May 28, 2013

A league in need of cleansing

If the IPL is to rescue its integrity, the BCCI must first rescue itself

Normally, as players disperse and confetti is swept away, the end of every IPL season is marked by self-congratulatory backslapping among organisers, administrators, broadcasters and media-planners. "Great numbers, guys, such a great vibe, see you next year." Franchises begin internal reviews, sorting out accounts, handing out dues, collecting dosh from sponsors, and generally approach closure.

In 2010, something else happened. Lalit Modi, the godfather of the IPL, was excised from the BCCI and those linked to the IPL's waterfall of moving wealth were raided. Investigators from the departments of Income Tax, Service Tax and Enforcement Directorate began turning up in the offices of franchises, demanding documents, accessing computers, following the money and looking for proof of any and all violations of the law. It left the franchises distinctly rattled.

Three years later, the last ten days of IPL 2013 has raised heat, dust and a right royal stink.

In 2010, it was those with financial fingers in the IPL's ever-enlarging pie that were stirred and shaken. In 2013, it is the league's brassy image that is dented. Outsiders are looking at what was sold to them as 24-karat 'property' and finding the gilt flaking off.

The IPL has always been sold to its audience as a marriage of cricket and entertainment; except in 2013, there came an accidental advisory - that there was a chance that parts of the "cricketainment" could actually be pre-scripted.

The advisory warned us that the authenticity of the IPL's cricket as sport could be called to question. This because there was growing evidence that the boundaries between sport and WWE-style entertainment had, on at least one occasion, been blurred beyond belief.

Three players were arrested and produced before a court like hoodlums, faces covered by black masks. A man who went within days from franchise owner/team principal to 'honorary official' to 'enthusiast', was summoned by police and charged with 12 violations of three separate laws. In all 22 people as of now have been arrested around India in connection with betting, cricket and the IPL.

To its much-celebrated spice rack of cricket, entertainment, business, glamour and profit, IPL2013 has added other darker seasonings - crime, corruption, and wrongdoing.

Ever since its inception, the notion of something lurking around the margins of the IPL has existed not only because it has followed a fast, loose and flexible rulebook. It is not as though the betting mafia was standing still before the IPL. But what the IPL did was let into Indian cricket, along with corporate India and Bollywood stars, a large cast of carpetbaggers in double roles.

Season Six has introduced into our imagination the many species that could evolve and survive largely within the IPL. Like the former cricketer-turned-bookie or the player-for-profit whose career ambitions in the sport are centered around visibility and opportunity around the IPL alone, rather than cracking, at the very least, the first-class game. Then there are sociable middleman between bookies and players, the agent who could bring everyone together, and perhaps the most damning of all, the insider informant.

But the arrest of Gurunath Meiyappan, inextricably linked with Chennai Super Kings, has turned the tale of the "three rotten eggs" - "the dirty cricketers" - into minor pickings. His arrest showed us that there could exist an even more rancid layer, protected it seemed until now by "all access" passes and allowed to at least exist by a negligent Governing Council.

It was not sting operations by TV news channels 'maybe with a view on their ratings' that led the players and enthusiasts into police lock-ups and Tihar Jail. It was the police who pinned them there and continue looking for the carpetbaggers. One franchise official said this week, "Just like there may be more players caught dealing with bookies, more than one franchise official could be betting too."

What should worry Indian cricket is not only that pieces of the IPL's dirty laundry that are being hung out to dry one at a time or the possibly scary size of the eventual load. What should also make Indian cricket fret is the attempt by the BCCI president, the IPL chairman and high-ranking officials to each put an individual spin on the growing pile of dirty linen. It was only, after all, a tiny pair of socks/it's not that unclean/ that's someone else's dirty laundry/nothing a new washing machine can't fix.

The Gurunath Meiyappan case has been treated by the BCCI's highest officials - and not merely Meiyappan's father-in-law - with kid gloves. Lawyers can argue over which among several rules may have been broken. Gurunath has been accused of violating the IPL's code of conduct which, had he been less influential, would have left any other franchise team, if not terminated, at least suspended. There is an ICC code that forbids directors like N Srinivasan from having anyone in his immediate family in the betting business.

For the moment everything is cast aside in a sustained, high-volume bark of, "you are hounding me. I have done nothing wrong." But as much as Srinivasan's clinging to office is loathsome, the turning away by Rajiv Shukla, Arun Jaitley and their political accomplices is a gross dereliction of duty. The BCCI's cross-party political cabal has, in this case, served only itself and its self-interest.

It meant that IPL 2013 was left to play out in a bizarre parallel universe, without recognition or acknowledgement of the credibility-crisis that had broken out within and around it. As the cabal dithered Indian cricket, once again, to resorted to its ugliest type. Regardless of wealth and influence, it was shown up as an international basket case, dominated by willful misgovernance and autocracy. Sreesanth and Ajit Chandila are not responsible for this. Srinivasan, Shukla, Jaitley and their colleagues are.

The franchises' assessments of the situation vary. A few hope that their post-IPL season lives return to back-slapping. One executive from a heavyweight franchise says what the IPL requires more than anything else now is: 'transparency.' In cricket and administration. Or he feared, "the League may collapse, cave in on itself. End."

It is only the numbers men who can indicate how the much-beloved market responds to the IPL 2013's caravan of corruption. In the brand valuations business, in public perception, according to Harish Bijoor, brand strategy consultant, "the IPL is affected."

Brands, he said, depended on "positive value," which led to the "goodwill" that drove consumer passions. The arrests and the cloud around umpire Asad Rauf had diminished the IPL's positive value even as "wholesome family entertainment." Bijoor says, "broadcasters will not tell you about this, franchises will not tell you about this, but advertising is shouting from the rooftops that the IPL's brand valuations are affected."

Words like "brand valuations" and formats like Twenty20 do not impress former BCCI president Shashank Manohar and maybe it was why his solution was the most cogent, amid the loud rancour of the last ten days. To start with, he says, open up IPL 2013 to a proper investigating agency (rather than feeble internal committees) and in the future, work with law enforcement.

No matter what its shiny numbers and crowd figures indicate, the IPL's trustworthiness in the eyes of the public with a brain, is now severely damaged. If the league is to rescue its integrity around the world, the BCCI must first rescue itself. This event it has owned for six years now is not a Residents Welfare Association tea party, with its petty, personal pointscoring. It is a billion dollar industry.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo