India TV's sting alleging corruption in the IPL has again focused the spotlight on the issue of under-the-table payments to domestic Indian players. The television channel recorded at least three players allegedly seeking more lucrative IPL deals - including extra money that would have violated league regulations - with other franchises through an undercover reporter posing as a sports agent. In all, five players were named either asking for more money or offering to spot-fix for a certain sum of money.
While the BCCI moved swiftly to suspend all five players, the issue of under-hand payments and deals is one that has plagued the IPL since its inception.
Ironically, it was the BCCI's own rules - designed to prevent escalating salaries - that lie at the heart of the problem. The board created three categories for uncapped players and set limits on what the players in each category could be paid. Those players who made their first-class debut in the previous two years would be paid Rs 10 lakhs ($22,000) per season; those who did so between two and five years ago would get Rs 20 lakhs ($44,000) and those with more than five years' experience Rs 30 lakhs ($66,000).
Theoretically, that left players free to pick the franchise of their choice because they would be paid the same no matter whom they played for, but that ignored the law of demand and supply. Nine teams need 63 Indian players to take the field. If each player has one back-up, that means teams need 126 Indian players at the minimum. And good Indian domestic players are in short supply. Therefore, far from protecting the players from inducements, the system left them open to bidding wars that could violate the salary cap, especially since some of the more talented players could, in an open auction, command several times the maximum they can under the BCCI's rules.
The first warning sign appeared in 2010, when Ravindra Jadeja was banned for the season because he violated league rules on two counts. First, he did not renew his contract with Rajasthan Royals for IPL 2010, as the rules required him to do, because he wanted to free himself from contractual obligations under the player trading rules. Second, Jadeja met with representatives of Mumbai Indians and sent his contract documents to them for inspection - thereby violating the operational rules by being in contact with another franchise.
Though Jadeja was punished, Mumbai Indians were not. The president of the Delhi and Districts Cricket Association (DDCA) and a member of the IPL governing council at the time, Arun Jaitley, who chaired Jadeja's hearing, recommended that Mumbai Indians be warned for "having approached a player who was under an obligation to play for another franchise" and said "a more deterrent line of action should be considered" for future offences of this nature. In his order he warned that, "Leagues such as the IPL will survive only if utmost purity and honesty is maintained. There must be a strict compliance with the rules. Money has value, but in a league like the IPL, loyalty has a greater value."
Following the mega-player auction in January, 2011, Vijay Mallya drew attention to the issue again with what now seems a prescient warning. "I urge all the franchises and the IPL governing council to exercise the utmost vigilance while signing uncapped players," Mallya said minutes after the auction ended. He did so because he was concerned about the BCCI's ability to protect the uncapped players from being the subjects of a bidding war or under-the-table inducements. Mallya was right to worry because, despite the severity of Jadeja's punishment, the problem reappeared a few months later. This time it involved Manish Pandey, one of the most exciting young domestic players and a member of Mallya's Royal Challengers Bangalore. When his contract ran out, Royal Challengers complained to the IPL that the player's agent was involved in discussions with rival teams and demanding more money than the rules allowed. However, the league's governing council could not conclusively ascertain whether Pandey or his agent had committed any violations and he was allowed to sign with Pune Warriors, but was banned for the first four games in 2011.
The issue is not restricted to domestic players either. Earlier this year Royal Challengers managed to retain the services of Chris Gayle, the West Indies opener, for $550,000 ($100,000 less than they paid him the previous season). Given his multiple match-winning innings in 2011 and his availability through IPL 2012, Gayle's auction value probably would have commanded the maximum $2 million contract. His deal with Royal Challengers allowed the franchise to have $1.45 million left over to spend in the auction.
Gayle was also reported, in various media, to have signed a deal to be brand ambassador for Whyte & Mackay whiskey, part of the UB Group which owns the Royal Challengers, which brings to light another factor potentially undermining the IPL's level playing field. The ability to hand out endorsements through cross-branding is one of the advantages some of the big corporate owners, with their multiple commercial interests and entities, have over the other franchises. A Royal Challengers or a Mumbai Indians, owned by the UB Group and Reliance Industries respectively, can supplement a player's playing contract in ways that some of the smaller franchises, such as Kings XI Punjab, cannot. Thus a player, should he be coveted by them, would have an added incentive to sign on the dotted line.
While the board has cracked down on players, it has so far not acted against the franchises. N Srinivasan, the BCCI president, came out in defence of the owners after Monday's sting. "All the franchisees have people of stature behind it," he told a television channel. "It will be wrong to presume they are doing something wrong and then make enquiries. If something comes to light it is different. All the franchisees are reputable people and I have respect for them."
Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo