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June 28, 2013 2:00 pm
Operation U-turn began late on a humid night in the middle of May, just yards away from the Arabian Sea. Shanthakumaran Sreesanth pulled out of Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium a little before midnight. His team, the Rajasthan Royals, had lost that evening’s match. But no matter: drinks were in order, and the star cricketer sped off to a nightclub in Bandra, a fashionable northern suburb. He had no idea the police were following him. Or that they had been doing so for weeks.
U-turn took its name from the quiet cul-de-sac at the end of the city’s Marine Drive, where a team of officers waited that evening, close enough to hear cheers floating over from the ground. Three squads fanned out across the city: one trailed Sreesanth as he drove north. It moved in a few hours later, pulling the disorientated bowler from his car. Two more Rajasthan Royals players were arrested, while 11 bookmakers were taken in a series of night-time raids across the country. The most serious scandal in the history of the Indian Premier League (IPL) had begun.
News of the arrests leaked out quickly, sending India’s already cricket-crazed media into a mania by the time police commissioner Neeraj Kumar sat down at a press conference in New Delhi later that afternoon. Kumar seemed weary as he laid out the allegations. A portly, balding man, the polished silver badges on his uniform glinted as the cameras flashed. “There was an agreement between the bookies and the players that in a certain over they would give away a minimum amount of runs,” he said; a scam known as a “spot fix”, in which a small part of a match is rigged, not the final result.
Prearranged signals showed the fix was on, he explained: a hand gesture, a rotated watch or, in Sreesanth’s case, a towel tucked into his trousers as he sprinted in to bowl. Video clips showed the suspicious incidents. Bags of cash, filled with as much as $70,000, were the player’s reward. And somewhere, far beyond the stadiums, massive illegal bets had been laid by groups unnamed – high-rolling punters, shady betting syndicates and international underworld criminals. “The mastermind is sitting abroad,” was all that Kumar would say.
The world’s biggest, brashest cricket tournament had long struggled with scandals. But this time was different. Sreesanth was an Indian international for starters, the first from the IPL’s elite cadre to be caught up in such a scandal. The allegations prompted Narayanaswami Srinivasan, the head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), to promise a speedy investigation. But barely a week after the first arrests the furore escalated further. Just two days before the IPL’s annual grand finale, Srinivasan’s own son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan, was taken into custody. The police said Meiyappan had passed on insider information about another IPL team, the Chennai Super Kings, which the son-in-law ran, and Srinivasan himself ultimately controlled.
A south Indian cement mogul turned cricket baron, Srinivasan’s role at the BCCI, which owns the IPL, habitually saw him described as world cricket’s pre-eminent power broker. Now the arrest of a close family member placed him at the epicentre of an intensifying crisis, sending India’s indignant press into a round-the-clock frenzy of allegations and resignation demands. Cricket’s most powerful man forcefully denied wrongdoing, and began a grim fight for survival. But the twin arrests now implied that the IPL’s problems were not restricted to a few bad-apple players. Instead the rot seemed to go close to the top. And while India’s beleaguered cricket lovers continued to debate why a fabulously well-paid star such as Sreesanth might have risked his career and freedom for a small bag of money, the roiling scandal began to raise a deeper question: could the IPL itself survive?
From the moment of its inception in 2007 the IPL had entirely upended cricket’s languid culture of long tea breaks and polite hand claps. There was money: eight original franchises auctioned off for the best part of $1bn; billions more in television and sponsorship deals; and sportsmen used to earning a pittance suddenly taking home $1m or more for just eight weeks’ work. There was glamour: the world’s biggest cricket stars, in teams backed by billionaire tycoons and Bollywood celebrities, egged on by glamorous cheerleaders and enough blaring music to more than drown out the gentle thwack of leather on willow. But more than that the league embodied the spirit of a newly self-confident nation. The IPL confirmed India, not England or Australia, as the leading force in global cricket. But its success also hinted at the towering potential of the superpower to come.
Yet for all its glitz, the tournament was troubled. Orthodox cricketing types bemoaned the television-friendly Twenty20 short format and relentless commercialism ruining their mannerly, courteous game. Players got drunk, fought and were arrested. There were management bust-ups and questionable finances. In its second year the entire jamboree moved to South Africa, amid worries over terrorist attacks. In year three it returned home, only to see its charismatic architect, Lalit Modi, sacked after another row with Srinivasan’s BCCI. Modi fled to exile in London, talking darkly about assassination attempts and confirming an air of perpetual rancour and melodrama from which the IPL never escaped.
The run of scandals brought to mind a different side of the “new” India, one of crony capitalism, shabby governance and financial chicanery. And behind it all lurked the spectre of outright criminality, in the form of the world’s $750bn illegal and grey market gambling industry. Its stakes and wagers now plague many sports, including football and tennis, but they have an especially problematic relationship with cricket.
