The games they play

It is time to clean up Indian cricket. If the BCCI is unwilling to act, it is for other stakeholders to do so. Unfortunately, they are guided by self-interest or are toothless.

Published : Jun 12, 2013 00:00 IST

Gurunath Meiyappan being taken to Crime Branch office in Mumbai on May 24.

Gurunath Meiyappan being taken to Crime Branch office in Mumbai on May 24.

THE cricket crisis in India has given rise to the possibility of three types of solutions—populist, false, and plausible. The contours of the problem have not yet taken their final shape, with fresh arrests, fresh leaks and fresh speculation all adding to the confusion. How much can be proved in a court of law is unclear. Did Sreesanth’s towel-in-the-trousers routine mean anything beyond itself? How much did the teams and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) know? Are all teams and their owners in the clear? Did the media and the authorities put two and two together and get five?

The cricketing fraternity has an established technique to deal with crises—close ranks and dump on the outsiders. In this case, the outsiders are Vindoo Singh, who has been singing like a canary on Prozac, and Gurunath Meiyappan, whose relationship with the Board president may or may not trump his relationship with Chennai Super Kings (CSK) of which he is the owner, principal, CEO, enthusiast or team bus driver, depending on whom you believe.

Vindoo can admit to betting on the matches and get away with a slap on the wrists. Meiyappan, if he admits to betting, will be responsible for CSK being scrapped from the Indian Premier League (IPL), for the rules are clear. Insider trading is frowned upon—the only thing worse is to get caught. Meiyappan holds the key to the future of CSK and, by implication, the future of the Board president. Hence, the latter’s prepositional jugglery—stepping “aside”, rather than stepping “down” from his post on grounds of propriety. He can thus not only have his cake and eat it too, but throw the uneaten bits at our faces.

Now that N. Srinivasan remains president, to be replaced by his mirror image Jagmohan Dalmiya, there is little to be gained by crying over split presidents. If Tweedledum cannot rescue the Board, Tweedledee will, all other considerations—IPL, cricket itself—being secondary.

The fake Richie Benaud account got it right in one tweet: “Indians don’t understand conflict of interest.” The Board president owning an IPL team is of a piece with Meiyappan betting on his team. It does not matter if the former shows no special considerations to the team or the latter loses millions of rupees. The mere act is ethically and legally culpable. Forget Caesar’s wife, what about Caesar himself?

When I called for the resignation of the Board president in The Hindu , some of the letters in response said that he had not been accused of anything, he was not guilty and so why should he quit? It was echoing the defence put forward by the president himself—“I have done nothing wrong.” Was the comment too subtle and nuanced for the Indian who does not “understand conflict of interest”? That a powerful man presides over the Board which is—in theory at least—probing the shenanigans of a family member? Five years ago, when it was pointed out that owning a team while being the Board president constituted a conflict of interest, the president’s response was “No”. Now he and we are paying the price.

That is the culture of the IPL, where players have been punished for seeking better salaries, where rules have been bent from the start, where making money and peddling influence is the motto and where the atmosphere actually encourages jumping off the straight and narrow in search of roads paved with gold. The IPL has been characterised as a popular means for millionaires to get together and make more millions while appearing to be supporting a sport and with the added advantage of free television time for near and dear ones.

Of the many false solutions to the problem of spot fixing (which, as it turns out, is only one of the crises, with betting, Board politics, individual intransigence and cover-ups being some of the others), the populist one was articulated by Jagmohan Dalmiya: do away with cheerleaders, do away with post-match parties. This is not a proper solution, but moral policing, with decisions being taken by superannuated men influenced by television anchors whose disgust might be the result of their not being invited to these parties.

Only Arun Jaitley was honest enough to say that there was nothing wrong with parties and cheerleaders as such, “unless the parties are used as meeting ground for bookies and fixers”. His reaction to cheerleaders probably reflects the feelings of many. “I am indifferent,” he said. It is an American concept, you can take it or leave it, but to go apoplectic over it is plain silly. I have said elsewhere—turning Ashis Nandy’s famous quote on its head—that the IPL is an American sport accidentally invented by India.

Cheerleaders are not the problem—although things do get ridiculous when they are dressed up in Bharatnatyam outfits to perform essentially cheerleading duties. To focus on pseudo-problems is to ignore the real ones, and even if that suits the IPL (and by extension, the BCCI), the temptation must be avoided.

A good example of a false solution is the call to legalise betting. The huge volume of betting in the IPL (according to one estimate, it is greater than the nominal value of the IPL itself!) is driven by black money; to expect punters to pay taxes on this is ambitious in the extreme. Betting will remain underground, regulated by the underworld, and if the government sees a rupee of it, that will be by accident.

So far—independent of cricket—there has been little effort to root out betting, which is illegal in this country. That the police have always been aware of the activities of the bookies is shown by the ease with which many have been picked up for questioning. So many of them have come out of the woodwork in so many different parts of India.

