match is organised people will want to watch it." A few possible venues tumbled out: Cuttack, Guwahati, Jaipur, Rajkot, Kanpur. The players may hardly be able to wait to fulfil their role as five-day missionaries.

Shukla, 51, is himself from Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. He has come a long way. His professional life began as what is described now in the fulsome brief website pen pictures as "a humble reporter". From his local paper he climbed up the journalistic ladder to become one of the best known faces in Indian television as a sensitive and gently persuasive interviewer.

He also gradually made his way in cricket, starting in the relatively lowly, indeed humble, capacity as a media man on tour. In the lounge of his Delhi home there is a photograph of Shukla sitting beaming on the Lord's balcony in 2004 while next to him the India captain, Sourav Ganguly whips off his shirt, forever commemorating his side's stunning one-day victory.

Eventually, Shukla became an MP in his home territory of Uttar Pradesh and last year was made Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the Congress Party government. He was also one of the five vice-presidents of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, for Central Zone. But his elevation to IPL boss marks him out as a real mover and shaker.

The IPL ran into scandal last year when its founding commissioner, Lalit Modi, also a former BCCI vice-president, was run out of office for alleged malpractice. If nothing else, it became clear that the tournament was a runaway train. Shukla, whose affability may be just the ticket required, has been elected both to sustain the razzmatazz while ensuring probity. He might also do something about the ropey playing standard.

The collapse of one of the 10 franchises, Kochi, has naturally led to suggestions that the competition is not the licence to print money that has been conveyed. Shukla insists that everything in the financial garden is rosy, that all players will receive their money and that he will strike the right balance of mood. Ten teams have been reduced to nine with the number of permitted overseas players increased from 10 to 11.

"With the IPL there has to be more value added and the next one, IPL V, should be better than previous ones," he said. "At the same time cricket should be fully protected, the sanctity of the game should be maintained so there is no interference."

The tournament has spread cricket, even in India. More people from rural areas and working class backgrounds are playing it. The new fast bowler, Umesh Yadav, is the son of a coalminer (isn't that what England used to do, shout down the nearest pit for a fast bowler?). And Shukla was quick to stress that money from the tournament is being poured back into the game, much of it to the backwaters, 17 crore rupees, around £2.2m a year.

There seems a resignation about the ubiquity of the IPL now, although the spin-off Champions League has been less successful. To try to revitalise it the CL will be played in South Africa next year. There seems complete unconcern that neither of the one-day internationals so far between England and India has attracted a capacity crowd.

The BCCI is clearly on the offensive, however, against the accusation that it is simply staging too much cricket. Shukla said: "We have to play cricket, we have to go by the international calendar," he said. "Any player who is feeling fatigued should immediately let the board know and we will give him the rest. No player is forced to play."

In the background is football, English Premier League football especially. Nobody within cricket likes to say so in public but among the young it has a clear grip in India. The IPL is part of the fightback.

Nor it seems would butter melt in the BCCI's mouth with regard to its status in the ICC. The perception exists that what it says goes. This has been lent further credence by the recent hoo-ha over the Decision Review System which was ICC official policy and now isn't after Indian objections.

"The BCCI is not misusing its position at the ICC," said Shukla. "It is co-operating with all the groups and all the member countries. There is no hegemony. Having a point of view is not wrong. We are not against the system of DRS, what we were saying was make it more perfect, more correct." No hegemony then but plenty of swagger.

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