IT WAS 1993, and Sunil Gavaskar and Motganahalli Jaisimha were lounging in a hotel room in Chennai. Two of India’s sporting greats, they came from different generations, but their careers on the Indian cricket team had overlapped for precisely 11 frenetic days in Trinidad and Barbados in 1971, during India’s legendary series victory against a rampant West Indies side. Between Jaisimha’s time and Gavaskar’s, Indian cricket had steadied itself.
The torch had now passed to their successors, and they were free to sit in the groggy afternoon, reminiscing and laughing. With them in the room was a third man, a large but unobtrusive spectator who, from all available evidence, admired them unstintingly. Narayanaswami Srinivasan was 49 years old, and had loved cricket for a great many years. In time, he would come to see this love as a kind of patriotism, and everything he would do for cricket as a form of service to his country.
He listened quietly to them. He was dressed for summer, and his hair was not quite a mullet, but certainly business up front and a party in the back. This was all, in fact, Srinivasan’s party. One of Chennai’s most famous businessmen, he had generously agreed to sponsor a Tamil Nadu cricket player’s benefit match, and got to hang out with a clutch of sporting heroes in return (Gavaskar brought along Michael Ferreira, the national billiards champion).
The match was held the following day. It began competitively but ended in farce, as benefit matches often do. Srinivasan turned up to the after-party sunburnt, and lingered in the company of international cricketing legends, some of them former captains of their national teams. There were others who had come close, also-rans who should have made it to the top but hadn’t. The happy stories of the stars drowned out the sadder tales of the might-have-beens. All this was new for Srinivasan, even though his company, India Cements Limited, owned several local clubs in the city and had paid salaries to their cricketers for decades. Moments like these were unusual for people who dealt in clinkers and kilns.
That evening Srinivasan flitted between cricketers, holding a tall drink in one hand and a tobacco pipe by its bowl in the other. Gavaskar dug a hand into his own pocket, shut his eyes, and sang while a band played. A cake was brought out. Fifteen flimsy cricketers populated the green icing. The first slice was from long on, and it was presented to Srinivasan with ceremony.
From there, his ingestion of cricket began.
THE SRINIVASAN WHO WALKED into the meeting of the International Cricket Council at its headquarters in Dubai on 9 January this year looked like a different man. Time had left him sunken-eyed and serious. He was now the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the most powerful cricket board in the world; but it had been a difficult year, and the annoyances were piling up. His presumptive leadership of global cricket was under threat. He even had a cataract to take care of.
For the two decades since the benefit match, Srinivasan worked to fuse himself with the sport in a way that no cricket administrator had in the past, and outplayed some of the most formidable men in the business. Jagmohan Dalmiya, a supremely wily strategist, had been Srinivasan’s boss at the BCCI once, but had been relegated to relative obscurity. The redoubtable Sharad Pawar, chief of the Nationalist Congress Party and one of India’s toughest politicians, had been the BCCI president, and then the ICC chief in 2010, but Srinivasan had outflanked him, too. And Lalit Modi, Srinivasan’s most vocal rival and the manic architect of the money-spinning, short-format Indian Premier League, was living in exile in London—a circumstance for which he blamed Srinivasan.
Every once in a while, the shark tank of Indian cricket administration is invaded by an exceptional individual, the kind of leader who directs the current away from old habits and instincts and resets the terms of the game. Dalmiya had been the first of them—an obdurate power player, more familiar with Indian cricket’s constitution than any of his peers. He had come to prominence just as satellite television arrived in India, with marketers and agents in tow. The money that cricket promised to attract was greater than even Dalmiya could imagine. It took an inventive mind like Lalit Modi’s to think of the many ways in which such wealth could be multiplied: logos above logos, shirt sponsors, hotel sponsors, image rights, even a version of the game that would make its more conservative loyalists shudder. But all that money needed a manager with a mind like an abacus, a man who understood what it was really worth, and what it was good for. Srinivasan turned out to be that man.
No cricket administrator rose more quickly from practical obscurity to international fame than Srinivasan. He served as member on four committees of the International Cricket Council, the sport’s apex body, to which all national cricket boards belong. Back home, having muscled his way into the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association and then the BCCI, he took firm hold of every important decision-making process in both organisations. It was often difficult to discern the limits of his influence on the game. In the most telling example, India Cements, the company of which he is now the vice chairman and managing director, gained ownership of the IPL’s Chennai Super Kings franchise in 2008, when Srinivasan was BCCI secretary. This became possible after the board changed provisions barring administrators from taking any commercial interest in Indian cricket to exempt the IPL. An editor who has covered cricket for nearly two decades summarised for me the roots of Srinivasan’s domestic power. “The boards”—those governing the regional cricket associations in India—“are incompetent,” he said. “Among them, Srinivasan is a powerful, charismatic figure. He tells them, ‘Without me, you will not get money.’”
But, in recent months, Srinivasan’s rapid ascent up the leaderboards of cricket administration had slowed. Since May 2013, practically every newspaper and news channel in India had clamoured for Srinivasan’s resignation from the BCCI after his son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan, a senior official for the Chennai Super Kings, was arrested on the charge that he had placed illegal bets on IPL games. Mumbai police suspected that Gurunath had leaked confidential team information to fixers. At a raucous press conference, Srinivasan insisted that Gurunath, whose family owned Chennai’s oldest movie studio, was simply “very enthusiastic.” But the din of the unbelievers kept swelling. For two months, newspapers reserved front-page space for Srinivasan, whose assessing eyes stared coldly out at the nation from his photographs. Finally, in June 2013, he offered to “step aside”—a kind-of, not-quite resignation.
Investigators handpicked by the BCCI soon cleared him and Gurunath of any wrongdoing, and Srinivasan resumed office in September. But even as he carried on—pausing only occasionally to tell reporters to “stop hounding” him—in October the Supreme Court acted on a petition filed by the Cricket Association of Bihar which contended that, with Srinivasan in charge of the BCCI, a meaningful inquest could not be expected. The court appointed a retired high-court judge, Mukul Mudgal, to investigate the allegations credibly.
