If you have not heard of Sundar Raman, it is not entirely because he wanted it that way.
The IPL chief operating officer has close to 170,000 Twitter followers, and tweets regularly, except when cricket fans would really like to hear from him—such as during the spot-fixing scandal, when his only posts as the horror unravelled and arrests followed interrogations were ‘statement soon’ and ‘#idiots’.
There is nothing to suggest, at least in his online presence, that the boss of the $3.3 billion League is a number-crunching nerd. You may reckon instead that he has spiritual aspirations (his Twitter and Facebook photos have him smiling beatifically alongside the Dalai Lama); cares for issues that affect India (‘RIP Nirbhaya’); and is not averse to cracking bad jokes. After Australian cricketer Shane Watson played a typically destructive innings for the Rajasthan Royals, Raman posted: ‘On Mother’s Day, his mom must be saying watta son.’
In keeping with the freakish control the BCCI exerts over all its associates, especially in the choleric regime of Board president N Srinivasan, interviews featuring Raman, 41, are scarce—apart from a handful of pink paper reports projecting the IPL’s year-on-year growth.
But go back three years and you might chance upon gems like this in a YouTube fun feed interview. Asked by a buxom young anchor in a short dress to pick a favourite IPL team, Raman replies: “I have to be neutral. My heart beats for all eight teams—and faster when I’m with you.”
The truth is that, while the BCCI’s office-bearers spend most of their time working out how to cling to power— all in the interests of Indian cricket, of course—Raman is the only man at the BCCI who has all the power without a post. Paradoxically, perhaps, this makes perfect sense: freed from the stresses of having to hang on to his office, he can get on with the real business of making money.
Described as obnoxious, tactless, brusque, arrogant, untrustworthy, chauvinistic and vindictive by people who know him, Raman possesses an elusive digital footprint that would barely suggest he is among the world’s most influential cricket administrators. In fact, there is a good case for saying he is the most influential.
The spotlight over the past few years has been on powerful and seen-to-be-powerful officials like N Srinivasan, Lalit Modi, Sharad Pawar and Jagmohan Dalmiya. But since the exit of Modi, his former boss, in 2010, Raman has been the man taking the key decisions: negotiating and signing off with cricket boards on the T&Cs of bilateral tours, dealing with sponsors, broadcasters and the media to ensure the Board squeezes out every last dollar’s worth, and exercising the 21st century right of any self-respecting BCCI official—showing the ICC who is in charge.
Is the bitter dispute with Cricket South Africa—leading to India holding off on its scheduled visit later this year—revenge for CSA appointing BCCI bête noire Haroon Lorgat as CEO or a calculated decision to keep commercial partners at home happy?
Is the row with Sky TV last year—after the BCCI had asked the broadcaster to cough up Rs 4 crore for a box at the grounds— revenge for Sky commentator Nasser Hussain’s anti-BCCI comments when India toured England in 2011 or the Board milking every possible source of revenue?
Is the ban on Getty payback for the agency’s use of Indian cricket photos for commercial rather than editorial purposes, or the Board playing guard dog to precious property?
Is ignoring the ICC’s future tours programme a deliberate show of contempt for a toothless tiger, or a cold-hearted commercial move?
Whichever way you look at it, there is no doubt that the BCCI’s main preoccupation is flexing its muscle.
And it is hardly a coincidence that Raman, a man with formidable experience in media and sponsorship, has been on the frontline of all these parleys, including the BCCI’s recent Rs 3,851 crore deal with Rupert Murdoch’s Star network and the Rs 400 crore contract with Pepsi for the IPL title sponsorship.
No wonder, then, that Raman was swiftly inducted, at Srinivasan’s behest, into the ICC’s recently formed commercial working group and its domestic Twenty20 sub-committee. For every $100 million the ICC makes, the BCCI gets $7.5 million. But the Board believes India generates at least 60 per cent of the total, if not 80.
Raman is there thanks precisely to his talent for generating money and redistributing the wealth to ensure the BCCI capitalises not only on India’s strength, but also on the weakness of the other nine full-member nations of the ICC.
“In its post-Modi phase, the Board has just one man with the smarts to make the moolah and exploit India’s position,” says a commercial partner of the BCCI. “Srinivasan is too busy managing his business and playing Board politics, and the rest would not know a multi- million dollar sponsorship deal if it hit them in the face. The real work is done by Sundar.”
While Srinivasan holds forth at ICC board meetings, Raman—jokingly referred to as a ‘non-state actor’ in international cricketing circles—is often spotted waiting outside the boardroom, working furiously on his iPad, taking breaks only to brief the BCCI president when he steps out from time to time. “Sundar is feared rather than respected,” says a former ICC official. It is remarkable how a man once accused by the BCCI of shielding Modi—now banned for life by the board—has found favour as trusted executive and star player in the current regime. The irony prompted this Twitter invective from Modi during the IPL fixing saga: ‘Get your house in order. Stop being a yes man. Be a man for once @ramansundar’ and ‘What role does @ramansundar an iplemployee have in Icc and Bcci? Can anyone deny he runs boards for his master n Srinivasan.’
