Preparations are in full swing at the Cricket Centre's Indian Premier League office for the new season to roll out. It has been planned to every minute detail. The BCCI's million-dollar baby will turn five on Wednesday, with the opening game at Chennai.
Around 20-odd kilometers away, in a flat in Andheri (West), another meeting is happening about the same Twenty20 tournament. The men are putting their heads together on how to circumvent the rules being put in place at the IPL meeting in Churchgate. In the suburban flat, the men have the task of working out a plan to gain access to the players and sow the seeds of corruption.
There has been no incident reported in the IPL yet, but no one doubts the cash-rich league is in the cross-hairs of the mafia. If successful, the loot will be like never before.
The IPL is a format tailor-made for bookmakers who want to bet on cricket, and the mandarins at the Cricket Centre can ignore recent warnings at their peril.
WORST OF TIMES
These are trying times for international cricket. The incidents of this season have sent shock waves around the sporting world. Two Pakistan stars, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif, are behind bars in London for their involvement in spot-fixing in Test matches. The third, Mohammad Amir, has just completed his jail term. A county cricketer was jailed last month for a similar offence. It's proof the roots of the menace run deep.
It's a signal to the Indian cricket board that danger lurks around their high-profile event.
The Twenty20 leagues have always been on the bookies' radar and incidents in the inaugural Bangladesh Premier League this year come as proof of that.
The event, styled along the lines of the IPL, was off to a sour start when former Bangladesh captain Mashrafe Mortaza, skipper of the Dhaka Gladiators team, reported to cricket officials that he was approached by an unnamed player regarding potential spot-fixing.
Mortaza was asked to provide information on whether he would play certain matches, and even whether he would be wearing his sunglasses or a cap when he takes the field. In exchange, he was told, he would be paid 15-20 percent of the earnings from the spot-betting.
The IPL has always been under the scanner, say experts. Initially the Board of Control for Cricket in India had refused the ICC's Anti-Corruption and Security Unit's services, citing high costs. But it soon understood the gravity of the situation and the importance of ensuring a clean tournament and got them on board.
Former ICC ACSU chief Paul Condon is of the view that commercialisation of cricket with the advent of Twenty20 leagues has played a major role in pushing players to adopt corrupt means for earning quick money.
In an interview to a London newspaper after the Pakistan trio was convicted, Condon said since many players were earning mind-boggling sums playing in these short-format leagues, those who were not part of it took the shortcut.
“The frenzied commercialisation of Twenty20 changed the whole dynamic. People lost sight of what cricket was about,” he was quoted as saying in the Evening Standard. “This made it easier for cricketers to have a twisted logic. 'Well, everyone else is making squillions. All I'm going to do is bowl a couple of no-balls. I'm not even going to affect the outcome. We can still win, I could still be man of the match and a hero,” he said.
He revealed that when he warned the ICC Board at a meeting in 2008 about the rise of money-spinning Twenty20 leagues, the BCCI was angry that he spoke against the IPL.
“I remember saying, 'two choices. You can either say T20 is such a crazy form of game, you quarantine it.
If current Test players go into that, they can't come back to Test. But that would never work. You've got to have a fit and proper regime, as you would with gambling, and a proper anti-corruption endeavour to monitor tournaments',” Condon said.
“However, there was a lot of anger from the Indian representatives who said I had no right to suggest that. They felt I was challenging the legitimacy of the IPL.”
RECIPE FOR CORRUPTION
For a number of reasons, the IPL is more vulnerable to fall prey to the betting syndicate than international cricket. Being privately owned entities, glamourising the event adds a new dimension; players have to attend more parties in one season than they do in an entire international season.
In these dos, the risk doubles as they come across people from varied backgrounds, some masquerading as friends of the owners or business associates. Then you have the models and Bollywood beauties flitting around. It makes for a potent place to be and reports of honey-traps being laid for vulnerable players regularly do the rounds. Only last month, we had reports of a Bollywood actress being linked to a honey-trap being allegedly laid by bookies.
Adding to the dynamics is the diverse team combination with foreigners, Indian stars and domestic players coming together. All it takes is for one bad apple to spoil the entire basket.
The officials can take all the preventive measures in the world but ultimately it will be up to the players, feel experts. If they are strong and well-informed, the event will be fine.
Former CBI Jt Director K Mahadevan, who investigated the match-fixing scandal for the BCCI in 2000, has words for advice: “My advice to young cricketers is 'don't take risks, avoid wrong company. Aim for name and fame, some money will come your way. If you look to make easy money, prepare to be punished like your former players, Mohd Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja. I will remind them of a saying, “Jab zaroorat se zyada iccha hoti hai tab insaan barbaad ho jaata hai” (When there is greed, that is when a man is destroyed).
Former Mumbai Indians coach Lalachand Rajput warned players to be extra cautious at IPL parties. “It's the place where all types of people can be there. The owner's friends, their associates, contacts and you never know their backgrounds. The player should avoid all unknown people,” said Rajput.
Former Mumbai Police cricket captain and Assistant Commissioner of Police, Iqbal Shaikh, who since 1996 has been part of the squad handling security at important matches in Mumbai, said: “In the dressing room, no one is allowed. There is vigilance at their hotels too.
The calls are screened in the hotel and players are first informed about the identity of the caller. It's done so that strangers don't get in touch with them. It's when they move out that they come across such suspicious characters; that's when they have to be careful. They should be extra careful in the parties when meeting with strangers,” he added.
The ACSU's focus is also on player awareness. “Before every season, we have an ICC expert explaining to us the dos and don'ts,” a player, who has taken part in all the five editions, revealed. “It is focused on the people who we should be wary of, what to do when an approach is made and reporting of any suspicious characters around the team.”
All those involved in cricket, especially the IPL, would do well to remember Pakistan batting great Zaheer Abbas's comments following the spot-fixing case involving the three Pakistan team members: “The credibility of cricket, that is at stake. I don't want to see the day when people don't believe in results. Already, people express doubts over matches during interactions.”