The issue burst into the open more than a decade ago, when Indian police released a taped phone call between South African captain Hansie Cronje and a bookie. The resulting match-fixing crisis saw the player banned for life, and the game’s reputation for gentlemanly rectitude in tatters. Numerous others followed, notably in 2011, when a trio of Pakistani bowlers were caught by a British newspaper sting. They bowled no balls during a test match in London, and ended up in jail.
That India had a substantial illegal betting industry was therefore no secret. Much of it operates from Mumbai, even if the bosses are said to be lying low in Dubai or Pakistan. Their operations gifted the IPL a minor spot-fixing scandal of its own during 2012: five players were banned, although all were lesser-paid nonentities, assumed to be envious of their superstar teammates. But the events leading to Operation U-turn suggested these links had taken a more serious direction. And so to find out more, I sat down one morning in the middle of June, in a fancy hotel in a major Indian city, with a figure with a long background in the IPL.
Neeraj Kumar. New Delhi police commissioner
Over coffee in a quiet corner we talked through the uproarious circus that built up around the league. “It was pretty wild, the parties, the girls, the nights out,” my companion said, before recounting a story about one of the world’s best-known cricketers. “I remember this player coming to me once, and saying: ‘Some people have alcohol addictions but I have a sex addiction, and I need women. I play better if I’ve had sex the night before a match’,” he recalled. “And so what do you say? I called up someone, and told them this and they said they’d take care of it, they’d make sure the right kind of people were at our parties.” The cheerleaders proved a problem too. “Eventually they started putting them in different hotels, they learnt pretty quickly that that was the safer option, to put the cheerleaders a couple of miles away from the players,” he said.
Such incidents were part of a broader picture in which the IPL’s administration, and the franchise owners, took an increasingly hands-off attitude to their cricketers, and those hanging around them. “The management became more relaxed, the owners became very magnanimous, they said: ‘Oh, we’ve just won a match, let the boys drink, why do you need to be such a pain?’ – and at some point people end up saying why should I bother? Why do I want to be the bad guy and enforce discipline?”
It was only then, when reflecting on the current crisis, that my companion said something startling. There was always an information economy around the teams, he said; people calling and asking for tips on this or information on that. It seemed harmless at the time. But looking back on it now he was sure many of those around the upper reaches of the IPL’s circus had been caught up in betting and fixing in some way. “Some definitely bet themselves, others maybe just pass on information about the team to friends – and that ends up with bookies. And some must have been involved in fixing directly too. I’m sure of it,” he said, in a matter-of-fact way.
This link between the IPL’s raucous nightlife and the present uproar isn’t obvious, until you learn a little about India’s illegal betting industry. It is often said that spot-fixing allows gamblers to place bets on small, low-probability elements of matches. If a bowler is bribed to produce a no ball, say, a punter could bet on this event alone, earning a fortune. “But that’s mostly rubbish, it really doesn’t work that way at all,” says Ed Hawkins, a betting expert and author of Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy, a gripping exposé of India’s betting scene.
The reality is more subtle. The system is run by a handful of larger syndicates, who work with small teams of freelance bookies. The syndicates set the odds, while punters call the bookies on any one of a bank of mobile phones. No cash changes hands; accounts are settled later. It all operates on word of mouth and trust. And there are just a few types of wagers, the most popular being the likely score at the end of the opening period of play, known as a session or “bracket” bet. “If Sreesanth did what they say he did, it looks like a classic example of a bracket fix,” Hawkins told me, explaining that punters tend to bet on the score after the first six overs. Here inside knowledge can be crucial. “It can be really valuable to a big punter, or to the people who set the odds ... it isn’t that you are then absolutely free to make money. It’s not a sure thing but you’ve now got the odds in the bracket far more in your favour.”
Any tip is useful, from team line-ups to pitch conditions. But the better the information, the better the return, hence gamblers increasingly seeking to bribe cricketers directly. “The bookies often pay off the players and referees around the competition, in the hotels and the bars,” says Chris Eaton, director at the International Centre for Sport Security, a Qatar-based group that tracks the nefarious influence of betting on sport. “It might be a honeypot with a girl, or it could just be cash. It’s a slow professional process … and, given India’s growth over the past five years, the size of this illegal market is growing like crazy.”
Narayanaswami Srinivasan, BCCI president, speaking at a news conference in September last year
Sreesanth spent almost a month in custody in New Delhi, mostly in the city’s notorious Tihar jail, providing time to contemplate how he might have been caught up in just such a fix. Released on bail on June 11, he has since fiercely protested his innocence, but the ordeal has taken a toll. “Yesterday there was doctor round to his house, and his blood pressure has gone right up. He is really shattered. He isn’t going out, except to seek blessings from the gods,” says Jayan Thekkedath, a friend and mentor to the player, explaining the cricketer’s first public outing, to pray at a temple.
To be fair, the evidence against Sreesanth is patchy and circumstantial. The police case for the towel-in-waistband fix relies on recorded conversations, allegedly between a bookie and the bowler’s friend, Jiju Janardhan. A journeyman cricketer, Janardhan was arrested on the same night as Sreesanth, and also denies wrongdoing. “The police evidence is full of contradictory statements. There is no transcript of him [Sreesanth] talking to bookies, no transcript of him talking about fixing with Jiju. There isn’t really anything,” Thekkedath told me. “He is totally clear. He has never cheated at cricket, he will never cheat at cricket. That is for sure.”
