Give me a Lalit Modi, please, instead of Allen Stanford (Commentary)

June 14th, 2008 - 11:36 am ICT by IANS  

By V. Krishnaswamy
Trawling through the net, I came across pictures of Sir Allen Stanford getting out of a black chopper bearing his name and on to the Nursery Ground at Lord’s. And then there was that amazing still of $20 million in $50 bills in plastic crate, which had been wheeled out after the Texan billionaire’s announcements of his promises to boost English and West Indies cricket. The sight immediately took me back to another picture, one where another bunch of millionaires were seated in a room for the auction of eight teams to play in the inaugural Indian Premier League. A few weeks later, players, too, were auctioned.

When some purists, whose sensibilities were hurt by the whole scenario, said the cricketers were made to feel like cattle, I must admit I did cringe, but said nothing.

One owner was the fifth richest man in the world; another a Bollywood icon and yet another owned an airline and Formula-1 team. There were a few others, too.

The market demanded and the market got. The players and their accountants did not complain either.

This time around, the sight of a man, albeit on a website, standing in front of $20 million of his own money and flanked by some of the greatest stars the game has seen - Sir Vivian Richards and Sir Garfield Sobers among them — and on a ground which has been the holiest of them when it comes to cricket, made me cringe again.

I am no purist. I accept the world has moved on. But I am amazed at the speed at which it has moved in the past few months.

Before the IPL was launched, questions were asked whether all this obscene sums of money would ruin cricket. Boards around the world were left wondering whether players would prefer playing a brand of cricket which might force a choice between playing for their country or for a city franchise in some alien land - a Sydney or Adelaide-born playing for Jaipur or Hyderabad instead of Australia.

All boards wanted their pound of flesh, we were told. And to Lalit Modi’s credit, he handled the pressure well and gave IPL a rousing start. Packed stands, soaring TV ratings and hungry corporates and hungrier spectators.

In stepped Stanford, a Texan billionaire, way less wealthy than India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, but a zillion times more aggressive than him. He is, perhaps, as aggressive as Vijay Mallya, also as flamboyant and probably, as impatient too. He had been turned down by South Africa and he had been turned down by India.

But Stanford had been embraced by the cash-strapped West Indies and now a none-too-rich England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) also felt his need, more so after the near-revolt from its players over the IPL issue. So he set up a $20 million one-off match each year for five years besides bankrolling another tournament worth $9.5 million for a total spend of $150 Million in five years. By the way, Ambani paid just under $112 million for the Mumbai team franchise alone.

Towards the closing stages of the IPL in Mumbai, there was the mother of all parties where Sharad Pawar sang paeans in praise for Modi. Modi deserved all credit for the IPL, but even then more than one standing ovation seemed a bit much. That was then.

Now, on Wednesday at Lord’s, ECB chairman Giles Clarke did for Stanford what Pawar did for Modi saying, “he (Stanford) is a great legendary entrepreneur and he has the entrepreneur’s ability to spot an opportunity and seize it and take it forward.”

By the way, Clarke is no less enterprising than Stanford. He graduated from Oxford and has an MA in Persian! The Wikipedia profile adds he paid his way through his exploits at gambling! An investment banker to start with, he has time and again set up successful businesses and sold them at considerable profit - from a wine business to pets to storage. Touche!

Opportunity? Was that another name for ECB’s need to counter IPL? Or their desperate need to keep players and in the process make some money for the Board?

Despite having worked for one of the IPL franchisees in the last few months, I am no apologist for the IPL. All that had happened bordered on being crass — once in a while it crossed over, too.

Yes, we did cringe. But who the hell were we to complain when we ourselves were paid a tidy sum? Perform or perish. Entertain or exit. Niceties be damned.

I cringed then. I cringe even more now. Modi only ran roughshod but did not resort to wheeling $20 million in cash at Lord’s. Please give me Modi instead of Stanford.

(V Krishnaswamy is consulting editor, IANS. The views expressed are his own. He can be contacted at v.krishnaswamy@ians.in)

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