x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Steve Waugh is first recruit for $333m 'IPL-gate' team Kochi

The UAE-based owner of IPL Kochi is adamant his team will begin playing next year despite a series of controversies.

Harshad Mehta, IPL Kochi's chairman, has hopes of bringing exhibition matches to Abu Dhabi.
Harshad Mehta, IPL Kochi's chairman, has hopes of bringing exhibition matches to Abu Dhabi.

DUBAI // The UAE-based owner of a US$333 million (Dh1.22 billion) Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket franchise is adamant his team will begin playing next year despite a series of controversies. Harshad Mehta, the chairman of IPL Kochi, said the Kerala-based team had been inadvertently dragged into a public feud between the league chairman and an Indian government official, a dispute being referred to as "IPL-gate".

"The IPL Kochi team will play in 2011. Everything is fine now and we have started hiring cricketers for the team," said Mr Mehta. "The controversy was between Lalit Modi and Shashi Tharoor and the team was stuck in between." The expansion franchise was involved in a political quarrel after Mr Mehta and his partners bought it earlier this year. The IPL chairman, Lalit Modi, questioned its close ties to Mr Tharoor, the Indian minister of state for external affairs, and an unspecified stake in the team gifted to Sunanda Pushkar, a close friend of Mr Tharoor.

A media campaign against the team's investors followed, which eventually led to the minister's resignation last month and the suspension of Mr Modi, who is being investigated on corruption charges. He allegedly controls stakes in some IPL franchises held by family members, a practice that is counter to league rules, and also faces accusations of accepting kickbacks from a broadcasting deal. Mr Mehta said Mr Modi and Mr Tharoor were once friends but that they had a falling out, resulting in a public campaign against each other.

He claimed an understanding reached between them was broken by Mr Modi when he spoke to the media. Mr Mehta lashed out at Mr Modi, whom he claimed had tried to discourage the IPL Kochi investors from bidding for the team. He said team management had sent a complaint to the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) about Mr Modi. "He told us that so many partners can't handle a team," he said. "We listened to whatever he had to say. He is the IPL chairman.

"We listened and we kept our cool." Mr Modi, the founder of the IPL, is expected to file his written response to the BCCI to the allegations against him, including those involving the IPL Kochi bid, by Saturday. Mr Mehta also spoke for the first time about Ms Pushkar's role in the team and the controversy surrounding her cost-free stake in the team, which he referred to as "sweat equity". He said the former TECOM sales manager was taken into the team because its investors were convinced she could attract sponsors.

"Sweat equity has been misunderstood by everyone," Mr Mehta said. "It has zero value initially. If I think an employee has potential and can bring money and support to the team, I can offer the person sweat equity. It is available in any part of the world." Of the 25 per cent free equity in the team, a significant share was given to Ms Pushkar, Mr Mehta said, though he agreed that the proportion given to her was high. IPL rules do not require that each investor in a team declare the amount of their holdings. He also said Ms Pushkar has returned her stake in the team.

"She no longer has anything to do with the team," he said. "We have also reduced the free equity in the team. We realised that the proportion we gave was too much, so we backed out. Now the team has only 11 to 12 per cent of sweat equity." Despite distancing itself from Ms Pushkar, the team will continue to be associated with Mr Tharoor, the chairman said. "Shashi will still be our mentor," Mr Mehta said. "We require his help to run this team."

The coveted IPL Kochi team first came into the public eye when it was won with the second-highest bid made for an IPL franchise. The successful offer by a virtually unknown group of businessmen, all having interests in the UAE, surprised many competitors. The franchise drew attention from five groups of investors. Mr Modi started the controversy regarding the new team by tweeting about its free equity stakes, especially that given to Ms Pushkar.

"The BCCI says we can give 100 per cent sweat equity if we want, to anybody. There was no need for him [Mr Modi] to raise such alarm," said Mr Mehta. The IPL Kochi controversy resulted in a full inquiry into owners of all IPL teams. Income tax raids were conducted at franchise offices as well as at the office of Mr Modi. "We never thought that there was such a strong desire for each state to have a team of their own in IPL," said Mr Mehta, speaking about the competition in the bidding process.

"We came to know about this only later after successfully bidding. Then we saw a different way of pulling and pushing. "We came out of it and kept silent. But some of our members went to the media, causing more controversy." IPL Kochi is now preparing its team for the next year's championship. Mr Mehta revealed that Steve Waugh, the veteran Australian cricketer, will play a significant role in IPL Kochi. Franchise management is also keen on bringing in the Sri Lankan cricketer Mahela Jayawardane.

The team is working closely with the BCCI in building a cricket ground in Kochi, which will be the home of the team. IPL Kochi continues to have a strong desire to bring the IPL to the UAE and the team may play a few exhibition matches in Abu Dhabi. pmenon@thenational.ae