Moneyball: The Curious Case of Rajasthan Royals
Among the handful of teams up for sale, the controversial winner of IPL 2008 has no dearth of buyers. Only if there was clarity on its Lalit Modi link

When Rajasthan Royals, the underdogs, won the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008 against all odds, one of the co-owners was overheard jokingly quipping to his business partner that it might be a good time to sell. Only time will now tell whether the owners of one of the most controversial teams in the IPL should have taken forward the thought seriously and acted on it, rather than have waited for value to grow in the hope of reaping much more.

If the IPL itself has been a roller-coaster journey for everyone associated with it, the Rajasthan Royals (RR) owners have occupied front seats. The nasty twists and turns on the ride started fr­om the day their company, Emerging Media, won the bid to own a team — the Ja­ipur franchise for $67 million. The immediate buzz wa­s that now-exiled Lalit Modi, the architect of the IPL, had business interests in both the Rajasthan Royals (RR) and Kings XI Punjab (KXIP) franchises. While Kings XI Punjab had well-known owners in industrialist Ness Wadia, Dabur’s Burman family and actor Preity Zinta, the fact that Modi’s brother-in-law, Suresh Chellaram, was a substantial stakeholder in the franchise did not help matters.

Modi’s unbridled reign in running the IPL came to end in April 2010, as the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) suspended him, accusing him of multiple financial misdemeanours, including rigging the franchise bidding during the 2008 auction. No eyebrows were raised — oh, did we not know that! Within months, both the Royals and Kings were also suspended for infringement of ownership rules. This was the least of the worries for RR, as they survived in the IPL following a legal battle with the BCCI.

Simultaneously, the franchise had multiple agencies of the government on its heels for alleged financial irregularities. Jaipur IPL Cricket, the legal entity that owned RR, came under the scanner of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and the Income Tax Department for violations related to foreign direct investments and income taxes. In 2013, the ED decided to impose a fine of Rs 100 crore on the franchise for the violations. No small change, but manageable.

Earlier, another player had entered this muddle by buying a stake into the company, as early as 2009. The franchise needed some glamour quotient and they got it through Bollywood star, Shilpa Shetty, whose husband Raj Kundra gladly picked up 11.7% of the team. Kundra and Shetty remained in the game for four years before getting embroiled in the spot-fixing and betting scandal during the 2013 edition.

The scandal had its genesis in the RR camp as three players Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankeet Chavan, were picked up by the Delhi police on charges of spot-fixing. During the investigation, another cricketer, Siddharth Trivedi revealed that Umesh Goenka, a business partner of Kundra used to ask for information on matches. Kundra admitted to the Delhi police that he bet on IPL matches, including those involving his team. His confession was sufficient to burn him on national television, and ensure him being cut off from all cricketing activities and forfeiting his stake in RR.

The scandal took its toll on RR as the franchise, along with Chennai Super Kings, was banned from participating in the 2016 and 2017 editions. A very stressful decade-long off-the-field battle for the owners. No surprise then that when the ban was lifted this year, they demanded a new name and home city to wipe off the stains from the past. Since there was no inherent value in the brand, why not start IPL 2.0 on a clean slate.

But what to do about the ownership, and its strong links to Modi. A small technical change was initiated wherein Chellaram transferred his entire 44.2 per cent stake to his daughter, Amisha Hathiramani. Not amounting to much, but a change nonetheless. Since there were two years to watch from the sidelines, the management would have been waiting for the ban to be lifted and get into sale mode. Fortunately for them, the owner of one of the teams that came into the IPL for just two editions had tasted blood. Sanjiv Goenka, owner of the now defunct Rising Pune Supergiant, has been reportedly wooing the RR owners for a buy-out. Four-digit figures have also been bandied about, and it looked like finally RR would be put out of its misery. New owner, new name, new home. No traces left of its gloomy past.

Nobody seems to have, however, factored in the mercurial Modi. If reports are to be believed, Modi connected with Goenka privately. Luckily, not on the public platform, Twitter, which is his favourite communication medium. Modi’s call seems to have not gone down well with Goenka, as anything to do with the former is likely to ensure the death of the Kolkata-based businessman­’s desire to own an IPL team.

If this news is true, and there is nothing much to suggest otherwise, then the owners of RR are on a bad wicket. One is not aware of the intricacies about the deal or what is going on in Modi’s mind about a future sale. There are likely to be many more buyers, given the fact there is a huge demand-supply gap as there are only a handful of teams up for sale. But if there is no clarity on the Modi factor for potential buyers, it is going to be another long decade for the RR investors who would probably now be ruing the thought of not cashing in when they were the champions. Modi might have checked them in, but the trick now is to exit without him!

The author is a co-founder of SportzPower & The Fan Garage

CP Thomas