The considerable weight of all this scrutiny bore down on Srinivasan as he entered the ICC meeting in January. His counterparts from other national boards were wary. They were all well-versed in the arts of surviving the vagaries of power—the fixture from Zimbabwe is Robert Mugabe’s man—but Srinivasan was more than a match for them. He always prepared well for meetings, he could think like an accountant, he kept his advisors close, and almost never failed to ensure that his supporters were happy and well-rewarded.
Three different people—a prominent cricket commentator, an editor at a popular sports website, and an ICC official—told me as much in interviews. “I haven’t known any BCCI secretary or president reading meeting papers as thoroughly as Srinivasan,” the ICC official said. “He’s more prepared than anyone else.” The official did not wish to be named; when we spoke in March, it seemed certain to him that Srinivasan, in spite of the quagmire of corruption charges threatening him at home, would soon be his new boss. News had already broken that the ICC was resurrecting a lapsed office, that of chairman—a step above the president and the CEO—and it was all but confirmed that Srinivasan would be its newest occupant.
The January meeting began with the chairmen of the English and Australian boards explaining a new plan, and then explaining themselves. The Financial and Commercial Affairs Committee of the ICC, one of four committees on which Srinivasan sat, was introducing a proposal to radically reorganise the council, and so revise the balance of power in international cricket. “India, England, and Australia,” the tabled document stated, “have agreed that they will provide greater leadership at and of the ICC.” Put plainly, the three biggest markets in global cricket would manage the cricketing affairs of the ICC’s more than one hundred member nations.
Then came the money talk. The document explained that India contributed 80 percent of the ICC’s revenues. The next largest market, England, had a single-digit share. “The current revenue model is lopsided,” Srinivasan told his unsettled listeners. “India gets the same amount as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.” To bring some balance to the distribution of profits, he suggested, 25 percent of the organisation’s global revenues would go into India’s purse.
A Pakistani official present that day recalled that the representatives of England and Australia seemed oddly apologetic. They said, as he remembered it, that “this proposal was the only way of keeping India within the international tent.” (The official declined to be identified because, he said, “we are trying to improve our relationship with the BCCI.”) Foreseeing resistance from the other administrators, the big three had packed an Excel table, full of spectacular revenue projections, into their 21-page vision document. They pointed out that they expected the ICC to earn from $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion between 2015 and 2023. From 2007 to 2015, they estimated, the ICC’s revenues would total $2 billion. These riches would be shared among the member nations (which meant, first and foremost, that the richest boards had every chance of getting richer). Najam Sethi, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board at the time, waved away all this talk; it was clear under the proposal that the three big boards would control all meaningful decision-making. “This is a take-it-or-leave-it situation for us,” Sethi reportedly told the gathering.
The proposal to modify the ICC’s power structure simply represented, at the highest level, what was more or less Srinivasan’s modus operandi wherever he worked. As president of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, he had used an absolute majority of loyalists to remove term limits; this year, he was elected chairman of the group for the fourteenth consecutive time. As president of the BCCI, he altered rules that barred elected representatives from seeking re-election. At every step, he had succeeded by pushing the boundaries with little regard for popular opinion.
In February this year, the Mudgal commission published its report on the IPL spot-fixing charges, making grave allegations of wrongdoing against Srinivasan, as well as twelve others. A Supreme Court bench called it “nauseating” that Srinivasan was still in power at the BCCI, and barred him from the presidency of the organisation until it could complete further investigation into the allegations. Then, on 26 June, Srinivasan was elected the chairman of the ICC unopposed. No Indian cricket administrator had come so far, leaving so much chaos in the wake of his ambition.
IN THE OFFICIAL HISTORY OF INDIA CEMENTS, Srinivasan’s father, TS Narayanaswami—they called him TSN—is one of the company’s two founders, alongside a man called Sankaralinga Iyer. Both men are described as pioneers, who created a cement empire that began with a single factory in Talaiyuthu, “an almost unmapped tiny hamlet in India’s southern-most district.”
Talaiyuthu, in Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district, is the type of town that’s on the way to somewhere else. It sprung up around the factory in the 1940s and 1950s, and its landmarks suggest a bias towards an older version of the facts. Up the main road is the Sankar Nagar police station; the cricket stadium near Sankar Higher Secondary School has a patchy field; the women’s hostel at Sankar Polytechnic College is about half a kilometre from the men’s. In his 2013 book Cement Uncements, R Natarajan, a former assistant editor at The Hindu, attempts to set the record straight on Iyer and Narayanaswami’s real places in the company’s history. He asks: “If TSN was the founder of India Cements, what was Sankaralinga Iyer? Was he TSN’s assistant?” No, Natarajan replies to his own query. “The fact is otherwise. Iyer was its founder and TSN was his assistant.”
The name of India Cements is entwined tightly with Srinivasan’s career in cricket. The company sponsors the Chennai Super Kings, and its logo emblazons the jerseys of its players. These include Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the captain of the Indian national team, who also leads the Super Kings, and was made the vice president of marketing at India Cements in 2013. Srinivasan’s rise to the top of his company, in some ways, foreshadowed his later rapid ascent through cricket.
Cement manufacturing was a matter of national concern through the Second World War and in newly independent India. Armed with one of only six licenses issued to new cement manufacturers by the government, Sankaralinga Iyer founded India Cements in 1946, and asked Narayanaswami to join him soon afterwards. By 1949, the company had expanded, under a leadership that practiced a form of “benign autocracy,” as noted in an unpublished company record. Employees “were not highly paid, but the company took care of them in a way a parent would his family. The employees too reciprocated with dedicated service without expectation of reward.” Srinivasan was immersed in this culture from early on; in later years, similar language would be used to describe his cricketing endeavours by many club owners and journalists, in whose eyes he was a patriarch who took care of those he considered “family” within the BCCI.
Narayanaswami left India Cements around 1950 for a venture started by Biju Patnaik, the future chief minister of Odisha, but soon attempted to return. Iyer had cooled to him, and it took a year of pleading and persuasion by relatives and mutual friends for Iyer to take Narayanaswami back. Once reinstalled, though, Narayanaswami made a good impression on the company’s leaders, who nominated him to the board in 1959. The company rode into the 1960s fully formed, with factories producing over a million tonnes of cement a year.
