Indian Payola League

If a player earning half a million dollars for a season wants to make a few hundred thousand rupees by cheating his craft, can anyone stop him?

Ever since the Indian Premier League (IPL) spot-fixing scandal broke on Thursday morning (May 16), there have been two equally tiresome responses. On Thursday itself, a succession of former cricketers, Indian or otherwise, turned up in television studios and spoke about the “romance of the game” being violated.

They were quick and careful to defend the IPL authorities and the parent entity, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). On the other hand, there were stray former cricketers who attacked the BCCI and laid all blame at its door. Unfortunately, several of these so-called dissidents were not principled objectors but simply malcontents, angry because they had been pushed off the gravy train.
Over the past two days, articles and analyses of the latest of cricket’s scandals have followed pretty much the same trajectory. Either there is vile and blind abuse of the BCCI, the IPL, commercialisation of sport, capitalism, whatever, or there is an effort to essentially agree with BCCI president N. Srinivasan’s contention that only a “few rotten eggs” are guilty and the rest of the IPL and Indian cricket is fairly clean, and that the cricket establishment has been betrayed as much as the average IPL viewer.
Very little of what we have heard and read has been an informed critique. The critics of the IPL, those who see it as essentially flawed and its birth in 2008 as the equivalent of the seductive serpent entering the Garden of Eden, have little idea about the betting industry and how much it has evolved in the past 13 years since the original match-fixing scandal of 2000. Cricket journalists still remain remarkably innocent of the details of spot-fixing, spread betting and how online betting sites — perfectly legitimate ones — allow for very dynamic odds, entry and exit of the punter in real time and at strategic moments, and the analogue of what the stock market would call futures trading.
All of these parameters become that much more pertinent in a Twenty20 game rather than a Test match. If a team is chasing 270 in four sessions to win a Test match, two successive maiden overs or two successive expensive overs will make little difference. If a team is chasing 170 in a T20 game, two successive maiden overs or two successive expensive overs can mean a dramatic difference to the odds on offer before and after those two overs. This may happen without necessarily affecting the final result. It could make some people very rich in two overs.
Fixing is not unknown in other sports. Earlier this year, a massive rigging scandal, complete with transcontinental crime syndicates, exploded upon European football. In 1982, Paolo Rossi took Italy to World Cup victory only weeks after completing a ban related to a fixing episode. Baseball had a huge rigging swindle as early as 1919. T20 cricket has not been immune to this and indeed its very format makes it the type of cricket most suited, or vulnerable, to fixing.
As early as 2009, there were rumours of occasional spot-fixing in the IPL. During a game between Kolkata and Bangalore, an international cricketer, in terrific form that season and batting up the order, got out early while his team was chasing. Bookies and punters seemed to know about the dismissal. The game was inconsequential as it came at the end of the round-robin phase and when the semi-finalists had already been decided. That aside, T20 games in English country cricket, not as high-profile as those in the IPL, have come under scrutiny.
What is the solution, if any? Frankly, it boils down to the individual cricketer and his greed. If a player earning half a million dollars for a two-month season still wants to make a few hundred thousand rupees more by cheating his craft, can anyone stop him? As such, when the BCCI and its adherents plead they are not responsible for S. Sreesanth’s sheer, naked lust, they have a point.
Neither is it fair or realistic to ask for a ban on the IPL or a dismantling of what has been a phenomenally successful sporting enterprise. T20 cricket does not appeal to purists. The IPL itself is overdone with razzmatazz and an almost orgiastic culture promoted by some of its franchise owners and their groupies. Yet, it can and often does provide for compelling sport. It is also enormously popular in a time of shorter attention spans and a declining interest in traditional five-day cricket.
So does this mean the smarmy army at the BCCI and the IPL needs to do nothing at all? That would be an incorrect inference. If authorities, franchise owners and league officials are to demand honesty from players, it would help if their own operations were transparent. Nobody can accuse franchise promoters or BCCI officials of being in collusion with fixing syndicates. There is absolutely zero evidence for that as of now. However, the fast-buck ethos of the IPL and the way it is run — and this is distinct from any aesthetic revulsion for T20 cricket, cheerleaders and strategic time-outs — ends up giving the impression to some cricketers that a little moonlighting on the side is an acceptable business practice.
A celebrity consortium invests in companies set up by a senior cricket official and his family weeks before it wins an IPL franchise. The BCCI president runs a company that also owns an IPL team. Senior cricketers make a mockery of any salary caps (illogical as these are by themselves) by endorsing products or simply becoming employees of parent companies of IPL franchisees. Successful captains, unsure of longevity in the Indian team, set up little shops in their franchises, getting flunkies jobs in team management, promoting particular players and nudging them in a certain direction. From Kolkata to Chennai, the murmurs are just too strong.
Without addressing these gaps and without meeting the corporate governance deficit of the IPL and its franchises, will it be easy to convince the borderline cricketer that bowling that one loose over for a tidy fee is just not on? That is a moral question Mr Srinivasan and his friends can’t duck. Pyjama cricket is one thing, payola cricket quite another.

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