Cricket Mania With Sachin Virat and Beckham. Two days on from David Beckham’s appearance in the stands at India’s World Cup semi-final triumph in Mumbai, the Bombay Times was still running adoring spreads on Friday morning, with supplementary pictures of Beckham mooching and beaming and attending a very fancy party, dressed as ever like the reigning world over-45s BMX champion.
The Times noted that Beckham had been seen “interacting with Sachin Tendulkar”, a choice of verb that makes him sound like a rescue dog or a mute Victorian child. Much was made of Beckham’s role in India as an anti-poverty ambassador, the classic parable of a very, very rich man sitting in very, very expensive seats in a city where nine million people live in slums – and doing it all in the name of the poor, who will no doubt be delighted when the news finally filters down.
All fawning aside, by far the most interesting thing about Beckham at the Wankhede was the identity of the man he was pictured sitting next to at the start, an unassuming figure with glasses and the look of an ageing school prefect librarian, and by some distance the real power centre of that VVIP box.
This is Jay Shah’s World Cup in more ways than one. It is, after all Jay Shah’s sport to start with. Shah, who has been head of the BCCI for the last four years, is the most powerful single person in any sport anywhere in the world.
Gianni Infantino may be more preeningly high profile, a moth to the flame of the nearest passing despot, projecting himself as a kind of roving global sport-Jesus. But despite Fifa’s greater reach Infantino is essentially an enabler, a grocery clerk out there collecting the bills. Shah, meanwhile, runs the whole store. Being Jay Shah doesn’t just come with the keys to the circus, but with hard political power, and control of the primary source of wealth of an entire global sport.
In the last few months alone Shah has run a World Cup, taken over the running of the Asia Cup because he felt like it, while maintaining a guiding hand on the world’s second most potent franchise league after the NFL. This week Arjuna Ranatunga accused Shah of running Sri Lankan cricket as an after-hours hobby.
Ranatunga is of course right because, in effect, Jay Shah runs all cricket, right down from the international calendar, to when the County Championship gets to play, to what ends up on your Sky subscription. At the end of quite a short chain of cause-and-effect, it is Jay Shah who decides whether the cricket you love is going to be allowed to breathe, or indeed to exist at all.
This is of course a simple economic reality, just as Britain’s dominance of cricket, and indeed its use as a tool of dominance, was unchallenged reality for more than a century. India carries the game now, holds all the heat, the power, the popular energy.
The real issue with Shah’s status as unelected world boss is that he appears at first glance to be a prodigy, an administrator of such skill he was able to rise to become head of the BCCI aged just 31, and to do so while, by a startling coincidence, carrying the same surname as Narendra Modi’s right-hand man and chief minister Amit Shah, who, in an even more profound coincidence – just fancy that – turns out to be Jay Shah’s dad.
This is the other conclusion. Jay Shah is essentially a political appointment. The global interests of cricket, a sport played on every continent, are being dictated not just by a single member nation of the ICC, but by a single political movement within that nation, Modi’s ruling BJP party. How profound is that connection between BCCI and ruling party? Its executive members are often party wonks and sympathisers. There was a good reason why Beckham had spent the previous few days in Gujarat, Modi and Shah’s home state, venue of the North Korean-scale Narendra Modi Stadium, epicentre of the Narendra Modi World Cup, and venue for Sunday’s coronational final. In cricket’s state-of-the-art reality Ahmedabad is in effect the new St John’s Wood, the Modi Stadium the new Lord’s. It is from there that the BCCI processes the vast majority of cricket’s combined income, while simply reordering the calender to its liking, all waved through by an administratorship directly connected to the ruling party.
This is not exactly new. India’s passion for cricket can be portrayed as cartoonish and one-eyed from the outside, but this is to underplay not just the genuine, highly informed love of the game, but more importantly its role as a vital unifying force and shared source of joy in a huge nation of so many parts. Politicians have always toyed with those popular energies, from Indira Gandhi’s slightly awkward embrace of the joyfully received 1983 World Cup victory, through to the boom times of the early 1990s as cricket was transformed by satellite TV into a glitzy popular entertainment, providing a chorus for India’s period of liberalisation and economic growth.
The following decade the IPL arrived as an instant dream factory, a national myth machine, a mirror to India’s sense of itself as an ascendant global power. To govern the BCCI in possession of this sporting property is to control one of the greatest cultural forces in India’s public life. The national team has also become unusually associated with the ruling party, Virat Kohli happy to act as a cheerleader for the regime, sport staged, most notably at the current World Cup, as a kind of glamour-circus of blue-shirted hyper-nationalism.
Under Shah the BCCI basically does what it wants. A Test series can be abandoned, then picked up once other needs have been serviced. The IPL will be allowed to mushroom into a de facto six-month season. The Asia Cup will be taken out of Pakistan’s hands because Jay Shah – this is a sport administrator, not a politician – feels it isn’t really appropriate or secure to play there.
There has been a campaign to fluff Shah’s image in recent times, to portray him as a fearless and go-getting moderniser, with a PR agency engaged to gloss his media profile. Against this a brilliantly detailed study of cricket’s ruling regime by Sharda Ugra published in the Caravan magazine shows Shah behaving as an autocrat, taking months to OK basic office admin, surrounding himself with sycophants, trailed by bodyguards and aides. As for the BCCI’s lack of detailed accounts, this same organisation that sluices such a vast proportion of the sport’s money through its coffers, well, that remains another untold story.
For now it will be cricket mania once again in Ahmedabad on Sunday, as the Narendra Modi turns blue for India’s home final. The show will play out, and will run on again on the other side; without, at any stage, the smallest note of doubt as to who is running it.