With its crisp white uniforms and languid pace, cricket has long been considered a strange, stodgy sport. Not so in the Indian Premier League, an American-style sports association like the NHL or NBA, that boasts cheerleaders, celebrity team owners (many of them Bollywood stars), and a new, fast-paced form of cricket—dubbed Twenty20—that lasts just a few hours, unlike traditional test cricket matches, which can take five days. In its three short years of existence, the IPL has ballooned into a $4-billion brand. But it’s been rocked by a scandal that’s hit Indian politics and taken down the league’s founder, with more fallout to come.
This year’s season ended in dramatic fashion when, on April 25, the Chennai Super Kings beat out the Mumbai Indians by 22 runs, winning the final. Only a few hours later, the drama intensified: IPL head and founder Lalit Modi was removed from his post, accused by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) of bringing “a bad name to the administration of cricket and the game itself.” The trouble began when Modi, an avid Twitter user, tweeted that the girlfriend of Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor was an investor in a new IPL franchise, sparking accusations the politician had pulled strings to secure a stake for her. (Tharoor denied wrongdoing, but resigned anyway.)
The BCCI launched an internal probe into allegations of corruption and money laundering at the IPL, and the government opened a tax evasion investigation. To make matters worse, on May 6, Modi was accused of secretly plotting to create an IPL-style event in England, which British cricket chief Giles Clarke said would “destroy world cricket’s structure” by buying away the best players and creating a “rebel league” outside the official England and Wales Cricket Board. Modi has reportedly threatened to sue Clarke over the claims, as investigations continue.
Modi, says journalist Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta in New Delhi, is “one of those brash young upstarts who rubbed more than a few people the wrong way.” Still, in creating the IPL, he managed to tap into a fledgling sports market: with India’s booming economy and the rapid spread of satellite TV and digital media, conditions were right to profit from a fast-paced, celebrity-fuelled sport. (In May, YouTube reported that IPL’s online channel got 54 million views over the 2010 season, far more than the expected 9-10 million.
As the IPL exposure grew, Bollywood stars snapped up franchises and the best players signed on to lucrative contracts. Soon, the league was known for its glitzy after-parties as much as the cricket matches. That could account, at least in part, for the Indian team’s dismal performance at the recent Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies, where they were favoured to win but suffered an embarrassing loss to Sri Lanka, dropping out before the semifinals. Indian coach Gary Kirsten, a South African, was one of several to blame the IPL’s intense six-week schedule—and post-game partying—for the team’s result. “We had a bunch of cricketers who were quite tired when they arrived,” he said.
As Modi gamely fights off the charges against him, industrialist Chirayu Amin has stepped in as interim IPL chairman, promising “the show will go on.” Observers predict that fallout from the cricket scandal will, too. “Women put mud on their faces to make their skin glow,” Guha-Thakurta says. “Maybe after all this mud has been flung around, the game will be a little bit cleaner.”