Another scandal in Indian cricket threatens to permanently damage the integrity of the sport that is a passion for hundreds of millions of people on the subcontinent.
Three professional cricketers -- Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila -- all of whom play for the Rajasthan Royals club in the Indian Premier League, have been arrested over “spot-fixing” allegations. Under the Indian Penal Code, they face charges of ”cheating” and engaging in a “criminal conspiracy” -- convictions of which could lead to prison time.
The three players have also been suspended by the Board for Control of Cricket in India, or BCCI, the national governing body of the sport. And police in Mumbai have also arrested at least ten suspected bookmakers in connection with the probe of the three cricketers, with more arrests expected.
The three players, who were arrested in Mumbai on Wednesday, are expected to appear in court in Delhi on Thursday. It is unclear if more players were involved in the conspiracy or not.
In a statement, the Royals said they have "a zero-tolerance approach to anything that is against the spirit of the game” and added they are cooperating with the authorities in the investigation. They are a very high-profile club -- they are captained by superstar batsman Rahul Dravid and co-owned by Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.
While none of the three players have made statements on the case yet, Sreesanth’s mother, Savitri Devi, told BBC in India that her son is innocent.
“Spot-fixing” refers to illegal and prearranged acts on the field by players that could impact the outcome of a match, which, of course, would ultimately benefit gamblers or bookmakers. Even if such acts don’t impact the final outcome (score), they can influence the scorecard, that is, all the mundane details of a match (which gamblers also like to bet on). For example, a bowler might intentionally bowl the ball too wide or too high for the batsman to hit it (in this case, the team batting would be awarded a run as a penalty by the umpire).
While cricket is very different from baseball, a case of “spot-fixing” in the American pastime would involve something like the pitcher deliberately lobbing a slow pitch to a power hitter in the exact location the batter likes it, thereby making it easier for the batter to get an extra-base hit or a home run.
In basketball (as has happened in previous scandals in the college game), players have “fixed” the outcome of a game by intentionally missing free-throws from the foul line, especially in the end of the fourth quarter. Or, in a less dramatic fashion, if, say, bookmakers have determined that a basketball center will not get more than seven rebounds in a given game, the center (if he is conspiring with the bookmakers) would intentionally avoid attempting any rebounds after he has reached the agreed-upon figure of seven.
But, such individual acts are generally difficult to catch, because they tend to be rather subtle movements (one of hundreds in any long cricket match) and difficult to prove with any certainty.
In the case of the Royals players, a Delhi police spokesman (who also participated in the investigation) said officers had been tipped off to the spot-fixing and had to watch them closely to detect any irregularities. "There was an agreement between [bookmakers] and players that in a certain over [six balls bowled consecutively] they would give away [a] minimum amount of runs,” Delhi police chief Neeraj Kumar told a press conference.
“The bookies also gave them directions that they have to indicate that they are ready to give away those many runs. The indications that players had to give bookies included rotating their watches, putting towels in their pants, taking out [a] locket from [their] shirt, taking out [the] shirt and vest that you're wearing [or] make signs with jersey."
Kumar added that at least three recent matches -- May 5 with Pune, May 9 with Mohali, Punjab and May 15 with Mumbai -- were all fixed. He noted that in the May 9 game alone, Sreesanth earned 4 million rupees (about $73,000) for his actions in the match.
Moreover, given the huge amount of betting that goes on in India and other cricket-mad nations, such minor incidents in a match can generate significant amount of cash for bookmakers and/or gamblers. Indian media estimated that betting on cricket (which is completely illegal in the country) is a multibillion-dollar annual enterprise that is believed to be controlled by underground crime syndicates based in Mumbai.
However, in the case of the three suspended Royals players, the Hindu newspaper reported, bookies connected to the case may have been working for a Pakistani mobster godfather named Dawood Ibrahim. Without revealing details, police chief Kumar conceded, “There are overseas connections, and we have proof that the underworld is involved. The mastermind is sitting abroad.”
It is unclear how long spot-fixing has existed in cricket, but already some of the most famous international captains have already lost their careers over such acts, including South Africa’s Hansie Cronje, Pakistan’s Salim Malik and India’s Mohammed Azharuddin. These three players were banned for life in 2000. (Cronje died shortly thereafter in a mysterious plane crash.)
Only two years ago, three Pakistani players -- Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, and Mohammad Amir -- were banned for life and jailed for spot-fixing during a Test Match at Lord's Cricket ground in London.
A bookie told India’s NDTV television channel that spot-fixing is “rampant” in countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and West Indies.
As for the future of Indian cricket, an opinion piece in the Hindu newspaper suggested that cricket fans are tired of tainted matches and scandals. “A major cleanup operation is required if cricket in India is to retain the loyalty of its fans. And passivity and inaction on the part of the men who run the game in this country may turn out to be worse than active collusion,” the op-ed stated.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.