It sounds strange to write now of a tournament with such an established and distinct sense of nationality about it, but the Indian Premier League (IPL) happened in spite of Indian cricket itself. Even now, as we prepare for the seventh season of cricket’s richest, most envied league, focused on court cases and board purges, it feels as if it happens every season only after clearing any number of self-laid obstacles.
That, perhaps, is the way it is meant to be given its origins, because the idea for such a league was floating around Indian cricket since the 90s at least. That would mean it took comfortably over a decade to put idea into action. Even then, it required events beyond the control of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) for it to emerge.
The now-deposed Lalit Modi is acknowledged as the modern-day father of the IPL, not least by himself. On his website, he modestly titles himself the league’s “founder and architect”. He is justified in doing so, but it is not as if there are not other narratives to consider.
There are, for instance, those who say that Madhav Rao Scindia, a Congress party leader and minister and BCCI president from 1990-93, had the inklings of an inter-city cricket league in the mid-90s. He wanted to structure it along the lines of English football, with the world’s best players taking part.
The action would revolve around the Captain Roop Singh Stadium in Gwalior, the ancient Madhya Pradesh city of which Scindia was a Maharajah. The stadium underwent an overhaul for the purposes of the idea, with floodlights installed and facilities upgraded.
He even went as far as to secure a blueprint for the league, drawn up by IMG in 1996. “At the time we were working on several concepts, including an idea similar to the Hong Kong Sixes, or a league that could co-exist with the domestic structure,” a former head of IMG told the authors of ‘IPL, an inside story: cricket & commerce’.
As Twenty20 cricket, as a format, was still seven to eight years away, Scindia’s league was to be a 50-over one. It would run over four to six weeks in the summer and be played at a series of new stadiums. There would be no auctioning for players, but the league was ready to offer up to Rs 200,000 as an annual contract to players. By the standards of the time, those were astronomical figures.
Scindia recruited Arun Lal, the former international and current commentator, to bring in the best players from within India and outside.
Even the origins of Scindia’s plans, however, are traced back by some people to Modi, as long ago as the mid-90s when nobody in cricket really knew him. Modi had returned to India from the US at the turn of the decade to join Modi enterprises, a large, successful business group owned by his family.
He had reportedly been a keen sportsman at school. But it was in the US, where he went to study, that his eyes were opened to the ideas of private franchise ownership of sports and the boundless possibilities of sport’s monetisation. In particular, he was fascinated by the NBA.
When he returned to India, conditions were already ripening around him for cricket to explode. He saw an ideal opportunity to Americanise the game and drew up plans for an inter-city league. At that stage, he had no contacts within cricket administration, so he pulled together Lal and legendary adman Piyush Pandey to push the idea upwards.
With the help of a longstanding administrator Amrit Mathur (now a consultant with Delhi Daredevils), the trio put together a feasibility report for an inter-city league of privately-owned franchises. Even at that time, according to an interview Pandey gave to Indian magazine The Caravan, the idea of the league was to function as “a festival, entertainment beyond just cricket—that was [Modi’s] learning from the NBA.” They managed an audience with the BCCI but saw the project turned down; a wary board arguing such ideas can only come from state associations and not private individuals.
It was after this rejection that Modi, through some friends, is said to have approached Scindia, who was at the time head of his state association. Scindia liked the idea and by identifying potential sponsors, owners and players, added serious robustness to it.
Now with a form of official sanction behind it, in the shape of Scindia, the proposal was put to the BCCI again. It was rejected again. This time, the board was said to be spooked by the possibility of ceding its own control and influence over the game to new private owners. The board wanted to pick its own teams and own the event, not let it run independently. Publicly, they muttered something protectionist about not really wanting foreign players in such a league.
“In a way, it was good because in hindsight, the market was not ready for such an idea,” Mathur said in ‘IPL, an inside story’. “The event was tiny compared to today’s IPL.” There are other avenues worth noting in tracing the origins of the league. GMR, the owners of the Delhi Daredevils, have previously claimed sending similar proposals to the BCCI.
But the imprint of Modi behind the first and subsequently, the most persistent push, is impossible to miss. The only problem was that he was initially an outsider as far as the board was concerned. All he needed to do was bide his time until he was on the inside.
Until the IPL took off, Modi’s track record in setting up businesses was not sparkling. In 1993, four years after his return from the US and with a handy trust fund from the family business, Modi set up Modi Entertainment Networks (MEN).
The timing was not bad. Modi was attempting to ride on the crest of the satellite and cable TV revolution in India at the time; MEN was a joint venture with Walt Disney Pictures to distribute Disney content within India. Within a year, MEN had signed a 10-year deal worth US$975 million with ESPN to distribute their content across India.