In 1968, Srinivasan, then in his twenties, was named the company’s deputy managing director. He reported to KS Narayanan, Iyer’s eldest son. The two young men had an uneasy relationship, which culminated in a public battle over company matters in 1979. Srinivasan came under severe scrutiny from the India Cements management. Cement Uncements claims that when Narayanan pulled Srinivasan up about a particularly questionable deal, he was “nonchalant, if not insolent. To get off the heat, he took a jaunt to Singapore.” Doubts over this deal were serious enough for the board to call a shareholders’ meeting to vote on Srinivasan’s dismissal.
This battle, and the complications that followed, bore several hallmarks of Srinivasan’s style—rule-manipulation, a talent for persuasion, and persistent allegations of political influence bolstering his business. At the meeting, to the board’s dismay, several shareholders rose up one by one to make themselves heard—a tactic meant to run out the clock. They went on about “relevant and irrelevant things,” Natarajan writes. “The chairman could not stop them.” Shareholders read from a script, and swore at company management. The distraction continued until the management of the hotel hosting the meeting told India Cements its time was up. The gathering dispersed without voting on Srinivasan’s removal.
Natarajan, whom I spoke to earlier this year, told me that a number of the most vocal shareholders “were people from the DMK”—the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a powerful party then in the state’s opposition. Whispers of Srinivasan’s political machinations in Tamil Nadu, largely linked to the DMK, surfaced regularly through subsequent years. For example, in 2002, allegations that he laundered undeclared income for DMK leaders came to light. Jayalalithaa Jayaram, then the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, accused her predecessor and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi of signing agreements that were supposedly biased in favour of “one individual.” According to a report in The Hindu, Jayalalithaa stated, “It was well known that Mr. Srinivasan was Mr. Maran’s benami”—a conduit for illegal funds for the veteran politician Murasoli Maran, Karunanidhi’s nephew.
In 1979, Srinivasan, like his father before him, left India Cements, but he returned in 1989. Several people I spoke to in Chennai attributed the return to his political connections, in particular to Maran. Only one person claimed otherwise. A S Panneerselvan, who covered politics in Tamil Nadu for many years and is now the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, was convinced that Srinivasan’s connections couldn’t have helped him. “The Maran connection has nothing to do with what he is today,” he told me. In 1998, Panneerselvan had been more certain about the nature of Maran’s relationship with Srinivasan: in a story for Outlook magazine, he described Maran as Srinivasan’s “godfather,” and wrote, “He uses his political connections very subtly so that very few notice the series of coincidences.”
When I asked him if these alleged political connections had anything to do with Srinivasan’s career as a sports administrator, he seemed sceptical. Panneerselvan reasoned that Srinivasan’s accumulation of power within cricket truly began after Maran’s death in 2003. “Maran’s sons”—the media baron Kalanithi and the politician Dayanidhi—“are not in favour of him at all. Everyone talks about their friendship, but the thing is, the nature of their relationship has not been documented.”
In years to follow, many would feel the brunt of such “series of coincidences.” Srinivasan often seemed like a chess player thinking several moves ahead of everyone else. In 2010, the sports journalist Sharda Ugra wrote a short profile of him on the cricket news website Cricinfo. It began:
If ever a movie was made about the rise of N Srinivasan, it would have to feature a scene reflecting the man’s ambition. The actor playing the man would be standing around with his aides in the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) office and charting out before them the course of his destiny. “All of you are fools,” he would say, and then tell them how it was going to be. “First the treasurer, then the secretary, then vice-president, after which the President.” Cutting through the deferential silence, the denouement would arrive with a drumroll, “Then I will try for the ICC.”
IN CHENNAI THIS MARCH, I met Bharath Reddy, a 59-year-old who managed players for the first-division cricket teams of the Sanmar Group, a conglomerate owned by Sankaralinga Iyer’s family. He was dressed in a pastel green shirt and carried a company badge, but his battered fingers gave the game away. As a young Tamil Nadu cricketer, 35 years ago, Reddy was India’s main wicketkeeper during a 1979 tour of England. His international career lasted for less than eight weeks, although he continued to play for Tamil Nadu until 1986. He retired when he was barely 32.
After that, Reddy became a cog in Tamil Nadu’s cricket machine, and in the process became one of Srinivasan’s earliest allies. In 1993—the year that Srinivasan sponsored the benefit match—Reddy was campaigning to be named secretary of the TNCA. The odds were stacked against him. The TNCA’s leadership had traditionally been dominated by a club of influential local businessmen, such as AC Muthiah, head of Southern Petrochemicals Industries Limited, and KM Mammen, of MRF Limited. Between them, Muthiah and his father, MA Chidambaram, had run the association for 42 of its 46 years.
In 1993, Reddy’s rival for the post of secretary was the industrialists’ candidate, a former international fast bowler named Prabhakar Rao. Rao’s backers were entrenched in the system, and had financial resources that Reddy couldn’t match. “Secretaries of all clubs are not well-to-do people … You have to get them drinks, you have to—” he broke off. “I’m not willing to spend money. I can give my hard work, but I’m not prepared to give money to win votes. At that time you need a godfather.”
In the twenty years since, contesting TNCA posts has only become more expensive. “At that time it did not cost a lot to run for office,” Reddy said. “Now a vote alone goes for one crore thirty lakhs.” I asked how he knew this. His glance was withering. “I’m talking to you about it. That’s a fact. That’s the last quoted price. You can’t buy the district votes outright, but you can buy them by spending money on them: entertainment, helping them with ground-lease renewals.”
Reddy needed an investor. He approached Srinivasan to fund his campaign, and struck a deal. “He was relatively young,” Reddy said. “So I spoke with him. I think he also wanted to come in”—to the fold of the TNCA. “Cricket was always one of the top things for people to get into the limelight. Otherwise why else would industrialists want to get involved?”
In 1994, a year after Reddy won his election, his benefactor campaigned to enter the association as vice president, but failed. The TNCA nominated vice presidents from two geographies, the Chennai clubs and the districts; Srinivasan campaigned from the city, but found the opposition to his candidature too great. AS Venkateswaran, an association lobbyist, remembered: “We were against Srinivasan because he was blindly supporting Bharath Reddy.”
The defeat rankled, and Srinivasan and one of his confidantes, Kasi Viswanathan—later secretary of the TNCA—set out to understand the reasons for it. “He planned meticulously,” a Chennai club owner told me this March. “There was very stiff opposition to NS”—Srinivasan—“in the districts. There were thirty districts, each of which had a vote. Barring three of them, nobody wanted him.” Viswanathan collected information on clubs and parleyed with owners on Srinivasan’s behalf. He reached out to old friends for information of value—anything that explained voting history, what the electors needed, or who their friends were. “He wanted to know what happened earlier in TNCA,” the club owner said. “He wanted to know about the elections, about the members.” He wanted to know more about alliances, too. “Gather, assimilate, dissect, understand member-club secretaries. What x needs, what y needs, what z needs. Every man has a soft spot. Every man has a weakness.”
Srinivasan set about influencing the districts outside the city by supplying them with cricket equipment. These were times when a little largesse went a long way. The rewards for electoral support were typically so scant, and clubs so depleted, that simple acts of kindness such as providing lunch money and arranging water for players could win friends. The districts could nominate two vice presidents to the TNCA; in 1995, two years after Srinivasan lost his first campaign, he was their nominee.
Reddy said the vice presidency was a dummy post for Srinivasan, more or less a stepping stone to the real prize—the president’s chair. For his part, unable to be re-elected to the post of secretary, he hung on to Srinivasan for a while. Upon becoming vice president, Srinivasan tried to convince Muthiah to replace the association’s new secretary, an accountant named Ashok Kumbhat, with Reddy. “Initially, Muthiah agreed,” the club owner told me. But club secretaries complained to Muthiah’s father, MA Chidambaram, calling the change unnecessary. So Muthiah forebore to appoint Reddy.
According to the club owner, Srinivasan’s campaign to unseat Muthiah in the next election, in 1997, owed something to how slighted he felt by this. Srinivasan stepped his campaigning up by an order of magnitude. Standing drinks and underwriting kit was relegated to amateur hour; he was now strengthening his position by buying clubs outright. “Very meticulously,” the club owner said, “he created his own support base with Egmore, Gandhi Cricket Club”—both clubs he acquired. “Now he owns 13 or 14 clubs. Now he has the entire association under his thumb.”
Despite his efforts, Srinivasan lost the 1997 election, too. But, in 2001, less than a decade after he first sought entry into the TNCA, Srinivasan became president of the association, and has remained at the post ever since. Venkateswaran, the TNCA vote-gatherer, said of the sea change, “Barring half a dozen people, everybody will vote for Srinivasan today.”
The Chennai club owner said Srinivasan was persuasive because he was “a great actor.” When we met, he impersonated Srinivasan angling for the presidential post: “I am here only for the welfare of you and cricket.”
“He has mastered the technique of getting votes,” Venkateswaran added. That view was shared by a former BCCI media manager who had worked with Srinivasan. “He knows only two things. He is either here—” he clutched his feet. “Or here—” he feigned a two-handed chokehold.
IN 1999, Muthiah was named president of the BCCI, thanks to the support of a man who had loomed large over both Indian and international cricket for years—Jagmohan Dalmiya. Dalmiya, a power player from West Bengal, had been named ICC president in 1997. The prime of his administrative career coincided with possibly the biggest development in cricket history—the explosion of the market for cricket broadcasting, particularly in the newly open Indian economy. Dalmiya was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to the Indian subcontinent in 1996, when it was co-hosted by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. By this time, Dalmiya had attracted the attention of the whole cricket-playing world; in his book Sticky Wicket, the former ICC CEO Malcolm Speed described him as “without doubt one of the most resolute, able, difficult, prickly, and unpredictable men” he had met.
Over the next decade, Srinivasan’s relationships with Muthiah and Dalmiya, antagonistic and convenient by turns, helped him consolidate his power, both at the TNCA and within the BCCI. “Our group brought Dr Muthiah to power” at the BCCI, a former senior official of that organisation from Rajasthan, known for his mining and construction interests, told me. “That’s Dalmiya, Arun Jaitley,”—the senior BJP leader who headed the Delhi District Cricket Association for over a decade—“all of us. We voted for him.” Badri Seshadri, one of the founders of Cricinfo, realised that Dalmiya was the real power behind the throne when he once took a proposal to Muthiah. “‘You must convince Dalmiya,’” Sheshadri recalled being told. “He made it very plain.”
But Muthiah and Dalmiya began to drift apart almost immediately after the former’s election. “Dalmiya probably thought that because Muthiah has been brought into power by him, he would be consulted on all matters,” the senior official said. “Which Muthiah did not do. To that extent, Muthiah was correct. But his knowledge of cricket was very limited, and he, in turn, started taking impulsive decisions.” Like many others, this official did not want to be identified, even though he had stepped away from cricket after being voted out of his post. It seemed an unspoken code among most cricket administrators that the safest place to be, after years of handling large contracts and currying favour, was underground.
In 2000, Muthiah’s opponents on the board grew unhappy with what they saw as his independent streak. With the Indian team going through a funk, Muthiah invited the retired Australian opening batsman Geoff Marsh to become a consultant for the country’s new National Cricket Academy. “That led to a lot of complications,” the official said.
Hoping to undercut Muthiah by strengthening an opponent on his home turf, his BCCI critics turned Chennai-wards, to Srinivasan at the TNCA. Muthiah’s term-limit as TNCA president meant he would have to leave office in 2002, and it was widely known that his succession plans did not include Srinivasan. “We thought, if anyone could beat Muthiah in TNCA, Srinivasan could,” the Rajasthan official remembered. “We started to pep him up in a big way.”
Meanwhile, apparently dissatisfied with Muthiah’s leadership of the BCCI, his former mentor, Dalmiya, also decided to withdraw his support. In the next BCCI elections, held in Chennai in 2001, Dalmiya won the presidency even though he was widely expected to lose to Muthiah. Two former cricket officials—Venkateswaran, and a confidante of Dalmiya’s—told me that Palaniappan Chidambaram, the former Indian finance minister, was in the hotel where the election was held at the time of the vote. The minister’s wife, Nalini, a Supreme Court advocate, was the election observer, but Chidambaram’s presence was perceived as a real show of Dalmiya’s strength. One senior journalist I spoke to, who was present that day, claimed, “It was clear: you don’t vote for me, you get raided by income tax.” When I contacted Nalini Chidambaram, she denied her husband had ever been at the hotel. “No, no, no,” she said. “He has got nothing to do with it.”
Defeated, Muthiah left the BCCI, but he continued to scrabble for purchase within the organisation—something that changed his attitude to Srinivasan. In the 2002 TNCA election, held that June, Muthiah surprised his supporters and rivals by vouching for Srinivasan. The organisation’s club representatives, used to thinking of the two as enemies, were taken aback; rumours about the volte-face still buzz around today, even a dozen years later. As part of the deal, Srinivasan apparently agreed to help one of Muthiah’s men into the position of association secretary.
One of the people he called on to get this done was Bharath Reddy. “He wanted me to support Muthiah’s candidate,” Reddy said. The memory clearly agitated him. “I told him I will not do it.” He held his arms tightly at his sides, and said, “He wants people to stand like this. I was not prepared to do it.”
During this election, Srinivasan displayed an uncanny ability to play difficult situations to his advantage. Ashok Kumbhat, the association secretary who had once expected to succeed Muthiah as president of the TNCA, decided to run independently. According to a person involved with Kumbhat’s campaign, six months before the election, “Srinivasan called us. He said, ‘Please don’t have a contest.’” Kumbhat disregarded the request, and continued his preparations.
However, before the elections could be held as planned, in June 2002, they were stopped for reasons that went beyond cricket. Tamil Nadu was then ruled by the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa, who had already cast aspersions on Srinivasan as a financial conduit for her rivals’ undeclared income. Shortly before the elections, Venkateswaran told me, Jayalalithaa made it known to Muthiah that the elections could not go ahead. He recalled the panic with which Muthiah called him. “‘Madam wants me to stop it. What do I do?’ I advised him to calm down. Let us find a solution.”
Muthiah decided to postpone the election, and left Venkateswaran to tell Srinivasan that the deal was off. He did so the next day, at a gathering of the association’s members, where he pulled Srinivasan aside after a round of drinks. To his surprise, Srinivasan insisted on going ahead with the elections. “He wasn’t upset,” Venkateswaran said. “He just said, ‘We’ll fight it out.’”
At this point Srinivasan had, to all appearances, a reasonable majority over Kumbhat—but not an insurmountable one. Venkateswaran told me that when he heard the election might be delayed, Srinivasan grew restless. In order to calm his mind, Srinivasan resolved to turn Kumbhat’s backers. Practically every night for the next month, he hosted dinners for different groups of club secretaries and owners. The month passed tensely, but elections went ahead as scheduled. In the end, Kumbhat won 61 votes. Srinivasan won over 120.
“In that one month, several of Kumbhat’s supporters became Srinivasan’s supporters,” the Chennai club owner said. “How, we don’t know.”
Within a couple of months of the 2002 TNCA election, Srinivasan announced he wanted to enter the BCCI as one of its vice presidents. According to Venkateswaran, he spoke with representatives from five states, and asked for their support at the board’s yearly general meeting, slated to take place in Kolkata that September. As once before, with his entry into the TNCA, there was no majority waiting to put him in place. Venkateswaran remembered telling Srinivasan, before he left, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t become vice president. The finance committee chairman of the BCCI is leaving to become the secretary of the BCCI. Why don’t you aim for the vacant post?” By the time they spoke again the following night, Srinivasan had done precisely this, and secured the office.
With the TNCA behind him and the BCCI awaiting, Srinivasan’s next major alliance seemed inevitable. The man at the centre of the BCCI was Dalmiya, so Srinivasan turned to developing a friendship with him. “TNCA’s votes, which were in the opposition, began to come to Mr Dalmiya,” the BCCI official from Rajasthan said. “Because he said”—to Srinivasan—“‘I’m going to support you and I’m going to remain loyal.’ He became very loyal, and very close. And the man is—” the official paused. “He’s a diligent man. Otherwise he couldn’t have lasted this long. He has got to have some merit in him. Lot of merit in him.”
SRINIVASAN ARRIVED at the BCCI right at the time when Indian officials were reassessing the worth of the one thing for which they commanded any price they wished: television broadcast rights for matches played in India. Numbers were growing in every dimension—viewers, screens, discretionary income. Indians who bought things had more to pay advertisers. In turn, advertisers had more to pay channels. The coffers of the BCCI swelled accordingly.
The finance committee turned out to be a worryingly good fit for Srinivasan, at least as far as some of its other members were concerned. In 2004, when Srinivasan had been on the committee for two years, the board invited bids for broadcast rights. The subsequent machinations and fallout clearly demarcated the gulf between Srinivasan and men such as Dalmiya. Both the board, as well as those who did business with it, understood that Srinivasan would not scruple to exceed his remit; he wanted to control how the board spent its substantial income.
The television-rights battle would prove a major step in achieving this objective. The senior official who told me the story was convinced that this was the moment when the balance of power in Indian cricket altered irrevocably—the moment in which Dalmiya set in motion a series of events that would prove his own undoing. In 2004, Srinivasan, Dalmiya and Kishore Rungta, then the BCCI treasurer, were part of the marketing committee, charged with selling television rights to the highest bidder. Two well-matched rivals went up against each other in this fight. On one side was ESPN-Star Sports, a monster venture involving both Disney and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. On the other was Zee TV, India’s first homegrown private broadcaster, which had become one of the country’s largest media companies. Zee had tried to acquire television rights for cricket in India and abroad before, but failed; the 2004 bid was a real chance at redemption. Subhash Chandra, the company’s founder, attended the meeting in person. Rungta and Srinivasan reportedly favoured Zee, while Dalmiya wanted to award the rights to ESPN-Star, who had sent a team of executives to make their channel’s case.
