An opportunity to reform Indian cricket
The dramatic midnight suspension of Lalit Modi, controversial chief of the Indian Premier League (IPL), over allegations of corruption in the cricket tournament, should mark the beginning of a serious effort to clean up the game in India.
Forget the IPL, neck-deep in allegations of financial misdemeanours and sleaze after just three seasons. (Mr Modi has denied the allegations.) This is Indian cricket's worst crisis since the match-fixing scandal at the turn of the decade. And if Indian cricket sneezes, world cricket will catch a cold.
So will Mr Modi's likely departure from his "billion dollar baby" - as the IPL was described by a largely uncritical media before the scandal broke out - be a panacea for Indian cricket's problems?
No. The rot in the running of Indian cricket, most believe, starts right at the top.
For evidence, look at the way the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is run. With a net worth of more than $1.5bn, the BCCI is cricket's richest and one of the world's wealthiest sports bodies. But it is registered as a non-profit organisation, is not required to make its books public and till very recently was a recipient of generous tax exemptions because it claimed that promoting cricket was a "charitable activity"!
Politicians control the levers of power in the board. And there are brazen conflicts of interests - one board member bought an IPL team after allegedly tweaking the rules, while the chairman of the selectors of the national team is a brand ambassador for another team. Nobody bats an eyelid and the show goes on.
Many say that the cricket board - which also runs the IPL - should be reconstituted as an autonomous statutory body, where people holding office will be public servants and accountable to fans. Its books should be open to the public and its operations should be transparent. All this could be led by an independent regulatory body made up of respected professionals from the world of finance and law.
But that is just one part of the story. Many believe that Mr Modi and the allegations over the IPL - rigging of team bids, opaque financial disclosures, nepotism, political meddling - are just symbols of a larger malaise afflicting India itself.
As the country hurtles from a closed, controlled economy to free market capitalism, regulation is weak and suspect, they say. The upshot, the fiercest critics say, is cronyism and corruption at times reminiscent of the early days of capitalism in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. More discreet commentators speak of a "system" which is unable to handle the heat of the free market.
So it is with cricket. In his engaging book on Indian cricket, A Maidan View, sports journalist Mihir Bose was prescient when he wrote that it was a matter of worry that the Indian cricket board "continues to behave as it were a street trader, eager for the loot but unable to either plan for it, let alone manage it". Bose felt the "essential contradictions" of the country and its cricket have not vanished. "Change has come, enormous change," he wrote, "but it has come far too quickly to be assimilated."
It is not only cricket which is suspected of being run by a cosy cartel of people linked to powerful politicians. There is a strong suspicion that India's natural resources are being bartered away in similar fashion, fuelling the Maoist uprising in mineral-rich lands. A lack of credible regulators, as the IPL again suggests, will only make matters worse.
Mr Modi's suspension could also turn out to be merely an episode in a long-running soap opera. Over the weekend, TV networks were gleefully reporting leaks that the income tax department was probing allegations of match fixing against 27 players in last year's IPL, which was played in South Africa for security reasons. It is another matter that the income tax department is not tasked with - and does not have the skills to - detect matching fixing; and that cricket is one of the most difficult games to fix.
But even if there were an iota of truth about bookies mingling with cricketers in South Africa last year, and players disclosing game information to help them, it would be cricket's Black Sox scandal, and the end of the game as we know it. The row over allegedly rigged team bids and shady team ownership will then look like a minor matter.
Fans in India have nowhere to turn to except cricket. So the game will not perish, and neither should the IPL, which has turned out to be a hit despite critics who hate its crude grammar and loud razzmatazz.
But the IPL should play by the rules of the free market and prune its appetite for greed. Team ownership and sponsorships should be transparent and public, and everybody should pay their taxes. (In what is a scandalous sideshow of the row, the IPL wrangled entertainment tax waivers on tickets, resulting in loss of revenues to a state where tens of thousands of debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide.)
Indians have become inured to - even callous about - corruption, so there is a real possibility that Mr Modi will be made the fall guy, and there will be no meaningful, demonstrable change in the running of the cricket. At the same time India is largely a reactive society - only crises and scandals sometimes lead to real reforms. IPL-Gate - as many networks are describing the row - could then actually end up cleansing and reforming the cricket board, and the game could actually emerge stronger. It is time to restore the dignity of Indian cricketers and their fans.