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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Monday, May 20, 2013

On Spot-fixing, the IPL and the BCCI

It’s been a while since I’ve written on cricket.

Not because there hasn’t been anything to write about – but because most of my own thoughts have been expressed, far more eloquently than I could have managed, by a host of far more knowledgeable writers. I’ve therefore restricted myself to enjoying reading those articles, instead of sharing my own little wisdom on them. I see no point in just amplifying the noise on a subject for the sake of contributing sound bytes.

Having said that, why then this article? That’s because, on the recent spot-fixing drama, there are some elements that I didn't quite find sufficiently (if at all) discussed in all the material that I came across. Of course, it's possible that I've missed something out there.

I’ve read a fair number of articles on the subject. And heard some other views too. They range from the extremes of “ban the IPL” (Sharad Yadav) to “it’s just three dirty men” (BCCI chairman, N. Srinivasan). In between, there are a whole host of views.

What I do notice – and very unsurprisingly – is a lot of IPL-bashing. And a lot of BCCI-bashing. For many, the IPL and the BCCI almost seem to be interchangeable, such has become the IPL’s influence on Indian cricket.

Before I go on, I think I must first state unambiguously where I stand on the IPL.

I do have some issues with the IPL. I don’t like the excessive commercialism, the loud commentary, the hype, the artificiality around it. And I must be honest – I find it difficult to respect batting when mishits and top edges go for a six. It is the worst form of an unequal contest between bat and ball that you can imagine. That both sides in the match operate within the same framework, isn’t exactly compensatory consolation. In the forty years that I’ve been following the game, the contest between bat and ball has always been holy.

But I’ve made my peace with the IPL over the years. And now, during IPL season, I enjoy it for what it is. I don’t compare it with other forms of cricket. And, if I manage to ignore all its irritants, I do often enjoy its thrills and tension. Test cricket will always be special for me – but the IPL has found its relevance too in my cricket following pursuits.

Now, onto spot-fixing and the IPL.

I think it is a bit unfair to make the IPL THE villain of the piece. It has its weaknesses but it is not THE reason we’re having spot-fixing. The IPL is just a tournament – and now the world’s most popular cricket tournament. So what do we want to do – ban it? We need to realize that cricket is competing with other sports (and other forms of entertainment) for eyeballs. The IPL, for a few weeks every year, attracts millions of followers of other sports/entertainment options to cricket. How is that not good for the game?

The problem lies elsewhere. It lies in not realizing significant underlying fundamental weakness in a system. Let me give an example.

Think of an unhygienic kitchen. If the hottest-selling item is soup – and  a large number of customers who’re complaining of food poisoning happen to be soup customers - just removing the soup from the menu isn’t going to help. The complaints will continue – they will just come from customers of other products. The soup was never the problem. The problem was the unhygienic kitchen.

The soup is the IPL. The BCCI is the kitchen. And the food poisoning is the fixing.

Let’s admit that there was spot-fixing before the IPL. And there will be spot-fixing after the IPL, if nothing else changes.

What needs to be done is to build strength in the system to prevent food poisoning.

For its part, sadly, the BCCI’s reactions to the whole drama have been entirely predictable. Starting with “expressing shock”, then soundbytes like “strictest action will be taken against the three involved” (at that time there were three known perpetrators, amongst the players). Of course the BCCI is “fully co-operating with the police”.

The overriding tone of the BCCI has been to defend the IPL, protect its image, to blame everything on “these three dirty men”, to play the age-old game of stating the problem to be way too complex - “we do our best but we cannot possibly monitor 200 players”.

All oh-so-predictable, anybody could have written the script and given it to the media, without their bothering the BCCI bigwigs at all.

What I'd have liked to have seen discussed more is some of the following: 

1)  The system and the players

It says a lot about what I think about cricket and cricketer ethics in today’s day and age, that the news of the spot-fixing scandal broke out a few days ago, I didn’t have the slightest sense of shock or surprise. Contrast this with April 2000. When the Cronje story began unraveling (and Indian players, including one of my then-favourites, captain Azharuddin, began getting named), I remember being STUNNED. In denial. Sick in the stomach. Depressed for months.

This time, with the Sreesanth episode? Nothing!

At the most, I can only say that I was disappointed that Sree had done this. I rated him as one of the better opening bowlers we’ve had in Test cricket in recent times – and would have been happy to see him back in the Test side. So I was disappointed that he chose to take this short-cut route to riches.

But I wasn’t surprised.

The IPL had got him good money - but when your aspirations exceed your ability to support them through legitimate means, you seek other means.

Sree had got used to the fast lane - money, fame, celebrity status, an expensive lifestyle. And on the cricketing front, life was going in exactly the opposite direction. The more he “needed” that wealth, the less his chances of getting it through normal cricketing efforts. His chances of getting back to the Indian side were fast receding. Not only for performance reasons but also because of his “terribly difficult person” image. And he was 30.

Imagine, then somebody comes along and tells him “Why do you worry? Bowl one bad over, and I’ll give you 50 lakhs”.

