By Brian Tuohy
Despite its shared lineage with baseball, cricket is completely foreign to most Americans. Sure, there's a bat and ball, runs are scored and games consist of innings, but that's where the resemblance ends. While certain MLB games only seem to last for days, typical cricket matches actually do, playing out over the course of three to five days, with each session lasting six hours or more. But knowledge of the sport is unnecessary to understand the tale that's played out over the past year in the Indian Premier League.
Formed in 2008, the IPL has become one of the world's richest sporting leagues. Sponsored by Pepsi (officially, it's the Pepsi Indian Premier League), the eight-team league is more or less a three-month-long tournament. The league's major corporate ties and worldwide television coverage have drawn the best cricket players on the planet into the fold, yet the IPL nearly unraveled as fast as it grew amidst a far-reaching gambling and game-fixing scandal.
As in most of the U.S., sports gambling is illegal in India, but that doesn't seem to curtail the practice. Instead, it drives both good and bad people into the waiting arms of a criminal underworld that's willing to book bets on the matches fans consistently watch. It was only a matter of time when, in April 2013, Delhi police received information that members of the "Mumbai underworld" were fixing IPL matches with the help of bookies and players alike.
The investigation quickly honed in on the Rajasthan Royals franchise. Within a month, police believed they had witnessed three Royals' bowlers -- Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Ajit Chandila and Ankit Chavan -- engage in spot-fixing in three different IPL matches. That is to say, the players weren't outright causing the Royals to lose -- in fact, the Royals won two of the three matches -- but rather were fixing specific plays within each match.
The scourge of spot-fixing has increased with the rise in popularity of in-game wagering, something relatively new to legal sports books in the U.S. In-game wagering allows gamblers to bet on individual plays, not just final scores. Penalties, balls and strikes, injuries, first score, last score -- all are fair game. It presents an extremely attractive method of fixing for those willing to engage in it, as the players need not tamper with the game's end result, making any fix extremely difficult to uncover. In the case of the Royals, the three bowlers intentionally were allowing their opponents to score a certain number of runs, as dictated by the gamblers who were wagering on the under/over line for a particular inning.
Just as "Black Sox" pitcher Eddie Cicotte beaned the first Cincinnati Reds batter in the 1919 World Series, indicating that the fix was on, the three Royals bowlers would signal their betting confederates by wearing certain accessories, like a wristwatch or a towel in their belt, prior to the inning in question. The players would even delay the game by lengthening their warm-up, to ensure that the gamblers had enough time to place their wagers. For their participation, the players were to be paid anywhere from $36,000 to $109,000.
Delhi police actually attended the games in question, to witness both the signals and the players' performances first-hand. They then arrested the three players along with 11 bookies, before any payments could be delivered to the bowlers.
The biggest fish ensnared in the police's net seemed to be Sreesanth, a player who was undoubtedly talented -- he also played for India's national team -- but also extremely controversial, much like Terrell Owens or Alex Rodriguez. "To call Sreesanth a difficult character can sometimes be an understatement," ESPNcricinfo writer Sidharth Monga has written. "He is perhaps the only man in this modern PR-driven all-is-well world to have been chided in public by his own team-mates."
If that's where this tale ended, both the IPL and the Delhi police could have called the investigation a success. Three players caught red-handed, spot-fixing for a collection of 11 bookmakers. It would only be a matter of time before charges of cheating, criminal conspiracy and criminal breach of trust would find those 14 guilty, their punishments swiftly doled out. But as the investigation grew, so too did the saga.
Of the 11 bookies arrested, two were former cricketers. Jiju Janardhan was a teammate of Sreesanth's when he played for the Ernakulam club. According to police, the two had been friends ever since. Then it was discovered that one bookie was misidentified. "Amit Kumar" was actually Amit Singh, a former member of the Rajasthan Royals who was released from the team in 2012. Shortly thereafter, as the number of arrests blossomed to 25, then to 39 people, police collared yet another ex-player, former Vidarbha team member Baburao Yadav, whose heyday had been some five years earlier. Players were becoming bookies, then contacting their former teammates to fix matches.
While the investigation proceeded, another member of the Royals franchise, bowler Siddharth Trivedi, became a police witness. ESPNcricinfo wrote of Trivedi that he "had declined multiple approaches by bookies and had also reported an approach by a bookie to the Anti-Corruption and Security Unit during IPL 2012. Last year, Trivedi was among more than a dozen cricketers approached by undercover India TV reporters acting as bookies during a sting operation and was among those who turned them away."
Even so, Trivedi's cooperation would come back to haunt him. That 2012 television expose had implicated five Indian domestic players willing to accept bribes, three of whom received one-year bans; one received a five-year ban, and another was ousted for life. Despite this, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the IPL did next to nothing to combat what India TV had shown to be a serious issue within the sport.
As revelations of the police investigation spread, a national debate raged as to how to control corruption within the IPL. Some believed tougher national laws were needed. Others felt that the IPL needed to monitor their own athletes. Yet much like NFL or MLB Security, the International Cricket Council's (ICC) Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) possesses no actual police authority, limiting its effective power. A few cricket pundits went so far as to argue that there was nothing that could be done to mitigate the fixing problem. Players are signed to IPL teams for only 45 days. The rest of the year they played elsewhere, under different controls and standards. While IPL officials did make presentations to warn players of the dangers of gambling, the talk amounted to just that: talk.
Then a bomb dropped. Gurunath Meiyappan, a top official of the Chennai Super Kings franchise, was arrested by Mumbai police. Charged with 12 counts of cheating, forgery and fraud -- all stemming from gambling on cricket -- Meiyappan's arrest threw Indian cricket into a frenzy as the Super Kings were set to play in the IPL Final. The team immediately distanced itself from Meiyappan, claiming he was only an "honorary member" of team management. To make matters worse, Meiyappan was the son-in-law of BCCI president Narayanaswami Srinivasan, who happened to be managing director of Indian Cements Limited, the Super Kings' parent company. While immediate calls were made for Srinivasan to resign as BCCI president, none were made to postpone and/or cancel the IPL Final. The Super Kings lost to the Mumbai Indians, yet the taint of the ever-growing scandal made any victory celebration bittersweet.
To combat the controversy surrounding his son-in-law, Srinivasan appointed BCCI secretary Sanjay Jagdale and two retired high court judges to a committee to investigate Meiyappan and the spot-fixing charges within the IPL. But Jagdale (along with BCCI treasurer Ajay Shirke, and later, IRL chairman Rajiv Shukla) promptly resigned from the BCCI, in part because he never wanted to be a member of Srinivasan's committee. Conceding to pressure, Srinivasan agreed to refrain from his presidential duties until the committee -- now down to just two members -- completed its investigation. He refused to resign; in fact, he was asked to continue to represent the BCCI at ICC meetings.
Then a second bomb dropped. Remember Royals bowler Siddharth Trivedi, who had been assisting the police? He informed them that a bookie named Umesh Goenka had attempted to solicit inside information from him about the team. It turned out Goenka was partners in a steel business with Royals co-owner Raj Kundra. Under questioning, Goenka told police that Kundra bet on IRL matches, including ones featuring his own team. Amazingly, Kundra admitted to the accusation. Kundra would later claim that his "confession" had been no such thing, that his sarcastic responses to police had been misconstrued as sincere.
Kundra had little to worry about, however, because the BCCI's investigative committee declared that he, the Royals and Indian Cements Ltd. -- and by extension the Super Kings and Meiyappan -- were all effectively innocent. No evidence of wrongdoing was uncovered. Many found the committee's report convenient, given BCCI president Srinivasan's connection to both the accused and the committee investigating them.
As Super Kings and Royals officials were ready to walk away unscathed, while the players' fate still hung in the balance, the Bombay High Court intervened. The court ruled that the BCCI committee assembled by Srinivasan was illegal, citing the BCCI's own constitution as proof. They demanded the BCCI re-investigate. The BCCI, of course, appealed the decision.
Meanwhile, BCCI Anti-Corruption and Security Unit chief Ravi Sawani dropped the hammer on the players. Despite the ongoing investigation by the police, Sawani deemed Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan guilty, along with former player turned bookie Amit Singh. Sreesanth and Chavan were banned for life. Singh was given a five-year ban from the sport. Siddharth Trivedi, who had assisted in the investigation, was found guilty of failure to report an approach from a bookie, as well as failing to report an approach from a bookie to a teammate. Despite his cooperation, Trivedi was handed a one-year suspension. Chandila, the third guilty player, had his punishment delayed.
Despite swift judgments on the offending players, Sawani was silent when it came to Royals and Super Kings officials, and further investigation fell to the newly formed Mudgal Committee, set up by the Supreme Court and headed by former Punjab and Haryana Chief Justice Mukul Mudgal. Srinivasan was allowed to continue as BCCI president and seek re-election to the post for the time being, but he was barred from any dealings with the IPL.
The Mudgal Committee was quick to act. It found that Meiyappan was in fact a Super Kings official and had bet on IPL games. Royals owner Raj Kundra also had "resorted to betting" on IPL games through his business partner Goenka. The committee also concluded that further investigation into the Kundra-Goenka relationship was warranted. These were the committee's "known knowns."
More important, however, were its "known unknowns," in the form of a sealed envelope delivered to the court by the committee. Inside was "sensitive information" regarding many more alleged incidents of "fraud" within Indian cricket, including references to as many as 12 prominent players. Some of this information came from Delhi and Mumbai police, some from the now-banned player Sreesanth and some from former BCCI officials.
The most alarming details, however, came from a journalist working for the Indian edition of Sports Illustrated. This writer had the names of at least six players who were involved in fixing matches, but he refused to divulge those names, citing his own personal safety.
As if that weren't enough, the Mudgal Committee then caught Mahendra Singh Dhoni -- India's national team captain and the highest-paid cricket player in the world -- apparently lying. While trying to determine Meiyappan's role within the Super Kings, Dhoni stated he was merely a Super Kings "enthusiast." This proved far from the truth. As the Mudgal Committee report stated, "Mr. Meiyappan would be with the team [Super Kings] during the practice sessions, would be present during team meetings, at the auction table, in the owners dug out, participated in the IPL owners meet, travelled with the team, participated in the IPL owners workshop representing himself to be the owner of [the Super Kings] and held out to the world at large as the Team Principal/ Team Owner of [the Super Kings]."
This was a serious problem for Dhoni. The IPL anti-corruption code's definition of "corruption" included "cover-up," and for all intents and purposes, that's what Dhoni did for one of his team's officials. Yet in the wake of this news, Dhoni turned around and sued three members of the press and one police officer, for "intentionally projecting Dhoni as an object of hate and ridicule, thereby maligning his image in the eyes of cricket lovers, especially fans of Chennai Super Kings." Dhoni was granted a court injunction against two Indian television networks, barring them for two weeks from airing any news stories linking Dhoni to the game fixing allegations swirling within the IPL. Reports had leaked that the May 12, 2013, match between the Super Kings and the Royals likely was fixed. Dhoni's name allegedly had been mentioned by a bookie in connection with the fix, agreeing to score 140 runs and lose the match -- which is exactly what transpired.
While Dhoni's dilemma continues to be sorted out, the Supreme Court of India called for Srinivasan's removal as BCCI president. That call ultimately was heeded, but for some reason, he continued to represent the BCCI at ICC meetings, though not without some protest. The court also recommended suspending the Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals from the IPL, while many pundits demanded the complete dissolution of the IPL. Those calls, however, fell on deaf ears.
Dehli police ultimately submitted a 6,000-page chargesheet, laying out the investigation which linked cricket bookmaking operations to money laundering, terrorist activities and one of India's most wanted criminal dons, Dawood Ibrahim. Dehli police labeled Ibrahim and his aide Chhota Shakeel as the "kingpins" who launched the entire criminal conspiracy. Both remain fugitives from the law.
As the cricket world waits for all of the criminal charges to be filed and sentences to be handed out, the scandal finally has forced the BCCI to take action. On the administrative side, the BCCI is close to an agreement with the ICC, allowing the two entities respective anti-corruption units to work together, as opposed to being competing bureaus. Nationally, India is working on a "sporting fraud" bill which would criminalize match fixing, among other things. Meanwhile, its Central Bureau of Investigation -- India's FBI -- launched a new Sports Frauds Investigation Unit (SFIU). Hoping to combine the resources of local law enforcement and India's sporting federations as well as international law enforcement agencies, the SFIU launched in conjunction with the start of IPL 2014.
The BCCI also began its own "Operation Clean-Up." In order to eliminate corruption, the BCCI announced it would strictly enforce a code of conduct not just for players, but for IPL officials and owners as well. While that sounded all well and good, the methods with which the BCCI was set to proceed appeared rather draconian. Players were to reveal all the sources of their earnings (including endorsements) and provide their personal phone numbers to the BCCI for monitoring, and after-match parties were to cease. Access to players -- from the dressing room to the dug-out -- was to be restricted, even for owners and team officials. The BCCI was even willing to go as far as to block cell phone access within the stadium during a match, keeping fans (and potential bettors) from contacting anyone from their seats.
Can the IPL be saved? Fans certainly hope for the best. Yet when Delhi Police commissioner Neeraj Kumar, who has been at the center of the investigation from the start, claims to have stopped watching the sport as a result of such corruption, one has to wonder.
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.