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Cricketers in custody, team executives under scrutiny and frenzied media coverage for all the wrong reasons . . . this is not the gripping end-of-season climax the Indian Premier League wanted.
As cricket’s wealthiest tournament gears up for its annual final on Sunday, claims of alleged match-fixing by players and criminal betting syndicates threaten to undermine not just the closing jamboree but the event’s future as well.
The latest scandal began this month with the arrest of 11 bookmakers and three players, including Indian international Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, on suspicion of “spot-fixing”, an activity in which cricketers are paid to manipulate an incident during a match.
It is far from the first time the IPL has found itself tainted by impropriety since it first brought a river of cash and lashings of glamour into the sport six years ago.
But while the league’s avid following among India’s cricket-mad public has helped it ride out illegal betting allegations and management bust-ups before, the latest troubles are more damaging.
The alleged crimes are being enthusiastically investigated by India’s police, with rival forces in Delhi and Mumbai apparently competing to identify fresh suspects – a spectacle that earns blanket coverage on the country’s frenetic, cricket-obsessed television news channels.
As a result, almost every element of the contest is under suspicion, from players and managers to executives at IPL teams, including the league’s powerful governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Even seemingly impartial figures have found themselves dragged in: the International Cricket Council, the game’s governing body, has said it will withdraw Asad Rauf, an IPL umpire, from a forthcoming cricket tournament, the first time the scandal has spilled beyond India’s borders.
David Richardson, the ICC chief executive, said: “In the wake of reports that the Mumbai Police are conducting an investigation into Asad Rauf’s activities, we feel that it is in Asad’s best interests, as well as those of the sport and the event itself, that he is withdrawn from participating in the ICC Champions Trophy.”
The central figure in the furore remains Mr Sreesanth, a talented but temperamental young fast bowler, famous both for his testy relations with teammates and extravagant wicket-taking celebrations.
The cricketer denies wrongdoing. Yet the picture that emerges from the surrounding tumult is one in which wealthy young sportsmen are provided with little support as they try to cope with the fame and financial temptations that come alongside the IPL’s circus.
It is a situation that often leaves them isolated and vulnerable. “For someone as temperamental and emotional [as Sreesanth], being lonely was the worst thing imaginable,” says one associate of the player. “The BCCI knew about this, and didn’t care. What he needed was counselling – and he needed a mentor.”
The investigation is also becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the IPL’s management and its prominent international corporate backers, including the beverage group PepsiCo, which announced a $74m sponsorship deal last year.
For a tournament celebrated for its financial firepower as much as its sporting prowess, the scrutiny also looks certain to be damaging. Previous scandals helped to cut the value of the IPL’s brand from $4bn in 2010 to just $2.9bn this year, according to consultancy Brand Finance.
“Close to $1bn worth of IPL’s stakeholder value has been destroyed by such controversies and lack of governance,” says Unni Krishnan, a director at the company. “The latest [allegation of] spot-fixing is another self-inflicted wound in a long list.”
Some observers fear the tournament itself may be in peril. “We could find that corruption has been institutionalised, meaning that people in power have been turning a blind eye,” says Ayaz Menon, an Indian cricket writer. “If so, that is very seriously damaging, and if it gets to that stage I’m sure there will be pressure on the government to step in and dissolve the IPL.”
Others are more sanguine. Spot-fixing is not a crime recognised by Indian law, making criminal prosecution difficult, while many feel the league will again ride out the opprobrium, if only because it is too lucrative and popular to fail.
“Players will be penalised, governance will be strengthened,” says Praveen Chakravarty, a Mumbai-based investment banker who has worked with IPL franchises. “But will the league close down? No, I don’t buy that. People will still line up to get into matches.“