“We made tough conditions,” the official remembered. “The main purpose of those conditions, in my perception, was to eliminate Zee.” The broadcast requirements, published in a tender document, were stacked against Chandra’s company. For example, the BCCI wanted bidders to have at least two years’ experience in producing cricket broadcasts. Zee had none.
The BCCI’s members were concerned by rumours that Chandra desired not just to bid for rights, but to have a say within the board. The official told me that the thought of a broadcaster becoming a peer repulsed them. When they found that Zee’s bid was higher than ESPN’s on a year-by-year basis, the members asked ESPN-Star “if they were prepared to pay the same price for three years instead of four.” Rungta and Srinivasan objected to this, saying that Zee deserved a chance to raise its bid too. A senior executive from Zee, who was involved in preparing the channel’s bid, confirmed this to me. “Srinivasan said Zee were the highest bidders so they should be awarded the rights,” he said. However, “Dalmiya was not inclined toward that. We didn’t get a warm feeling from Dalmiya.”
When the board’s members met later that day, they reasoned that their conditions were probably too stringent for Zee to accept, according to the official. The potential revenues could not possibly cover the cost of the unprecedented bid; ESPN-Star would win anyway.
The next morning, Chandra returned with his reply. He said he would match ESPN’s offer, and agree to the conditions the board had laid down. The official said he could tell by Dalmiya’s body language that “this put off Mr Dalmiya to a very large extent.” If I remember correctly, he requested Srinivasan to chair the meeting when the discussion took place. A kind of authority was given to Srinivasan to deal with this subject.”
Dalmiya’s tenure as chief of the BCCI was scheduled to end in a few weeks, and he was poised to become the board’s first “patron-in-chief,” a nominal position. For some time until then, the board’s younger members—it is unclear if Srinivasan, aged around sixty at the time, was among them—had tried persuading Dalmiya to step aside and allow them to take decisions for the board.
When the Zee executive recalled the scene at the meeting, he remembered a room full of BCCI officials ready to give Zee the bid. The senior official had a slightly different recollection. Srinivasan, he said, quickly laid out the conditions under which the board would negotiate with the channels. “Srinivasan had power to chair the meeting only,” the official continued. But he overstepped his boundaries—he “faxed a letter of intent to award Zee the contract on the basis of that so-called authority without asking Dalmiya. The letter was completely ignored by Dalmiya, who wrote letters to the contrary. It became about the prestige of Srinivasan versus Dalmiya.”
IT WASN’T LONG BEFORE POLITICS, always hovering at the edges of cricket, insinuated itself right into its midst. As Dalmiya attempted to shore himself up against his opponents—some of much longer standing than Srinivasan—the tectonic plates of the sport shifted once again. A new giant had stepped on to the field—this time, no less a personage than Sharad Pawar. The politician “was pulled into battle” by Chandra and Srinivasan, the senior official told me. Pawar’s career in Maharashtra and national politics spanned four decades by this time. He had almost been the prime minister of India at least once, and ruled his turf in western Maharashtra with an iron fist. Everywhere he went, allegations of corruption and financial wrongdoing followed. Nothing, though, ever stuck.
“Pawar would never have come in if it wasn’t for Zee. Pawar had no interest in cricket,” the Zee executive said. He added, expansively, “Until 2004, Pawar didn’t even know what the BCCI was.” According to him, it was the first time the media highlighted the kind of money that was being bid. In a matter of days, Pawar decided to run for BCCI president, just as Dalmiya was leaving.
The election that followed was among the closest and most dramatic in the board’s history. In the end, Pawar lost owing to a technicality. Dalmiya, by virtue of his position, was able to cast four votes—the last of which gave his candidate, Ranbir Singh Mahendra, a one-vote majority over Pawar. But Pawar, having entered the field, proved unwilling to exit it. He was far better prepared for the 2005 election, which he swept. He turned to his associates and reportedly asked, “What is to be done after the office is elected and the committees are being formed?” After hearing them out, he told his advisors that he wanted Srinivasan overseeing the board’s accounts as treasurer.
Pawar’s decision to appoint Srinivasan to his team did not prove popular. It stood to reason that Pawar saw Srinivasan as an acceptable ally, but the new president’s confidantes had watched Srinivasan’s rise, and they doubted both his loyalty and his motives. Among Pawar’s advisers was Harish Thawani, a media entrepreneur who ran a television production company called Nimbus, which operates the two NEO sports channels. Thawani’s shaved head, full face, deep tenor and crisp articulation add up to give him the appearance of a reformed soccer hooligan. When we met, he recalled telling Pawar, “You are making the biggest mistake of your life. This snake needs to be finished now.” Pawar received this advice with tranquility. Srinivasan had his drawbacks, he told Thawani, but seemed to be a good administrator.
Once Pawar left the BCCI in 2010 to become the president of the ICC, he was replaced by a lawyer from Nagpur named Shashank Manohar, who came to be considered very close to Srinivasan. (The ICC official from Pakistan told me, that during an ICC meeting, Manohar suddenly changed his mind about a controversial technology-aided umpiring system just after Srinivasan leaned over and whispered in his ear.)
Even as secretary, Srinivasan’s influence was pervasive, and his opinions were taken seriously. Nimbus had bid over $600 million—about Rs 2,700 crore—for the rights to telecast cricket in India from 2006 to 2010, but that was in the past; Srinivasan was unimpressed by Nimbus’ delayed payments. At a meeting, Srinivasan told Thawani he should expect an official fax stating that if Thawani didn’t pay up, the BCCI would encash the company’s bank guarantee.
“When you leave this room,” Thawani replied, “I will be waiting for you outside and I will personally break both your legs. Then you won’t be able to walk home and you won’t be able to send me the fax.”
In spite of this, Nimbus once again won the right to broadcast Test and one-day matches in India for four years, at a price of $436 million—roughly Rs 2,000 crore—in 2010. This was an ambitious bid, based on an optimism belied by the company’s financial health. By 2011, it once again began to default on its payments. As luck would have it for Thawani, Srinivasan was by now firmly in charge of the casino.