It is not deemed politically correct to say so, but we seem to be avid gamblers at every social and economic level. From the labourers who aim to make a quick buck at card games to IPL team owners who think little of losing ten million rupees at a single match. There must be a middle band here of law-abiding citizens who will accept legal betting and not look beyond that, but the volumes and greater convenience favour illegal betting.

At any rate, you cannot legislate against human greed. Corruption can take many forms—from bowling a pre-arranged no-ball to manipulating your way at the top —and it is important to understand what can be done and what cannot. Theoretically, you cannot monitor, leave alone control, spot-fixing. A player can enter into an agreement today for a match to be played three months later, and no one would be the wiser. On-field signals will get more sophisticated, communications untraceable, the money trail difficult to follow. The crooks have to stay one step ahead of the police to survive, and they will unless, as happened now, and in the earlier match-fixing case 13 years ago, conversations accidentally fall into the laps of the authorities.

We must begin by accepting that morally there is no difference between spot-fixing and match-fixing: often, even literally, they mean the same thing. A planned no-ball at a crucial juncture, for example, might actually skew the match result. But more than that, the mere fact of interfering with any single aspect of the game constitutes a fix, and any attempt to distinguish between types of fixes is a waste of time.

If you drew Venn diagrams of the various crises facing Indian cricket, there might be a few overlaps. But however small the area of what might be called the overlap involving all the elements, that is the one to focus on.

And so we come to the plausible solutions. The price of fairness, like the price of democracy, is eternal vigilance. At least now we know what the problem is. When match-fixing and the role of the then Indian captain in it was first revealed, it came as a shock to most because we were unwilling to believe such things could happen. Years later, an India player told me when I asked him about this: “We knew something fishy was going on, but had no idea what. It was like the tsunami. When it hit, we didn’t even know there was a name for it. Likewise we weren’t even aware that there was a name for some of the goings on.”

No excuses now, more than a decade later. Fixing might be a victimless crime; no blood, no body; nothing lost except faith, and that too in a man-made construct like competitive sport. Yet, we have a responsibility to clean up the sport. If the BCCI is reluctant (they held a two-hour emergency meeting without once speaking of the issue) to act, other stakeholders must: the sponsors, the franchisees, television, the International Cricket Council, the fan. Sadly, all of the above are guided by self-interest or are toothless, as in the case of the ICC.

The only team owner who threatened to quit the IPL was Subroto Roy, Sahara, but he saw in the events an opportunity to blackmail the BCCI into either appointing Sharad Pawar as president or reducing the cost of his Pune Warriors team ( a long-running issue), or ideally, both. The big sponsors probably figure it is too early to tip their hand since they have a whole year in which to make up their minds, and a year is a long, long time in sport. The television deal is for 10 years—so why rock the boat now? The fans, who might have caused some rethink, showed their complete indifference by turning up for the post-arrest matches in full strength. Perhaps they did not feel strongly enough—and in that lies the salvation for the sponsors and the IPL. The fans will take anything you give them, whether fixed or genuine.

This is a fine time to make fundamental changes in the way the Board functions. It is a feudal, archaic, anachronistic body which still insists on having “control” ( a colonial word) in its name. Time to at least consider running it like a corporate (not so far-fetched considering the billions it handles) with a proper CEO, and with the twin mottos of transparency and accountability in its constitution. Asking the government to take over is no solution because the government’s track record is abominable.

There is no doubt that the BCCI is the best-run sporting body in the country. There is a regular system of elections and a federalism in place with the respective associations functioning independently. Matches from the under-15 level to the World Cup are conducted on schedule and most professionally, the coaching is in place, the system of identifying talent and nurturing it to greatness is well-established.

So too is the system of favours-and-rewards, political adjustments and cover-ups, secrecy and the refusal, now increasingly difficult to sustain, to bring itself under the Right to Information Act.

There are many areas to clean up, therefore. The BCCI. The IPL. Cricket itself. The possibility of corruption having seeped down to the Ranji and lower levels is high. Each requires a new approach, a different emphasis.

Making the franchisees responsible for keeping the IPL clean is a step. It means that there will be yet another policeman on duty. As will a proper players’ association, which will both counsel the players and tackle their issues. If the bookies can zero in on the disaffected and vulnerable with such ease, surely players are in a better position to do so, and perhaps nip the problem in the bud.

Thirteen years ago, we made the mistake of letting the fixers go lightly, and now those involved in that shameful episode have become Members of Parliament, coaches and experts on television taking the moral high ground. Deterrence, theoretically the strongest arrow in the quiver, was never a weapon. Had the first lot of match-fixers been given exemplary punishment (there was no law then, there isn’t a law now), we might not have had history repeat itself. It is possible that Indian cricket will plumb greater depths before things begin to change for the better. And that might not be such a bad thing.

Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack

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