Scandal Erupts Again in Indian Premier League Cricket

Charges of match fixing and a plethora of other murky dealings in the US$3.67-billion Indian Premier League – the professional league for Twenty20 championship cricket -- are roiling Indian cricket yet again.

The cash-rich game, which boasts a clutch of celebrity team owners including India's richest man Mukesh Ambani, liquor and airline magnate Vijay Mallya and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, came under scrutiny last week when a private TV channel carried out a sting to expose some lesser-known players dabbling in corrupt practices and black market dealings.

The expose showed the players confessing to under-the-table transactions and match-fixing in addition to alleging the involvement of high-profile Indian cricketers, international players and even team owners in betting and match fixing.

Besides sullying the reputation of the country’s only global sports brand – which has spawned a raft of international formats including T20 leagues like the MiWay T20 Challenge (South Africa), the Big Bash League (Australia), and the Bangladesh Premier League – the scandal has underscored serious ills that bedevil the game. T20 cricket is played in about two and a half hours compared to test cricket, which can take a full five days.

The furor has also triggered a nationwide debate on how T20 needs urgent modification to usher in more transparency and keep a stricter check on the errant players. What’s at stake here is the world’s second highest-paid league, the first being the American National Basketball Association, which allows the average player to take home a whopping US$3.95 million pay check per year.

“The sting is just the tip of the iceberg,” Rajiv Pokhri, a Delhi-based cricket coach who has trained domestic cricketers, told Asia Sentinel. “An investigation must assume that the problem is far bigger than the current one. It offers a snapshot of how the premier league really functions.”

No sooner did the scandal break out than the Board of Cricket Control of India, which controls the game, scrambled to do damage control. It suspended the five tainted players and announced a probe into the spot-fixing scandal with one of the suspended domestic players deposing before the inquiry commission.

Meanwhile, Sports Minister Ajay Maken called publicly for a "long-term solution" to deal with the menace. Maken has also sought a probe into the spot-fixing allegation and suggested that the board should de-link itself from running the Twenty20 league to avoid "overlapping of interests."

"Suspending five players is not enough. The BCCI must come up with a long-term solution for this problem." Maken suggested. The minister cited the examples of English Premier League, where the clubs run the tournament instead of the national football body

. However, analysts say the probe should be handed over to an independent body. “The board is not capable of handling such an investigation given conflicts of interest within the board. There are known links between several BCCI officials and IPL franchises,” said an ex-player. The player points out that the board president N Srinivasan is himself the owner of the premier league Chennai Super Kings. “With such overt overlapping interests, what kind of a probe do you expect?”

Earlier, board regulations barred any administrator to have, directly or indirectly, any commercial interest in matches or events conducted by the board. But the board, in September 2008, amended the regulations through clause 6.2.4 that took the premier league and other T20 tournaments out of the ambit of this regulation. The amendment has been challenged in court.

Veterans point out that even during the previous match-fixing scandal during the year 2000, a BCCI internal enquiry had discovered no wrongdoing only to have a central Bureau of Investigation probe blow the lid off a global scandal of staggering proportions.

Senior players are recommending that all premier league franchises also be probed for black-money transactions and the relationship between agents and players. “The journalists who carried out the sting operation posed as agents. That the players opened up so easily to people they thought were bringing them jobs means the investigation should be unsparing in squashing the player-agent/ agent-franchise nexus,” Pokhri said.

Indian domestic cricket has long been rife with rumors that cricketing agents have become so powerful they are even influencing team selections. Experts suggest that the BCCI opening up its accounts to Right to Information officials would usher in the much-needed credibility in its operations. "The brand gets affected by sundry allegations and the best way to nip these is by having either open auctions or an exclusive auction for uncapped domestic players. We have already intimated our feelings to the Premier League Governing council in this regard. They have assured us that the matter would be seriously considered," a team official told the media.

For long, there has also been unsubstantiated talk about premier league companies registering themselves in tax havens like Mauritius leading to lack of transparency. There is some suspicion that the identities of the real owners of some teams are concealed in this labyrinth of trans-border companies.

Last year, Pakistan players Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were jailed in Britain for their role in a spot-fixing scandal relating to a test match against England at Lord's in August 2010. The International Cricket Council subsequently banned the three players for a minimum of five years.

Since the indictment of the Pakistani players, the menace has been spreading across the entire cricketing fraternity. Significantly, the English Premier League and other leagues the world over always maintain a distance from their parent sports federations.

Sports journalist Boria Mazumdar suggests that “the essence of the IPL as a marquee sporting event lies in its aligning the dynamics of cricket with market forces. Pay caps do little to create a level playing field while incentivizing under-the-table deals. The transformative impact of the IPL on cricket is beyond doubt. It must be protected from the black hand of greed and corruption.”

By trying to navigate against market forces, Mazumdar said, the board is opening itself up to the possibility of players trying to negotiate under the table. This is because certain players feel discriminated against as a result of board policies.

However, if the worth of every player is decided by market forces, it would save them from the temptation of negotiating under the table. It would also save the franchises from the bother of having to chase raw and under-talented domestic players at the start of every season.

Despite the current constraints of the premier league format, there is unanimity that harsh measures to punish the guilty can act as a strong deterrent. Banning the guilty from sports for life can be quite effective, say experts, as the spectacle of public rebuke would deter future corrupt practices.

Be that as it may, treating the malaises endemic to the IPL format is not an overnight job. It will need sustained and cohesive action from different organizations and the sports ministry. After all what’s at stake here is an iconic sport brand that boasts of a staggeringly successful template of high glamour, serious money and the involvement of high profile personalities.

It would indeed be a pity if the league’s credibility continues to erode in a country like India which suffers from a severe deficit of world-class players and apathy for sports in general.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist; neetalal@hotmail.com.)