Those deals would eventually fall through, however, Modi’s alleged unscrupulousness the cause. The failure of his inter-city cricket league proposal at this time was of a piece with these and other failed ventures (he even tried and failed to set up direct-to-home television in India, around that time).
His fortunes turned at the turn of the century, when he broke through into cricket administration. He had a short-lived stint as a member of the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association before eventually joining the Rajasthan Cricket Association (RCA). Here, with some political backing, he rose to real prominence, elected president in 2004.
It was that post which got him into the BCCI. In a fierce and bitter BCCI election in 2005, Modi helped Sharad Pawar become BCCI president and was rewarded with the post of vice-president, Importantly, he gained control over the important finance and commercial functions of the board.
Now he was on the inside and his plans for a league lived again.
The problem was that the BCCI did not seem ready for Twenty20 cricket. The administration that had brought in Modi had expressed a clear, puritan distaste for the format from the start.
England, Pakistan, South Africa and Australia jumped headlong into the format by organising financially successful domestic Twenty20 tournaments soon after it was created in 2003. India resisted until as late as 2007.
When they did organise an inter-state Twenty20 tournament, it was done hurriedly. The BCCI had a gap in their schedule after Inida were knocked out of the 50-over World Cup early and the tournament began even as the World Cup was still on. Despite the presence of their major stars, it was not even broadcast. It seems inconceivable now but because it was shoehorned into the calendar, the BCCI had not even sold TV rights for it.
Part of the reason for holding the tournament was the upcoming inaugural World Twenty20 in September 2007. The BCCI had agreed to take part, but only after they and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had initially indicated they would not.
One tale goes that it was only after the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) then chief executive Malcolm Speed warned both boards that the tournament would go ahead with or without them (and they were awarded the right to jointly co-host the 2011 World Cup) that they decided to take part.
India’s unexpected win in the final – ironically over the other reluctant, Pakistan – capped an enthralling campaign. It ran almost perfectly as a promotion for the IPL, dotted with images and memories that would not seem out of place in the league itself: Yuvraj Singh’s six sixes, S Sreesanth’s madcap celebrations in the high-octane clash with Australia.
Presiding over it all was MS Dhoni, new and fresh and cool like he was a young cricketing Brando. Dhoni, more than anyone, would come to represent something intrinsic about the IPL. That win lit the fuse on Modi’s plans. India were world champions in the format; in Dhoni, they had the face for a new generation. Two days into the World Twenty20, the BCCI officially announced the launch of the IPL.
Yet, even then, the BCCI were so lumbering that they had been beaten to a private domestic Twenty20 league. Zee TV, a vast television network owned by a leading business house, the Essel Group, had already announced in April 2007 that it was setting up a league which would mix domestic players with leading foreign ones.
That league was set up by Subhash Chandra Goel, Essel’s head, allegedly in response to having been denied TV rights to Indian cricket by the BCCI despite having put in the highest bid. The BCCI refused to recognise the ICL and pushed boards around the world to punish their players who took part in it. They also denied the league use of the country’s major cricket grounds.
Despite all this, the ICL went ahead with its first season in November 2007. It was the start of that which finally tipped the IPL from idea to actuality, though the BCCI denied it had anything to do with it. “Modi wanted to start an inter-city league in the 1990s,” said Ratnakar Shetty, a senior BCCI official. “The idea was always there at the back of his mind. We have not plucked it out of thin air one fine morning.”
Whatever the reasons, the BCCI, finally, belatedly, were forced to act. Now Modi’s legendarily relentless and whirlwind ambition took over. During that year’s Wimbledon, he met senior IMG official Andrew Wildblood and the pair hammered out a plan of how the league would be structured, including the idea of city-based private ownership franchises.
The BCCI hired a direct marketing company, sent their plans to 1200 companies. By January 2008, 90 Indian companies picked up the franchise offer documents. By the end of the month, a collection of India’s biggest business giants and Bollywood stars gathered at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium as the winning tender bids were announced.
For all the interest, only 10 of the bids were ultimately deemed valid, but combined, the eight city franchises sold for US$724 million. Within the next month, Modi brought the IPL to life. With the promise of untold, untapped riches from India’s economy, he signed up 100 of the world’s best cricketers. Title sponsors and a massive TV rights deal were inked in and he staged an auction where the players were bought by the franchises.
By April 18, as Brendon McCullum set the script with a 73-ball 158, the IPL was born, to fireworks. From announcement to execution, it had taken a mere seven months, a truly fitting Twenty20 denouement to an idea that had developed at Test-match pace for over a decade.