When the first series of the Indian Premier League rolled out in the spring of 2008 it did so with no little fanfare.
There was excitement and razzmatazz, big names and cheerleaders. There were also, quite clearly, plenty of ways to make money.
Five years on, as the sixth edition of the IPL prepares for its final tomorrow the glamour and buzz of the Twenty20 tournament is still there and the series is worth more than $4bn (£2.6bn). Yet increasingly there is a sense of outrage over match-fixing allegations said to involve some of the country’s biggest stars.
Two weeks ago three bowlers of the Rajasthan Royals side were arrested by police over allegations of spot-fixing. Along with Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila, officers detained Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, a former India player.
Sreesanth and the families of the other two players have denied the charge. “I have never indulged in any spot fixing and I have always played cricket in the spirit of the game,” Sreesanth said.
Police allege the involvement of the Mumbai crime syndicates in fixing betting, which is largely prohibited in India. The media seized on the allegations and repeatedly replayed the “fixed” balls police claimed the players had bowled.
“We had information that the Mumbai underworld is indulging in match fixing or spot fixing and have contacted a number of bookies and some players,” the Delhi police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, said at the time. Since then, the investigation has widened and a dozen bookmakers and middle-men have found themselves under suspicion. It is thought further allegations about the involvement of other players and more teams will emerge.
The investigations have prompted the Indian government, embarrassed by the bad publicity, to frame a bill dealing with sports corruption. Rajiv Shukla, the IPL chairman, and Arun Jaitley, vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) yesterday discussed the proposed law with the federal law minister, Kapil Sibal.
After the meeting, Shukla, who is also the government’s minister for parliamentary affairs, said: “We need a law so that fixing in all sports could be controlled and eliminated. We want the law to be enacted as early as possible.”
These allegations may prove to be baseless but the next step is a meeting with sports minister Jitendra Singh and at last there seems to be an urgency in stopping the general practice of spot fixing. The government has so far resisted calls for legalising betting on cricket but Singh spoke yesterday of the need for a long-term plan.
He was reported in the Indian media to have told a conference: “My ministry has no control over the BCCI or the IPL but we need to think about the bigger picture. We are all ashamed, we are all worried and it is not just me, the players and the citizens of this country are ashamed. Hence, we will have to try and figure out a solution together.”
Police have also detained a Bollywood actor, Vindoo Dara Singh, for his alleged involvement in spot fixing. Vindoo has links with the Chennai Super Kings, one of this year’s finalists and has reportedly told police he bet on matches for team principal, Gurunath Meiyappan, who is the son-in-law of N Srinivasan, the man who heads the BCCI, an independent body which runs the IPL. Srinivasan also owns the Super Kings.
The franchise has rejected Meiyappan has a formal position but despite his and Srinivasan’s denials of involvement he has found himself coming under increasing pressure.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani international umpire Asad Rauf, has also fallen foul of the IPL furore after the International Cricket Conference withdrew him from its panel to officiate matches in the Champions Trophy, which starts next month in England and Wales. The ICC’s decision followed media reports that the Mumbai police were investigating his alleged role in the fixing case.
It is a cliché, albeit one based on the truth, that cricket is something close to a religion in India. But while Indians can tolerate the occasional fake guru, and even accept that corruption claims have found their way into sport – the IPL’s founder Lalit Modi was fired in 2010, amid allegations that he denied – they are furious that the stars themselves, players they deify, are at being investigated despite denials.
“People will watch the final – it is entertainment. But next year I think numbers will be down, perhaps by as much as 40 or 50 per cent,” said Jatin Tokas, a cricket fan and gymnasium manager in Delhi. “Indians are crazy about cricket. But they feel very badly treated by this. Emotionally, they feel strongly for their teams. But if this happens, no one will want to go.”