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Lalit Modi: India's maverick impresario

26 April 10 16:47 GMT

By Shantanu Guha Ray, Delhi

Lalit Modi is the biggest sporting impresario India has ever produced - cricket's answer to Don King of boxing or Bernie Ecclestone of Formula One.

More than a decade ago, Modi helped international sports channel ESPN win the rights to broadcast cricket matches in India, where state TV had until then had a monopoly.

Years later, he shaped the hugely successful and lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) with all its colour and razzmatazz.

But today, the IPL guru is mired in allegations of money laundering, improperly awarding franchises for new teams and, worse, possible match-fixing.

'Trial by media'

Modi, 46, maintains he has done nothing wrong.

"It is a trial by the media, nothing has been proved," he told a jam-packed DY Patil stadium in Mumbai (Bombay) on Sunday night, seconds after Chennai Super Kings had won the third edition of the IPL.

The Indian government inquiry will take months, probably years - but that Modi is down and out from the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), the world's richest cricket board, is amply clear.

In just a few years Lalit Modi turned the IPL into a $4.13bn commercial phenomenon that Forbes called the world's fastest growing sporting event. It attracted business tycoons and Bollywood stars, but cricket watchers say he rarely followed the rules.

He decided almost anything and everything that happened within the IPL.

Lalit Modi studied for a sports management degree at North Carolina's Duke University Business School in the United States.

While a student there he was convicted of kidnapping and assault.

A spokeswoman for the North Carolina courts told the BBC that Modi received a two-year suspended jail sentence and a $10,000 fine in June 1985 after entering a plea bargain.

Armed with his degree, Modi later returned to India to introduce the magic of ESPN's high-voltage cricket coverage.

He also handled global brands like Estee Lauder and Phillip Morris, and was instrumental in bringing Fashion TV to India. A scion of the multi-millionaire family which owns Modi Enterprises, he is also a member of the board of Godfrey Philips, a top Indian tobacco company.

Modi - who owns a private jet and a yacht - always wanted to live life king size, a popular marketing tag for one of his cigarette brands.

Ever the showman, he arrived at the ground in Mumbai for the IPL final in a helicopter. Some have called him the man with the Midas touch.

He flaunts his power by moving around with a phalanx of private bodyguards, the first sports official in India to do so. His aides say there are threats to his life because of his high profile.

Lalit Modi likes the high life, combining cricket with entertainment. Guests paid up to $1,000 to attend his after-match parties where they could mingle with cricketers, starlets and models.

'Arrogant'

He even built up a considerable fan following and was photographed being mobbed for autographs.

As well as taking the IPL into the big league, Modi also helped the BCCI's income cross the $1bn mark (from $67m) with a television deal with Nimbus worth $612m, team and shirt deals worth $641m with Sahara and Nike and a television deal with Zee for India's matches on neutral venues worth $219m.

Last year he decided to move the IPL to South Africa after the Indian government said it could not guarantee security for the tournament because of elections.

"It was a bold, arrogant move, and angered many," said one political observer.

Some people wanted the tournament to stay in India, even though there was no obvious slot in the cricketing calendar.

The recent controversy that led to Modi's downfall was started by his tweeting the names of the stakeholders in a new IPL franchise.

Initial investigations by tax officials suggest illegal money from global tax havens may have found its way to the game in India.

Whether that is proved or not, many people are having serious doubts about whether it was right to blend cricket's glamour with business in the way he did.

Modi should maybe have seen what was coming.

Cricket's man in a hurry had so much going for him - if only he had been a little more circumspect.

The writer is business editor of Tehelka magazine

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