Even so, the temperamental 30-year-old got himself mixed up in something, a fact those who know him seem not to find especially surprising. They describe a gregarious young man with a passion for cricket, hugely generous to his friends and great fun to be around, but also with a strong traditional, religious streak. Yet he was insecure and attention-seeking too; easily led and prone both to depression and erratic, impulsive decisions. “He used to compare himself to Michael Jackson, which I used to think was mad but Michael Jackson was one of his idols,” says a close friend. “When you think about it, they were a bit the same though: worshipped in one way, hated in others, surrounded by these weird people, and both a bit bat-shit crazy.”
As much as his impudent wicket-taking celebrations and cocksure style, Sreesanth was known in India for one incident above all: “slapgate”, when the bowler was struck in the face by Harbhajan Singh, a revered senior player, during a match in 2008. Sreesanth walked off the pitch, tears streaming down his cheeks. The cause has never been more than tabloid speculation but it came to symbolise Sreesanth’s image: a brat, a crybaby, and one whose petulance made him unpopular with teammates. “Everyone knew [Mahendra Singh] Dhoni hated him,” says one former executive at an IPL team, speaking of India’s captain. “In fact, all the players hated him.”
Sreesanth’s response was to project himself via an entourage of hangers-on. “Sree had his lackeys around him constantly, and I always wondered how they could afford to be with him, given they had no jobs of their own,” says his friend. “I came to realise that he funded them, and wherever he went, he would ask them to come with him. They were all ‘brother-cousins’, they had access to all of his things, his credit cards, his money, everything.” Jiju Janardhan was one of the most prominent. “I really don’t think he [Sreesanth] did it, and we don’t know what happened ... but one theory I can very much see is that these bookies would be buttering up some of the people around him, and, if they could convince them to do something stupid, maybe they might have convinced Sree.”
. . .
Sreesanth’s fate now lies with India’s police, as well as an investigation by the BCCI. Even if proven innocent, his international career is surely over. The battle for the future of Indian cricket, however, has barely begun. A ferocious internal power struggle kicked off after the arrests, as BCCI head Srinivasan launched a dogged rearguard action to cling on to his job. It was a sight that dismayed the body’s treasurer, a courteous businessman turned cricket administrator called Ajay Shirke. Initially alarmed by what he describes as the BCCI’s slapdash investigation plans, Shirke also began to re-examine some of the self-evident conflicts of interest that flowed from Srinivasan’s roles as a cricket regulator, administrator and team boss.
Gurunath Meiyappan had denied wrongdoing. But Srinivasan’s defence that his arrested son-in-law hadn’t really been in charge at the Chennai Super Kings, absolving the BCCI head of responsibility, seemed especially unconvincing. “The simplistic explanation was given that Gurunath was just an enthusiast,” Shirke told me. “He doesn’t run the team, he is just a hobbyist, who just happens to be my son-in-law. But then why had he been there at every auction representing the team, why had he been notified in our official documents as the team principal, and what is he doing in the dugout with the players? To me it really looked like they are just trying to cling on to power.”
Sitting in his family’s home near Pune in late May, Shirke began to contemplate what needed to be done. He announced his resignation a few days later, a shock move that set off a further furore. Events came to a head during a BCCI crisis summit, in a plush conference room at the Park Sheraton in Chennai, on Sunday June 2. By the meeting’s end, and only two weeks after Operation U-Turn began, Srinivasan, the most powerful man in world cricket, had stepped aside, temporarily at least. In the days that followed, the BCCI’s new interim head hurriedly announced a raft of clean-up measures: team owners were to be banned from mingling with players during matches, while the IPL’s legendary after-match parties were to be banned and the cheerleaders too – measures few analysts think will do much to fend off the bookies, and those that lie beyond.
And will the IPL itself survive? Yes, if there are no further arrests and assuming no evidence of actual match-fixing emerges. It might even get cleaner. “There is a huge public anger against corruption in the game, but I feel it will now be better run than it has ever been, given they will be forced to take measures to make it as clean as possible,” says R Mohan, a veteran cricket writer and editor at the Deccan Chronicle newspaper. “Many of the changes will be cosmetic but there will be lots more surveillance. Things can improve.”
Yet others offer a more depressing view of what the IPL has become: a once-mighty totem of India’s rising promise that stands besmirched; a symbol of this emerging superpower’s darker shortcomings. “The Indian public’s memory is very short, and next season a lot of this will be forgotten,” says Harsh Goenka, a respected industrialist, who has previously looked at buying an IPL franchise. “Sadly it’s a bit like [US televised] wrestling. Everyone knows that it is fixed, but you don’t know the actual result, and so it’s still exciting. And while some wrestling is 100 per cent fixed, maybe the IPL is just 1 per cent fixed. So people will still go, that’s how it is.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent.
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