"Sport itself is sincere or it is nothing. Seeing and believing must be bedfellows. Cricket can no longer make any such claim."
At times such as these, cricket feels the void left by Peter Roebuck's passing. In describing the treachery of the Pakistan players implicated in the spot-fixing scandal, Roebuck reminded the game of one of its central qualities. As the cacophony of the IPL's shenanigans engulfs us, Roebuck's words must resonate in our ears. The custodians of the game need reminding of just what they are protecting. Else no victory in a court of law will matter.
Rattled by the Supreme Court's recommendation to suspend Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals, the BCCI made a fervent plea the next morning to let the franchises survive - their argument premised on the theory that a six-team tournament would lead to a structural collapse of the league. Broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors, not to speak of players, would face the brunt of such a step, they argued. For once, the judges were swayed and the two teams survived.
Since the dramatic arrests of Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila, followed by that of Gurunath Meiyappan last May, the BCCI has had two clearly visible ambitions - to protect its embattled president and to ensure damage to its treasured event, the IPL, is contained. Staggeringly, at no point has a single board official tackled the key fallout of this sordid chapter - what happens to that vital ingredient that cricket draws sustenance from: credibility?
While calling for this season of the IPL to be suspended, former BCCI chief Shashank Manohar made a significant observation that was lost amid the screaming headlines: "In view of the serious allegations regarding betting, spot-fixing and match-fixing, the public at large has lost its faith in IPL games."
This is a chilling assessment, as it has to do with the primary reason to watch sport. As Roebuck described it, seeing and believing must be bedfellows or sport is nothing. But does Manohar's angst flow from genuine concern about Indian cricket, or is it to do with his membership of the informal club vehemently opposed to the recently unseated president and his regime? Although Manohar enjoys a squeaky clean image as an administrator, he was a key member of the dispensation that introduced the IPL in 2008, and three editions were played under his watch as president.
The public at large that Manohar refers to must also turn their gaze inwards as a new season hurtles in. Are they, in fact, complicit in the appeal of the tournament remaining high despite a litany of corruption scandals? Do board officials who point to impressive TV ratings and packed stadiums despite repeated exposures of the muck within make a compelling argument? Does the prospect of games tainted by corrupt elements repulse the fan enough? Or is the engaging prime-time fare, available at the click of a button, simply too intoxicating?
The IPL, with its many diversions, may be uniquely positioned in cricket's landscape, but it follows the basic tenets of cricket. Odd occurrences are central to the promise of a cricket match - inexplicable collapses on the home stretch of a run chase, dropped sitters, missed stumping opportunities, bowlers bowling lines the captain didn't set a field for. It is commonplace for fans to oscillate between frustration, rage and empathy at every such occurrence. But they vent and return, investing emotion and belief once again in their chosen player or team.
The prospect of that same devoted support base attributing motives to each such occurrence and questioning the intentions of players involved will rob the game of a vital calling card. Whether fans turn indifferent or contemptuous, cricket will be poorer if doubt and questioning become widespread.
Since its inception, clever marketing and slick promotion campaigns have successfully branded the IPL as "entertainment". Riveting action, film-star owners, cheerleaders - all in a three-hour "package" for the family. It may be grotesque to some, but there isn't a sporting league in the world that can claim to have been embraced with as much warmth in so little time.
With a broadcaster that changed the contours of how the game was presented, the IPL took cricket into a brash new era. Purists or the intellectually supercilious may have squirmed in discomfort but the formula gained acceptance and cricket became visibly different.
However, the essentials did not change. On the field of play itself, it was still a contest. Twenty overs of no-holds-barred, high-octane, intense battle. The bells and whistles were embellishments to the "package" but the entertainment was real. It was a cricket match where the participants exerted every sinew in the quest for victory.
"Whether fans turn indifferent or contemptuous, cricket will be poorer if doubt and questioning become widespread in its discourse"
The spot-fixing revelations involving Sreesanth, Chavan and Chandila, and the subsequent arrest of Meiyappan on charges of betting, were events that demanded reflection and course correction. Had the IPL, on its galloping horse, blurred the boundaries between real and cosmetic? Did a "sab chalta hai" (it's all okay) culture take root and flourish? Were key stakeholders - players, owners, team officials and administrators - complicit in lowering the bar? Was the primary function of the event - the playing of the game - open to compromise?
The BCCI, as pointed out by Manohar, does not exist to generate profit but to "promote a clean game of cricket". As soon as three cricketers, including a member of the team that won the 2011 World Cup, were arrested, alarm bells should have started to ring. Surely these weren't the only ones who had fallen prey to the allure of easy money? Surely more passages of play in other games had been "manufactured" in similar ways?
The arrest of a prominent team official should have led to stern introspection. Was it commonplace among those with insider information to bet on the outcomes of games? Was access to players and coaches used by unscrupulous elements with proximity to owners? Were the games being used to invest and multiply ill-gotten wealth? Were there willing accomplices among players participating in the tournament?
Instead of urgently investigating the extent of the rot that appeared to have set in - as it is mandated to do, being the gate-keeper of the game in India - the BCCI switched to damage-control mode. The players named were banished as bad apples and rotten eggs. A clumsy campaign to distance Meiyappan from the team he ran was launched. When that failed, the president moved briskly towards self-preservation, and hung determinedly on to power until the top court in the land intervened.
In every crisis there is opportunity, but it is taken only by those willing to look within and introspect. On the evening that the Delhi police paraded the arrested players in front of TV cameras with their faces covered, the host broadcaster felt no compulsion to acknowledge the devastating import of that image. Instead, the raucous entertainment of the night arrived on cue and the bombastic support staff played along in unison. That "business as usual" message seemed to allude to a disturbing conclusion: maybe at times the scripted entertainment didn't end when the cricket began; but so what, you had fun, right?
The sanctity of a sporting contest, whatever framework it operates in, is non-negotiable. For the last year, the BCCI has done everything to stay afloat as a body but nothing to reassure Indian cricket's devoted supporters that they must continue to believe in the IPL.
So a new season begins, where at times catches will be dropped, wickets will fall in heaps, and silly shots will be played. That is cricket. Alas, it is quite probable that an even greater number than before will guffaw at these events and view them cynically. That will be the Indian board's and Indian cricket's greatest defeat.
As a prescient Roebuck observed when the IPL first made its appearance: "Exciting events tend to distract attention from broader truths. In some cases, that is their intention; elsewhere it is a by-product."