No, there is no denying that Sundar Raman is the power behind the throne.
How did a man who was once considered Modi’s lackey rise to such eminence? This is the question many in world cricket are asking, as top bosses of national boards bend backwards to please him. “Sundar turned to the other side to save his skin,” Modi, ex-IPL chairman and commissioner, told Open. Referring to Raman’s Tamil Brahmin ethnicity and Chennai connection, Modi said: “He speaks the same language as Srini, is from the same community and has a similar background.” Their shared loved for golf does not hurt either (sources insist Srinivasan is the better golfer).
“He’s always been a very bright and ambitious guy,” says an ex-colleague who has known Raman since the late 1990s. “Now, he’s street-smart too. Moving from the professionalism of corporate culture to the bureaucracy of the BCCI, and not just surviving but thriving, is proof of that.”
Recruited as IPL chief executive after he made an impressive power-point presentation during a chance meeting with Modi in January 2008, Raman was then managing director at MindShare India—a division of the world’s largest global media agency. He hopped aboard the IPL gravy train a month later, with an annual package of around Rs 1 crore, and navigated its launch that April.
Before he joined the IPL, Raman, an IIM reject, had made a career as one of the country’s most aggressive media buyers for blue-chip multinationals like Pepsi, Unilever, Samsung and Motorola.
“If Lalit was the brains and the visionary behind the IPL, Sundar was the guy executing this vision,” says Sneha Rajani, senior executive vice-president and business head, Sony Entertainment Television, which holds the IPL rights. “I’ve seen his work for Pepsi even before he joined the IPL. He’s a fantastic media planner.”
A cricket buff since his schooldays in Trichy, Raman aspired to be an engineer, but settled for a degree in applied sciences when he failed to make the cut. A post-grad management degree in advertising and communications followed and in 1995 he was set for the ruthless life of media planning. But his fascination with cricket persisted, even though he was rapidly climbing the corporate ladder. In 2004, Raman auditioned for Harsha Ki Khoj, a popular reality show conceptualised by ESPN to find the next Harsha Bhogle. “He had the knowledge but his screen presence and delivery were not great,” says an industry insider.
Now in charge of finalising the commentary team for all cricket played in India, Raman is the guy doling out the paycheques to Bhogle and the rest. And firing those, most recently Danny Morrison and HD Ackerman, who do not follow the BCCI diktat of keeping quiet on controversial issues like the fixing scandal, the decision review system (DRS), team selection, and future India captains (the present incumbent, MS Dhoni, is close to Srinivasan and Raman).
Often accused of throwing his weight around, Raman has no qualms about denying match accreditation to media who run anti-BCCI stories; accusing ex-ICC CEO Lorgat of nepotism in what was described by an insider as the “most unpleasant meeting in ICC history”; or clashing with Mumbai Indians owner Nita Ambani, who presumably is not used to being told what to do.
“Several IPL teams are not happy dealing with him,” says a senior BCCI functionary. “His biggest problem is that he is very arrogant and has no people skills.”
One can hardly blame him. Arrogance defines the BCCI of today. And the sense of entitlement with which the Board operates now is in distinct contrast to the days, not so long ago, when bungling officials signed commercial agreements without reading them.
With the new commercial rights for all ICC events between 2015 and 2023 up for grabs, member nations are meant to sign a participation agreement. The BCCI, however, has threatened it will not unless it is given a much larger share of the ICC pie and the DRS is scrapped.
In an ominous sign that the IPL is staging a takeover of world cricket, the Board headquarters at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium has witnessed a dramatic shift from the BCCI office on the second floor to the IPL office on the fourth.
No surprises there: the IPL is the BCCI’s most valuable property by a distance. And when you consider that the BCCI is more powerful than the ICC and all the other national boards put together, it is not an exaggeration to say Raman is the de facto CEO of international cricket.
If, as sources in the BCCI reveal, the Board’s goal is to make cricket a one-country sport, the IPL has paved the way. Taken to its logical extreme, the argument threatens the very existence of India’s national team; there may be no other team left in the fray.
Not content with just a two-month IPL and a three-week Champions League, IPL franchise owners are pushing for more cricket. Perhaps a mini-IPL. ‘The franchise owners might even consider going it alone: they are already claiming a bigger role in running the tournament. Rather than risk that happening, the Indian board would probably bend to their demands, to the great detriment of international cricket,’ James Astill recently wrote in The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption and the Spectacular Rise of Modern India. ‘India, a country that has so enriched cricket, is now the gravest threat to its most precious traditions.’
Let there be no doubt that it all began with the IPL in 2008, and the unflinching business acumen of Lalit Modi—and, of course, Sundar Raman.