KPL fixing: Plugging multiple gaps in state-run leagues
The match-fixing scandal of 2000 erupted when Delhi Police chanced upon telephone conversations between Sanjay Chawla, a bookmaker and businessman, and South Africa cricket captain Hansie Cronje while probing a low-profile extortion case.
In September last year, investigations into the Karnataka Premier League (KPL) had a similar beginning.
“We started with a small tip-off about betting,” says Sandeep Patil, Joint Commissioner of Police, Crime, Bengaluru City. Betting on cricket is illegal but rampant, and the police were chasing what they thought was a routine crime.
Since then, the police have questioned more than 40 cricketers, coaches, administrators, franchise owners and bookies. They have arrested nine people (all out on bail), including two team owners and four players.
“As we went further, we realised how big it is. It not only involves betting but also match-fixing, and a deadly combination of team owners betting on a very large scale,” says Patil, who heads the Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the case.
Currently on hold till investigations end, KPL began in 2009 and was the first of the IPL-style T20 state leagues that now take place across the country. A realtor company came in as a sponsor, committing ~11 crore over five years, and a local cable network company was roped in as broadcast partner.
“(But) unlike IPL, there was no revenue model,” says a former administrator in the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) requesting anonymity.
In November 2010, there was a change of guard at KSCA. Former India cricketer Brijesh Patel—now IPL chairman, he had launched KPL when at the helm of KSCA—was replaced by Anil Kumble. The former India captain accused Patel of conflict of interest in the matter of hiring the company that was conducting IPL. Patel denied the charge, but the Kumble-led KSCA decided to discontinue KPL from 2011. Kumble said KPL “gave a backdoor entry to people not passionate about cricket”. Another two years, another reversal. By the end of 2013, Patel was back, elected secretary of the association, and KPL resumed the following year. In the same year, a KPL franchise found out that a player was passing information to bookies. In the absence of formal anti-corruption measures, the league management, fearing they would be black-listed by sponsors, let him off.
Soon, old problems resurfaced. Seeing insignificant returns on investment, realtors, politicians, telecom companies and sports management firms began to opt out of the league. Sports broadcast majors Sony, followed by Star Sports, came in as partners but brought little money. The production and up-linking costs had to be borne by KSCA and the promised revenue share from ad-spots was limited.
“In Karnataka, it’s difficult to find investors in cricket. In the 1980s and early 90s, sponsorship used to come from the banking sector. Now, the state economy is largely driven by the IT sector. Their clientele is (the) US market. and to some degree, UK. They are not interested in investing in a local cricket league. So, you take whatever comes,” says the former KSCA administrator.
That meant frequent changes in team owners and ownership patterns. Somewhere in that disruption, Ali Ashfaq Thara bought KPL team Belagavi Panthers, and Arvind Reddy, a real estate developer, acquired Bellari Tuskers.
Thara, who also owned a T10 league team in the UAE, police discovered was heavily into betting. He was also the first to be arrested. Thara has been suspended from both leagues.
“It’s (fixing) been going on for the past three years. It multiplied after the arrival of Ali. He took players to New Zealand and Dubai. We gather some players were honey-trapped. We are investigating further,” says a police official.
“For 10-12 players, there were separate apartments booked. This, so that dealings could happen away from anti-corruption officials,” says another policeperson who too did not want to be named.
“We still don’t know all those who are involved. They (KPL) have an anti-corruption unit. What were their reports? What action was taken on the reports such as these need to be looked into,” says Patil.
KSCA president Roger Binny, the 1983 World Cup winner, refused to be interviewed for the story. Through a KSCA press release, Binny has said: “With the unfortunate turn of events during the past few weeks, with regard to the KPL, we have reaffirmed time and again that we are fully co-operating with the police authorities to ensure that if anyone has wronged the sport, they will be subject to due process of law.”
Brijesh Patel too refused to comment.
Players too had begun to realise something was amiss. In the 2017 season, a coach was found carrying a bag full of new iPhones to distribute among players. During a 2017 KPL tie, an India player had a public spat with two competing franchise owners because he felt the match was being rigged. Another captain, who did not wish to be named, says he would announce the team minutes before the toss because he didn’t trust his teammates to play fair.
The same year, an India player and a Karnataka player who played in IPL reported suspicious activities to KSCA. The players say nothing was done. In 2019, a furious India player lashed out at teammates after he sensed more than one was not playing to win, a player requesting anonymity says. ESPNcricinfo reported of international betting firms suspending trading after observing unusual betting patterns in KPL.
In 2018, when former ICC ACU head Ravi Sawani’s private security unit was tasked with anti-corruption duties in the league, multiple corrupt approaches came to light and were shared with KSCA.
Last year, when BCCI’s ACU took over duties in all state leagues, they alerted the administration.
“Before we took over this year, our zonal operations manager was asked to brief them because earlier too there were rumours of KPL being compromised,” says Ajit Singh, BCCI ACU head.
Among the arrested is KSCA managing committee member Sudhindra Shinde. His cricket club Socials was one of those which provided players to the league. Following Shinde’s arrest, police raided KSCA secretary Santosh Menon’s house.
“What we (can) make out from our investigations so far is this (conflict) thing of administrators being selectors and also running cricket camps and coaching centres. We have seen when the officials are running these coaching camps, most of the players are coming from there. They push these players to various teams of KPL so that they start dancing to their tune. They make them do small things and later spot-fixing even in the final,” says Patil.
Police say it’s easy to influence players; they can be honey-trapped— three actors from the Karnataka film industry too are under investigation—tempted with money, or blackmailed that failure to comply would mean exclusion.
Runners-up in 2019, Bellari Tuskers owner Reddy, captain CM Gautam and Abrar Kazi have been charged with fixing. The police also nabbed M Viswanath, Nishant Shekhawat and coach Vinoo Prasad. They are currently out on bail (charged with cheating under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code) and have been suspended by KSCA.
The police has sent a notice with 18 questions to KSCA and KPL franchises seeking information around the franchise-ownership pattern and individual disclosures. Thara, according to the police, registered his team in his wife’s name.
“They have only replied with half-baked information. We have asked them for more,” says Patil.
“So far, we have reached only 25-30 per cent of our enquiry. We are going to take it to its logical conclusion. It requires lot of detailed investigation which is underway,” says Patil.
“We have evidence to point to Belagavi team owner as well as Bellari team owner. There are question marks on teams like Bijapur (Bulls) and others which we are investigating.”
With the reputation of Karnataka cricket, which has produced some of the greatest names in the game, at stake, there have been calls to stop KPL for good. Not everyone agrees such a drastic step should be taken.
“The two leading white-ball teams in the country currently are Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Have they not benefitted from KPL and TNPL? Have they not scouted talent for IPL? What’s needed is better governance mechanism in the league,” says a former cricketer who did not want to be named.
HANDLING it: Ganguly
BCCI too is keeping a tab. It’s ACU is probing, but will rely heavily on the police. “Whatever evidence they quantify to file a chargesheet, we will require that to ascertain the violation of anti-corruption code,” Ajit Singh says.
BCCI president Sourav Ganguly said the onus was on players to stay clean. “Players are approached, that is not the problem. What they do after is the problem. We’re dealing with it because nobody wants it.”
Patil says: “If the owners and administrators are above board, such a thing cannot happen.”
Other T20 state leagues aren’t immune to the problem. TNPL recently expelled two co-owners of a franchise for links with bookies. A franchise owner of T20 Mumbai, the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) run league, is being investigated.
The KPL investigations serve as a reminder that the lessons of 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal have not been learnt well.