That’s just not cricket
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That’s just not cricket

The domestic T20 league has been a byword for excess. Largely unpoliced, held in the realms of India’s all-powerful illegal bookmakers, it was a competition vulnerable to corruption hosted in a country that had the perfect platform to exploit it. Ed Hawkins writes. Scandals past and present

india Updated: May 26, 2013 05:44 IST
Ed Hawkins,T20 league,spot-fixing

A wise, but also rich, man once said: “After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts”. Such a quote is appropriate as the domestic T20 league reels from alleged spot-fixing, a scandal that has caused doubts about the validity of matches. If only Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan had been as philosophical, you might cry. But are the Rajasthan three the only ones guilty of forgetting ‘the game’?

When searching for corruption it is an old adage that one need only follow the money. The T20 league, since its inception in 2008, has cried out to be investigated. It is a tournament that has blown its nose with the biggest of denominations. There have been disgraces a plenty before but the spot-fixing claims cut deeper, and India is sore, it is suffering.

The soul-searching is underway. Chief among the worries is whether this shame could have been avoided. Was it inevitable? It is a disturbing, but necessary, query. The indignity needs to be examined and the glare of the spot lamp should hove in on whether the mess is a case of a few rotten apples or if it is the system itself which is putrid to the core.

The news that the Mumbai police have arrested Gurunath Meiyappan, a Chennai Super Kings official and son-in-law of BCCI president N Srinivasan, will have conspiracy theorists holding their noses.

To begin to understand the answer we have to go back to the beginning. When the domestic T20 league was conceived, it was, as most things are, dressed up as vital entertainment. In India’s hordes of cricket fans there was a thirst for the hit and giggle format of Twenty20, following the national side’s victory in the inaugural T20 World Cup. This had to be sated, they said. You don’t have to be a cynic to recognise that it was a once-in-a-lifetime money-making opportunity. It had to be grasped.

And from then on it was all about the cash. Billion-dollar deals followed million-dollar contracts. The sale of the eight initial franchises netted $700 million. The television rights were sold for $1 billion. The players coined it too. MS Dhoni was sold to Chennai Super Kings for $1.5 million in the first player auction. Before even a ball had been bowled, the league had waved money before everyone’s faces.

It was a mistake that the one bunch they did not tempt with the chequebook was the International Cricket Council’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU). For the first two editions the league was left unchecked by the game’s police force. Granted, the ACSU is hamstrung by a lack of resources and power, and if they were fed on results they would be skeletal. But consider this: What message did this send to the bookies? To the punters? And above all, to the players?

Could it have been that a tournament that had told all and sundry that greed was good was viewed as open season for match — or spot-fixing? It is not a leap to suggest that a culture had been created, however unwittingly.

Lalit Modi, the first commissioner, admits now that a failure to pay the $1.2 million fee to the ICC for ACSU presence was a mistake, although he believes that in the first two years the competition was clean. “I think it was,” he told me. “But I could never, sitting here today, categorically tell you that we picked up everything for spot-fixing. It’s extremely difficult to spot. We had to warn players from time to time.”

Indeed he did. Off the record, Modi told me the names of the players he spoke to and they were big enough to suggest that the league was ‘open season’ for bookmakers and punters. A player’s standing did not deter the corruptors from attempting to extract their pound of flesh. Some of those players had been signed by franchises for life-changing sums to the average trundler on the domestic circuits around the world.

Still, Modi says that those salaries, inflated though they were, actually helped take corruption out of the game. “In [the domestic T20 league], players were paid so well that there was no incentive to fix,” he said. “The amount of money young players are making today, they don’t need a secondary income. They make more by playing a clean game.”

It is a convincing argument, if every person who strode the earth was similar in characteristic. Sreesanth, for example, had a reported T20 league salary of $681,000, but it didn’t stop him wanting more. There are, of course, players who are happy with their lot, but it is not to stretch the human condition to suggest that as soon as one has tasted something great, one only wants more. Sadly, the T20 league is a byword for excess.

It should not be forgotten, for the importance of balance, that the domestic T20 league was damned as soon as it was born. To hold such a tournament in the realms of the kingmakers — India’s all-powerful illegal bookmakers — was asking for trouble. It was bound to fall into the clutches of the corruptors. Here was a competition vulnerable to corruption hosted in a country that had the perfect platform to exploit it.

An unregulated bookmaking system breeds corruption, whether that be by bookmakers or punters, because there is no watchdog to eye bookies who are manipulating odds, no monitoring of betting patterns to stop any Tom, Dick or Hari from getting a player to do favours on the field.

Twenty20, as a format, is also perfect for exploitation. It ensures huge betting interests because one has a winner or loser in a few hours and the matches can swing wildly in favour from one team to the other. Indeed, former ACSU head Lord Condon said in 2011 that Twenty20 had brought back “bad people into the game”.

For the invention of Twenty20, though, we must blame the English. And if we really want to apportion responsibility for cricket’s malaise, it is they who invented match— and spot-fixing. Way back in 1744 the first laws of the game were drafted to settle gambling disputes. Corruption was rife. One player, a whistleblower, said: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” We started with a wise man and we finish with one.

(Ed Hawkins is a journalist and author of Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: A Journey to the Heart of Cricket’s Underworld, the 2013 Wisden Book of the Year)

First Published: May 25, 2013 22:40 IST