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Any regular reader of these pages who happened to be passing through the lobby of the Carlton Towers Hotel yesterday would have spotted Terry Venables conducting a meeting over a pot of coffee. They would have been rather less likely to notice the affable-looking Indian businessman in the brown corduroy suit. Yet this same man has set off an earthquake that has shaken the world of cricket - the world of sport, even - to its foundations.

Lalit Modi, the chairman of the Indian Premier League, has pulled off an astonishing and unprecedented conjuring trick: he has created a billion-dollar tournament out of nothing. A few months ago, no one had heard of the IPL or its eight city franchises. Now those franchises have been sold for prices ranging from £34 million to £56 million. More than 70 international stars have been recruited for salaries that, until last week, would have been beyond even Sachin Tendulkar's wildest dreams. Buoyed by wallet-busting enthusiasm from owners, sponsors and broadcasters, Modi is convinced that the IPL will catapult cricket up to the level of football's Premier League and beyond.

Kevin Pietersen
Big hit: could Kevin Pietersen be about to sign for the IPL?

"If you look at the comparison, Aston Villa were recently sold for £62 million," he said. "That is a historic club with a ground and established supporters. We just sold the Mumbai franchise for almost the same amount of money, and the team doesn't even exist yet. Then you can compare the players: Andrew Symonds is making £100,000 a week for the duration of the tournament, Mahendra Singh Dhoni even more than that. Tell me who in the Premier League earns as much? Maybe Frank Lampard, maybe Cristiano Ronaldo. But not many.

"We set a salary cap of $5million [£2.5 million] per team for the first season," Modi said. "We didn't want a couple of extremely rich individuals to create a situation where it's only a few teams, like Manchester United or Chelsea, who can win the title. But if we hadn't done that, I can tell you that our players would already be the highest-paid across any sport in the world. It will happen - if not today, then tomorrow. Because once the franchises have established themselves, it will be a free-for-all."

Modi's enthusiasm for his project is boundless. Like many other members of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, he is a businessman first and a cricket administrator second. The gigantic sums pouring into the BCCI's coffers are, for him, a validation of the whole ambitious scheme. Yet the very speed of India's Twenty20 explosion has left the rest of the world feeling shell-shocked.

What will these new economics do to the traditional world of five-day Tests and three-month tours? Will players be torn between patriotism and the temptation to pay off the mortgage in one go? The timing of the IPL, which runs from April 18 this year until June 1, means that no country will be feeling more anxious about these questions than England.

It would be easy to portray Modi as a free-market predator, in line with Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as "someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". Clearly he is not moved by sentiment: at one point in our conversation he predicts that Test cricket should be able to survive as a game "with its own skills and its own charm, which will continue to be enjoyed by hard-core cricket fans". His tone suggests he does not see himself among that group.

Yet there is no reason why cold business logic should be at odds with the best interests of the game. Modi knows as well as anyone that he needs a stable international circuit to provide his tournament with its manpower. He has an understanding with the other national boards that he will not go poaching players against their will: all cricketers who appear in the IPL must have a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from their home board, whether they have retired from international cricket or not. And he has gone out of his way to protect England by declaring their players - including prime targets Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood - off limits for the first year at least. In return, he expects the counties to reject anyone who has signed for the IPL's unauthorised rival, the Indian Cricket League.

"We accept that people are committed to certain pre-existing contracts, but it's not acceptable for any county to knowingly sign an ICL player," he said. "They need to keep to that understanding, otherwise the trickle-down effect is that none of the English counties could end up being invited to the Champions Twenty20 Trophy in the autumn."

Modi added: "The ICL is run by businessmen for profit, whereas the BCCI and the IPL are non-profit organisations: anything we do goes back into the development of the game and the enhancing of infrastructure. We are working with private enterprise to change cricketers' lives. You take someone like Ishant Sharma: his father earned £75 a year and his whole family lived in a single room in Delhi. Now he's being paid £475,000 for two months' work: his life has changed, his family's life has changed, it's wonderful to see.

The chairman of the Indian Premier League cricket tournament Lalit Modi

"It's not cheap to do this. The model is very different to the ICL: they have one stadium, where they play all the games. We have eight cities involved, and you have to take the cricket to each of them if you want to build that concept of 'My city, my team'. There were two TV production crews at the last World Cup, but we have four, and two jumbo jets to carry them in.

"The two biggest entertainments in India are cricket and Bollywood. And with film stars like Shahrukh Khan and Preity Zinta among the franchise owners, we are putting the two together."

So what about accusations that Modi and Co are using India's fearsome economic clout to boss the rest of the world around? He said: "India has been subservient for 100 years. People are used to dictating terms to us. We're just evening the playing field. And if it's our turn to have some glory, so much the better."
 
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