BCCI presidents are elected for two-year terms, with the possibility of a one-year extension. Srinivasan had thrown his hat into the ring as the man to succeed Manohar. In spite of a conflict-of-interest case filed by Muthiah at the Supreme Court, which questioned Srinivasan’s purchase of the Chennai Super Kings IPL team while he was a BCCI official, support for Srinivasan was strong. Six regional associations nominated him for the post. In a last reversal of whatever Dalmiya’s intentions may have been for his rival, Shashank Manohar backed him too.
“Shashank and Srini were inseparable,” Thawani told me, about this period at the BCCI. “Shashank trusted Srini like he trusted his own wife. I’d fly to Nagpur and have lunch with Shashank on a Saturday and I’d say: What the fuck, Shashank? How can you forget?” He meant the wariness of Srinivasan that Pawar’s circle had once nurtured. “Who are you defending?” Thawani was upset that Manohar was now openly supporting Srinivasan as his successor. “And he’d say, ‘Srini’s not like that anymore. He has changed, you know? You come under the influence of good people and there is a good side in you that comes out.’”
The Supreme Court’s initial decision on Muthiah’s petition was a split verdict, and Muthiah filed another petition in August 2011 to nullify Srinivasan’s bid to officially take over the BCCI. The Supreme Court cleared Srinivasan to take up his post in September. Later that month, Srinivasan took over from Manohar as president. Two months later, the BCCI cancelled Thawani’s contract. Thawani says the board didn’t inform the company before calling it off.
By all accounts, Srinivasan had worked himself into positions of proximity to past presidents, making himself indispensable as the brains of BCCI’s operations. “When he was the secretary, he controlled things,” the senior editor who has covered cricket for years told me. “Even when he was a treasurer, he controlled. He managed to remain in control no matter what his designation was, which is highly unusual.”
Now, as president, he was unencumbered by the shackles of reporting to anyone else. Even to outsiders, the ease with which Srinivasan jumped between warring groups was disconcerting. “Look at Srinivasan,” the Zee executive said. “He was with Dalmiya, then Pawar, then Lalit Modi; and then Pawar moved to ICC and then Shashank was the president. He started working with Shashank but against Lalit and Pawar.”
THE ZEE EXECUTIVE TOLD me that Srinivasan was the only BCCI member his company had felt it could talk with. “We were in touch with him,” he said. “They asked us to pay one hundred crore in two days’ time with whatever the bidding conditions were, and we accepted that. We paid the money and after that we went to the courts.” There had been little wrong with the letter of intent Srinivasan had sent in Zee’s support; after all, the room in the India Cements office where these matters were decided had been filled with BCCI officials who had agreed to give Zee the rights. But ESPN-Star took the BCCI to court over the legality of the agreement, and an excruciating legal tussle followed. In 2014, the memory of how that contract was handled still annoyed the Zee executive. “Institutions like these should be run by the sports ministry,” he told me.
Srinivasan’s critical eye, and his efforts to shore up power, ensured that this kind of drawn-out conflict did not occur again. A former Nimbus employee who had witnessed negotiations with Srinivasan told me, “He used to be very tough. The only guy in that room who used to see what’s best for the BCCI. Others would skip over small details. He would say, no, it’s important that we are transparent and show propriety. Harish used to hate it.”
The cricketing globe, as seen on television in India, is carved up between a handful of Indian broadcasters. For cricket played in the country, an audience must tune in to Star. For games in the Caribbean, Zee’s Ten Sports. Zee’s eponymous network is the official cricket broadcaster for five other cricket boards, including South Africa. Every cricket administration has a preferred broadcaster. Dalmiya fought in ESPN-Star’s corner; Pawar’s BCCI accommodated Nimbus. If any such preference were ascribed to the BCCI in the Srinivasan era, the evidence would point to Star India, the News Corporation company that was once half of ESPN-Star.
In April 2012, soon after Nimbus’ contract was cancelled, the BCCI’s marketing committee awarded television rights to the network for Rs 3,851 crore—higher than the losing bid of Rs 3,700 crore, although not in any significant way when broken down by price per match, which is the unit by which broadcasters evaluate bids.
A week after the winner was announced, Life OK, a Hindi entertainment channel run by Star India, became a sponsor of the Chennai Super Kings. According to the deal, the channel’s logo would appear on every player’s “non-playing arm”—the sleeve that does not face the camera when a player is at bat. This was an unusual decision for a channel that was “hoping to stand out in the cluttered GEC”—general entertainment channel—“space through this sponsorship deal,” as a channel press release said. Life OK’s general manager, Ajit Thakur, told The Hindu, “When India Cements offered this sponsorship, we saw it as an opportunity.”
The apparent conflict of interest did not end with the sponsorship. Rajeev Shukla, a journalist turned politician whose family owns several news and entertainment channels, happened to be on the BCCI committee that gave the rights to Star India. In October 2012, employees of the advertising sales division at Shukla’s channel News 24 were told to resign, a high-ranking ad sales officer who was laid off told me. According to the Economic Times, it was decided that Star would run the channel’s ad sales in return for a minimum guarantee each year. This was not an unprecedented situation; Star had cut similar deals with other news channels in the past. The difference was that News24 was a minor player, with virtually no ratings to benefit an entity selling advertising on its behalf.
A former Star executive explained that the deal may have taken place because “the more vulnerable a channel is, the better the deal you can extract.” I asked him if he felt awarding the rights to Star indicated a conflict of interest, given that Shukla’s channel was to enter an agreement with Star shortly afterwards. He told me that Shukla’s television production company “used to supply content to Star for a very long time. We don’t know if he recused himself from discussions about awarding the rights.” Shukla did not reply to a request for an interview, and did not answer my phone calls.
But it was world cricket’s single biggest draw last year, and the off-field machinations that surrounded it, that raised the volume of questions about the BCCI’s favouritism and grudge-bearing to a crescendo. Sachin Tendulkar, India’s most popular player in the modern era, announced his intention to retire at the end of 2013. The match that was to be Tendulkar’s two-hundredth and final Test was to be played on tour in South Africa in December. It promised to be a marquee series—two strong teams, a number of exciting young cricketers, and the departure of the man widely considered to be India’s greatest cricketer of all time.
Then, before the tour, the BCCI announced that it would host Tendulkar’s farewell series at home instead. International cricket calendars are scheduled years in advance, but the BCCI’s officials justified their decision by claiming that Tendulkar wished to end his career at home. It went unsaid that the new series would benefit Star at Zee’s expense: Tendulkar’s last Test would obviously garner ratings not seen in nearly a decade. The Zee executive calculated his network’s loss of potential earnings at over Rs 35 crore. Meanwhile, media buyers estimated that Star’s advertising rates for the match would be five or six times higher than normal. At Tendulkar’s farewell ceremony after the match, the retiring legend was given a trophy to thank him for his service to the great game. It was handed to him by Uday Shankar, the CEO of Star India.
THIS MARCH, during a Supreme Court hearing related to the Mudgal report, a justice asked, “Why is Srinivasan sticking to the chair? If you don’t step down, we will pass an order.” The report, commissioned the previous October, had come out in February, after its authors had investigated the spot-fixing charges. It was damning as far as Srinivasan was concerned.
Srinivasan’s earlier reinstatement had been made possible by the inquiries of a BCCI-appointed committee, much to the derision of its critics. The Supreme Court re-opened the investigation and appointed its own three-member committee, which is expected to submit its report by the end of this month. But the censure of the apex court did not extend to its barring Srinivasan’s candidature for ICC chief. In June, when the ICC asked the BCCI to re-confirm its nominee to the post, the board remained steadfast in its support of its de facto president. A Press Trust of India report quoted unnamed BCCI sources as saying they had assured the ICC that putting Srinivasan on the ballot would not stand in contempt of the Indian Supreme Court. Some observers objected on principle. The cricket journalist Lawrence Booth wrote in the Daily Mail: “If Srinivasan is considered unfit to run the BCCI, he should not be handed the reins at the ICC, an organisation which—in theory at least—sits higher up the food chain.” Yet, once again, both the niceties and the votes were on Srinivasan’s side; he was rubber-stamped into the position unanimously.
Over the course of reporting this story, a number of messages and phone calls asking to meet with Srinivasan proved fruitless. His confidante Kasi Vishwanathan, a former secretary of the BCCI and an India Cements employee, told me that he wasn’t ready to speak with reporters.
Earlier this year, just days before the court recommended that he step down, Srinivasan allowed Prabhakar Rao, now a TNCA vice president, to speak with me on his behalf. We met at Rao’s office, a large space dominated by an outsize desk. He pulled out a list of safe talking points and said, “We will not embarrass him. He doesn’t believe in pulling anyone down. He likes to help cricketers. He has sponsored a number of boys in their careers I was told the board was spending Rs 9 crore a month on pensions.” Rao added that Srinivasan really looked after the districts that first nominated him. “TNCA gave each district fifty thousand as a subsidy to run cricket,” he said. “When we attended the golden jubilee of Salem District Cricket Association, he announced at the meeting that the subsidy will go up to two lakhs a district.” Rao spoke as though Srinivasan were the panacea to all of cricket’s ills. “Lots of private clubs are suffering due to rising costs. We spend 26 lakhs once in two years on kits for them. How many tournaments he sponsors! He has a very large heart.”
An India Cements employee who was “loaned” to the BCCI when Srinivasan took over the board told me, referring to the spot-fixing controversy, “We don’t have the need to know if the allegations are true or not. As long as we know our managing director, why should we bother with the media?” Srinivasan’s attitude, he said, had always been that “cricketers have made this money, so they should benefit.” He added that only a few people are against Srinivasan. “Most people are very happy.”
This is undeniable. Srinivasan has worked to share the wealth more than any other cricket administrator in India. He has raised the pensions that appear electronically—magically, one former player told me—in retired cricketers’ accounts on the same date month after month. He has funded associations generously to build new infrastructure. During his tenure as BCCI president, stadiums in towns such as Ranchi, Rajkot and Dharamsala were upgraded to international-standard venues.
Over the course of dozens of interviews, I was sometimes told that Srinivasan is an unreasonable man, and sometimes that he could be reasoned with. I heard that he was tough and sharp; I heard he was given to unexpected acts of kindness. He was a dodgy dealer, in a way that made you chuckle. An official from an IPL franchise told me that once, a young nephew of Srinivasan’s back in Chennai found himself in a spot of trouble. He had a swim meet to attend, but was unable to postpone a school exam happening the same day. The nephew was incredibly lucky, the official said, laughing. The swim meet was postponed after a cow was found paddling in the pool.
But I also saw, first hand, the hesitation his name often occasioned. Former players, and others involved with the sport, called me after interviews, worried that they had said too much. One man, who is over seventy years old, told me that changes to the BCCI constitution, such as the tweaking of the conflict of interest clause, “were made to suit the long-term interests of one individual,” and then requested that I not print his statement because, “at this age, I cannot attract controversies.”
When the Supreme Court barred Srinivasan from the BCCI presidency, it recommended the appointment of two ex-cricketers to hold the reins until its investigation was complete. The former bowler, Shivlal Yadav, had the general run of the BCCI; the former batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, was put in charge of IPL affairs. The appointments occasioned a brief surge of public optimism, but none of it was in evidence in my interviews. Srinivasan’s hold over the game goes so deep that not even the aged or the distant felt truly beyond his grasp if he chose to tighten it. “Every member of the BCCI is at his feet,” an associate of Srinivasan’s told me. “He doesn’t need to be anything to call the shots.”
On 16 July, at six o’clock in the evening, Yadav joined officials from a number of regional associations to toast Srinivasan, now the ICC chairman, at Chennai’s Chepauk stadium. They were “competing to praise him,” the associate told me. A portrait of Srinivasan was ceremonially presented to the man himself. Surveying the venue was another large picture of Srinivasan, hanging in the background. Yadav turned to him. “I pray to god that the bad period that we are only reading about in the media will be over as soon as possible,” he told the man under investigation, “and you will take over from me.”