Mar 09, 2012 at 11:43am IST

Will N Srinivasan save Indian cricket?

On the face of it, this may sound contrived. But fact is, to understand cricket and the skulduggery that now beleaguers the sport all of us Indians love so hopelessly, you ought to understand a bit of how the cement business operates in this country. This, for one simple reason: N Srinivasan — president of the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI), head of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, and owner of Chennai Super Kings (CSK) at the Indian Premier League (IPL) — is also managing director of India Cements.

And it is at India Cements, a company his father founded in 1946, that Srinivasan earned his spurs. He once told a colleague of ours a couple of years ago: "I don't go looking for fights. Fights come looking for me." And the man knows to fight hard!

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Now cement is what people describe as "smokestack" businesses — a polite way of saying old-world businesses where no corners are given, folks keep their head down, talk little and simply fight tooth and nail for every little penny. It's a world Srinivasan is intimately familiar with.

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For instance, there was this time when Ambuja Cements was a big name in the business.

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A rapidly growing company in Western India, the then chairman Narotam Sekhsaria badly wanted a toehold in South India. The only thing holding him back was the cost of transporting cement down there from his plants in the west.

A shrewd Sekhsaria figured he could offset these costs if he used the sea. But even as he was putting a plan into place, environmental lobbies sprung into action, petitioned the courts and argued that this would damage the coast. The courts ruled in favour of the green lobby and Sekhsaria had to shelve his plans. There is no way to corroborate this. But it was then alleged that it was Srinivasan who’d instigated the green lobby. When asked about this, he then said with his trade mark straight face, "I think they just lost interest in the south. I was lucky."

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Call it luck, call it whatever, India Cements soon turned into a profitable business under his hawk-like gaze. But there's also something disconcerting about the gaze. Though he's soft spoken, something tells you, you ought not to get on his wrong side. People we tried to connect with, didn't want to speak 'on the record' about the BCCI. "The BCCI is like the Kremlin," they told us. "Srinivasan is extremely conservative. He was always very efficient and methodical. But he doesn’t delegate much." It's the kind of work ethic that helped turn around the cement business.

He's part of a world that rebuilt a Ganesh temple that had gone to ruin outside the Chepauk stadium in Chennai because he believes it watches over the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association. By all accounts, he fits all the text book clichés of the south Indian businessman.

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Now, Lalit Modi is the antithesis of all that Srinivasan embodies. He likes the good life, glitz, and glamour, possesses an entrepreneurial zeal that can only be described as mercurial; but most importantly, has as many friends in high places as he has enemies. Put all of these traits together and what you have is the story of a man who created the Indian Premier League (IPL), which lies at the heart of this story.

To put the league together, he needed the blessings of the BCCI—which at least on paper, was created to popularise cricket in the country and is a not-for-profit entity. But in a series of moves that can only be described genius, he subverted the system, appointed himself commissioner of the league and catapulted himself into the limelight.

In doing that, he got monies into cricket that was unheard of. But also committed a series of gaffes and was soon ousted as IPL Commissioner. He now lives in London claiming threats to his life from the underworld. But that is another story altogether. The real story is that in creating the IPL, Modi set into motion a system that has now collided with the more sedate world Srinivasan lives in—so much so that things almost seem to have spiralled out of control and Indian cricket looks like it’s in a morass.

We tried to talk to Modi for his version of the events that have led to the current situation. He sent a detailed reply, but with a caveat — all of what we write had to be cleared by him. We declined because that goes against our editorial policy.

When Lalit Modi rolled the IPL out, it attracted millions of new viewers. But recently, the numbers of people watching the tournament (TVRs) are falling (see graphic on page 40). Last year, there was a legitimate reason. People were tired after watching India win the World Cup and fatigue had set in. "The IPL followed the emotional high of an Indian World Cup win," says Sundar Raman, IPL CEO.

But fact is cricket hasn't recovered since then. The IPL was followed by a horror tour of England. Matters got better when India thrashed England on the return leg; but West Indies' tour of India didn't get people excited. India's tour of Australia put viewers off completely and cricket has been on a downward spiral. That is why IPL 5 is so important. The league gets in at least half of BCCI's revenues. If it doesn't get ratings to shoot upwards, the BCCI's two other big properties, the Champions League T20 (CLT20) and international matches played in India will get into a downward spiral as well. The knock-on effect is not felt in the ad rates for the current series but the next one. So, now, advertisers are asking for a minimum guarantee viewership for the next big tournament: IPL.