May 22, 2013

There'll always be takers for easy money

Conflicts of interest, franchises' dubious holdings, disparity in earnings, easy access to players combine to form a potent mix for underhand dealings

The argument that the IPL has made players far richer than before and that they won't be tempted by bookies is misleading © Getty Images

Yes, this is yet another piece on the spot-fixing scandal. There is very little to add to what has already been written, but to write about anything else right now would be to indulge in a denial I am yet to master.

In 2000, despite the widespread belief that match-fixing was prevalent in international cricket, the news of Hansie Cronje's involvement in it and other revelations signalled the death of innocence in the game. I nearly lost faith in the only worthwhile thing I had emotionally invested in till then.

But every time we were lulled back into a state of innocence, cricket and cricketers let us down. Watching the superlative talents of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif go down the drain was heartbreaking. It was hard not to be cynical after that.

Now we find ourselves in the midst of the latest episode of the same old dirty business. Except that this wasn't so much a bolt out of the blue as an event that reinforced accumulated cynicism. When the spot-fixing allegations about Asif, Amir and Butt were made, the following day of play felt like a funeral. Awkward cricketers on the park, reluctant commentators, and betrayed fans.

The IPL has little time for that sort of thing. It was cricketainment as usual. Even before the extent of the damage could be fully absorbed came the vehement defence. They said, so long as the game is played by humans, there will be corruption. They said the IPL isn't the only league to be inflicted with corruption scandals. They said corrupt acts by three individuals can't be extrapolated to apply to the biggest cricketing tournament, which is largely played by players of utmost integrity.

While you can take either side in the debate on each of those points, to argue that the IPL is only as vulnerable as any other sports tournament is to ignore reality.

The media, who have been trigger-happy in judging the character of three vulnerable cricketers who may have made stupid choices, haven't quite treated the blatant conflict of interest of the BCCI president also being the managing director of a company that owns one of the franchises with the same zeal.

One franchise has defaulted on player payments at various times. One is owned by a group that the market regulator in India has alleged of massive violations. Another has been found violating the Foreign Exchange Management Act regulations. And we haven't even come to the issue of a franchise being auctioned to a conglomerate that wound up operations in a year.

With the kind of due diligence done on the franchise owners in the IPL, it's not far-fetched to think that an individual/company with an interest primarily in betting could acquire a franchise and run it for bets sustainably. For that matter, even a franchise in financial distress might be lured into such a practice. Now think about the access to the players and the field of play that the owners enjoy in the IPL.

It's true that the IPL has brought hitherto unseen riches to the cricketers, but to think that all that money will enable players to resist the temptation of earning a few more easy bucks is too naïve a conjecture.

So long as there are easy bucks, there will be chasers. As Michael Lewis wrote about investment bankers in Liar's Poker: "You don't get rich in this business, you only attain new levels of relative poverty."

While the numbers on the overall pay cheques have gone up, it's undeniable that there is a huge disparity in the earnings of cricketers in the IPL. Not everything is dictated by the merits of performances in the tournament. The moment a salary cap is introduced for players who haven't played for India, they are being marginalised. The IPL carries too many marginalised, vulnerable players for way too long. Then it enables access to cricketers in a way cricket has not seen since Cronjegate at least, if not ever.

That the BCCI turned down the services of the ICC's anti-corruption unit at one point attracted its share of legitimate criticism. The findings in the latest episode indicate that not even the bare minimum security arrangements seem to have been in place. Any stranger could pose as a player agent and walk into a player's room and stay with him, and no one would notice.

And those parties.

Shortest format. Huge audience. Long tournament. Big money. Huge disparity. Vulnerable cricketers. Little regulation and due diligence. No agent accreditation. Ridiculously easy access to cricketers. Spot-fixing is all about just those tainted individuals.

Yeah, right.

When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets here