On Wednesday, the IPL announced the first of the three phases of the tournament this year with 16 matches to be played across the three venues in UAE - Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah. The last of those venues grabbed immediate attention and raised a pertinent question: how could Sharjah, once the hub of match-fixing activities, be shortlisted as a venue for IPL especially in the light of the corruption scandal that erupted last season?
At the turn of the millennium, even the mention of Sharjah was a taboo: the Indian federal government in 2001 had barred the Indian team from playing at the venue for a period of three years in the light of the findings in the Hansie Cronje match-fixing scandal. Over the years, the BCCI maintained an unwritten rule that Indian teams would not play in UAE. Incidentally, as late as 2010, Kings XI Punjab asked the IPL for permission to play exhibition matches in Dubai considering one of their sponsors then was the Gulf-based airline Emirates. The IPL replied saying the BCCI does not "recognize" the UAE as a venue.
So what has changed now for the BCCI to make a U-turn and permit matches at the tainted venue? According to BCCI officials the decision was not taken overnight and should not be looked as a desperate one. They pointed out the IPL had carried out an extensive recce of all the venues in UAE before taking the final decision. Importantly, the officials argued that there was no point singling out only Sharjah because any venue would be equally vulnerable to corrupt elements.
"In India the bookies are more active too. Are there not bookies in South Africa? What guarantee do we have anywhere?" a senior BCCI official told ESPNcricinfo. "We can educate the players. We can create a bubble where we can secure the players' movements and them meeting people. Also, the government of UAE has told us they are going to provide us with the best of security. They have told us if we have any specific information on suspicious elements they will take swift action."
David East, the Emirates Cricket Board chief executive, confirmed the IPL was given all assurances. "The UAE government is entirely supportive of the IPL being here and will do everything to ensure it is a hugely successful tournament," East said.
It is understood that assurance from the UAE government with regards to keeping the event clean, made as late as Wednesday, swung the BCCI's decision towards staging the IPL in the Middle East. "There are two separate issues at work here and are both at the top of our minds. Going to Sharjah is separate from the IPL events of last year and the Mudgal committee report. Both are on top of our minds and must be dealt with," the BCCI official said.
According to another BCCI insider, the dark clouds of match-fixing that encircled Sharjah in the 1990s had passed long ago. "The main culprit at that point was Dawood Ibrahim, and he is on the run. And things have changed a lot from those days definitely," the insider said.
However, the perception about Dubai still being the core centre for match-fixing and betting in cricket persists. In the Mudgal committee report on corruption in the IPL last year, one of the panel members, Nilay Dutta, noted that the Delhi Police had "intercepted" calls between a couple of Indian bookies, who had mentioned names of two "international-level Indian players", and their partners in a betting syndicate based in Dubai and Pakistan.
However the BCCI insider remained positive. "Now, Dubai and Sharjah are far better managed places by their government who do not tolerate any nonsense anymore," the insider said.
Although many within the BCCI remained tight-lipped, an influential senior member did have a voice of caution. "Let us wait and see. It is too early to say anything," he said when asked if Sharjah was an appropriate venue.
A franchise head said he failed to understand how the BCCI had changed its stance on UAE compared to a few years ago when few teams wanted to play there. "It has been out of bounds of Indian cricket to such an extent that any cricket contact in that region has been discouraged. Few years back some of the IPL teams wanted to play exhibition matches in Dubai and they were told to stay away. You (BCCI) had certain doubts and concerns earlier, and, now suddenly to revoke that and change the stance is a bit odd," the franchise official said.
The Mudgal committee, an independent three-man commission, was set up by the Supreme Court to probe into the allegations of corruption during the last IPL unearthed by the Delhi and Mumbai Police originally. They concluded that the IPL was far from clean.
"The folklore of corruption and such other malpractices that has come to surround the game of cricket and in particular, IPL, unfortunately has a ring of truth to it. If unchecked, the same would be damaging for the game of cricket and defeat public confidence in the integrity of the game," Dutta, who also sits on the IPL Governing Council, said in his conclusion.
The insider agreed about the seriousness of the report and pointed out the BCCI would have a "much improved" system this time to fight corrupt elements as it had taken on board most of the recommendations made by Ravi Sawani, the board's anti-corruption unit chief. "So there were far more robust protocols enforced," the insider said. One of the major changes will be an anti-corruption officer travelling and staying with the teams. This concept was tried out during the last edition of the Champions League and proved to be useful.
"He would accompany the team to every place and stay in the same place. He is not someone who is snooping on players and officials but he is just around to facilitate. He is easily accessible and someone who can be approached for help or any advice if required," the BCCI insider said.
The anti-corruption code of the BCCI has also been revised with "far stricter" provisions being included for any offences committed. A corporate style audit is one of the new things brought on board. "There will be stricter enforcements. Earlier there were no requirements to record players and team and tournament officials receiving gifts. Prior permission would be required in case gifts are above a certain value. There will be more rigid rules about who can visit and not visit players at the team hotels," the insider said.
The presence of the ICC's watchdog, the Anti-Corruption and Securities Unit (ACSU) is another advantage the BCCI official pointed out would aid Sawani's team. It is understood that the IPL would utilise the ACSU's services during the first phase of the IPL. "They have hands-on experience in UAE on plenty of international matches and have liaisons with local authorities. So their presence there is beneficial," the insider said.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo