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Book review: 'Maverick Commissioner' goes behind the scenes of Lalit Modi's rise and steep fall

Lalit Modi was the most important person in cricket between 2005 and 2010 - a phase that changed Indian and world cricket drastically.

June 20, 2022 / 01:11 PM IST
Lalit Modi (Image source: instagram.com/lalitkmodi/)

Lalit Modi (Image source: instagram.com/lalitkmodi/)

Writing a book on a subject from the era of the internet comes with both its perks and downsides. On one hand, research does not involve as much ‘leg-work’ as it used to in the 20th century; on the other, the advantage holds for everyone, thereby levelling the playing field.

So, what could a book on Lalit Modi tell us that we didn't already know? The man is more active on Twitter than many cricketers. News pieces from the 2000s and 2010s are archived on the internet. Modi himself told his version of events in a reasonably long interview with Mihir Bose in 2010.

maverick commissionerWe knew when, why, and how Modi set up the Indian Premier League (IPL); of the astounding sums he made for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI); of his abrupt suspension in 2010; of investigations against him by the Enforcement Directorate of India; and of his move to London, where he presently resides.

But what we did not know was why Modi fell as swiftly in 2010 as he rose a few years before that. We did not know what happened behind the scenes. That story needed to be told, for this is no ordinary person.

The founder, first chair, and commissioner of the IPL, Modi is one of the most significant characters in the 500-year history of cricket. He played a key role in establishing India at the centre of global cricketing power. He triggered a switch that may end up permanently changing cricket from being an international sport to a franchise-run sport.

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Maverick Commissioner by Boria Majumdar tells the behind-the-scenes story of not only the incidents leading up to Modi’s sacking but also of what preceded that, and preceded even the IPL. Along with a brisk narration of Modi’s salad days – which, as we find out, are far from mainstream – Majumdar visits, in significant details, his stint at the BCCI.

The 2005 elections (‘most acrimonious in BCCI history’) resulted in Jagmohan Dalmiya’s fall a year after he had used his own casting vote to stay in power. Dalmiya’s fall paved the way for Sharad Pawar, a significant moment in the history of Indian cricket.

The media had followed the elections, but not in detail about what happened behind the scenes. In a detailed account, Majumdar – he had reasonable access to the key personnel – elaborates how Modi manoeuvred the media ahead of the election, how he helped bring down Dalmiya by creating a perception of the latter’s corruption.

Majumdar’s comparison of Dalmiya’s defeat to Hillary Clinton’s in the USA elections is apt in more ways than one. Neither Dalmiya nor Clinton was expected to lose. Donald Trump used social media in the 2010s in the same way Modi had used mass media the decade before. And in 2010, Modi would actually compare himself to Trump.

Majumdar also describes Dalmiya’s defeat as a ‘kind of closure for Lalit Modi’ to take a quick detour of 1995, when Modi had pitched a fifty-over IPL. Over the next decade, Modi united with I.S. Bindra, then N. Srinivasan and Shashank Manohar, and finally Pawar to oust Dalmiya. "While it is never really said openly, a BCCI election is eventually won by the ruling party’s support in India," explains Majumdar.

There used to be several other missing pieces of the Modi puzzle. On April 11, 2010, he posted a barrage of tweets, the reasons for which remained vague. On April 25, he was suspended by the BCCI. The string of events that led to the tweets as well as what followed over the next fortnight used to be vague and often contradictory.

Majumdar strings together the pieces with information collected from one-on-one interviews. He explains how the tweets opened up the BCCI to "scrutiny from the Enforcement Directorate, the Income Tax Department", and how Srinivasan, Manohar, Arun Jaitley, Niranjan Shah, and Ratnakar Shetty distanced themselves from Modi as April 25 approached.

The book would not have been complete without a Lalit Modi interview, for "Lalit, as journalists would agree, made good copy. He was temperamental and would give you quotes which made headlines." That interview (one of several), and the steps that led to it, demonstrate how atypically maverick Modi used to be for an Indian cricket administrator.

Of course, the book is not without its faults. Given the material available, the book could have been trimmed. The first-person narrations could have been avoided in several places. There are also phrases like ‘what could be better than watching Shah Rukh Khan and Virat Kohli together’ while referring to the opening match of IPL 2008, a point of time when the stature of the two was not remotely comparable.

But all in all, Maverick Commissioner works because it provides behind-the-scenes information, helping the reader form a better picture of what transpired in Indian cricket between 2005 and 2010. Lalit Modi was the most important person of that phase that, despite being only five years long, left Indian and world cricket in a state barely recognisable from what it used to be. His story needed to be told.

Maverick Commissioner by Boria Majumder was published by Simon and Schuster.
Abhishek Mukherjee is an independent sports writer. Views expressed are personal.
first published: Jun 19, 2022 06:00 pm
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