Come on! It’s the IPL – matches are played daily at such a frenzied pace. Where games are totally loaded in favour of batsmen, with short boundaries and a lot more. Where even the best of bowlers often go for sixes and fours.

Who’s going to notice an over going for 15 runs? So many overs go for much more than that.

And once the game’s over, it’s time to move on to the next. Nobody even remembers yesterday’s game. Yesterday’s gone.

All you see is the 50 lakhs in front of your eyes. That’s real – everything else is make-believe.

And hey, you don’t have to feel ashamed or awkward. It’s happening all the time – happened last year too. It’s so easy to do, it’s almost a no-brainer.. Think about YOUR future. If you don’t secure it NOW, when you can – when are you going to do it? You think your franchise cares about where you are in 5 years’ time? You think anybody cares?

So THIS is the player dilemma.

What would I do if I were in Sreesanth’s position?

Speaking purely for myself, I know I wouldn’t have gone with the offer (I say this because I HAVE refused very attractive financial deals in the past purely because they would have troubled my conscience). But that’s me – and I don’t have material aspirations like a Sreesanth does. So instead of using myself personally as a yardstick, I’m going to generalize a bit.

I cannot help feeling that many people – especially those with aspirations far outstripping ability - would probably do what Sreesanth did. It is JUST SO EASY to do. And there’s SO MUCH MONEY to make.

No, I’m not defending Sreesanth here. I’m just trying to be a little more realistic than some of those moral policemen out there. Suddenly Sreesanth has become devil incarnate – all I’m trying to say is it could just have been any A, B or C.

It is the SYSTEM that has weaknesses. An individual – while having his own mind – can easily fall prey to this system if he is not strong enough.

We keep talking about Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Kumble and Laxman as examples of cricketers who didn’t fall for the bait. We need to realize that these are successful, secure cricketers with long careers. They have received affection from millions of fans, for years – and have internalized this love. That has also made them strong – and relatively less vulnerable to being manipulated by devious third parties.

But that’s just five cricketers. There are many more out there – and many in domestic cricket – who do not enjoy this luxury. Of financial success. Of love. Some have an early sense of rejection. What’s to say they don’t have aspirations? In today’s India, aspirations seem to be everything – just look around you at the advertisements in the media.

THESE are the people most vulnerable to manipulation. Cricket can be cruel. Only eleven can make a team. You feel like a reject if you aren’t in that eleven. Especially if that happens on a consistent basis.

The IPL just happens to have many players in this category. They wouldn’t make it to the national team – but they enjoy recognition and fame for a few weeks every year, thanks to the IPL. And of course they make good money, better than they’d otherwise have made. But that may just fuel their aspirations to a different level altogether.

So I repeat – when legitimate means are insufficient to bridge the aspiration-ability gap, in many cases, illegitimate means will be resorted to, if they come with acceptably low (in this case near-zero) risk. The ends will justify the means.

2) Corrective measures

a) Be realistic about effectiveness of “mentoring”: After this broke out, the first thing I heard from some BCCI campists was “we need to improve mentoring”. I yawned. Had this been the year 2000, I might have bought this. At that time, there might have been a genuine case of fixing - and the shady-bookie menace - catching everybody on the wrong foot. The whole concept might have been new for some.

Today, in 2013, it is known to one and all involved with the game that this is THE biggest menace in the game. If a player is smart enough to win an IPL contract, he is smart enough to understand what is right and wrong. So now we need to “educate" a cricketer that if you don’t bowl like a bowler normally would, it is a wrong thing to do?

Yes, there are some cricketers out there who are suddenly thrown into the world of riches and glamour. Yes, they need to be cautioned about its negative side too. That they may have undesirable people trying to associate with them. And these may try to make them do things that go against the grain of the game that has made them what they are.

So let's have THIS level of mentoring. But we don’t need to make it sound any more effective than it really is. Repeated emphasis on it only tells me that the BCCI is trying to avoid other, more difficult to implement, solutions to address the issue.

Look at it this way. If a Rahul Dravid, considered THE role-model for one and all to uphold the spirit of the sport, can have his own team mates selling their souls behind his back, what chance does some “mentor” have? The intoxication of money, coupled with the near zero-risk, will drown any well-meaning mentor’s words in an instant. Maybe I’m being a bit skeptical here but I don’t think players quite have as much respect for other players and officials as is often made out by the romanticists. Of course, everything is hunky-dory in public. But in private, each person has to fight his own battle.

b) Be realistic about Anti-Corruption Units:  I would have found this laughable if the emotion of anger did not overwhelmingly dominate my mixed emotions. The ICC’s solution to prevent corruption in the game is its “Anti-Corruption and Security Unit” (ACSU). Never mind that their track record in uncovering corruption has been laughable, but the ICC still offered the services of this unit to the BCCI for IPL2. At a price of course.

The BCCI politely (or maybe not so politely) refused the offer, saying it was setting up its own ACSU unit. Interestingly, it’s been almost four years now – and this ACSU seems to be competing with the ICC’s ACSU in the ineffectiveness race.

To me – and maybe I’m being harsh here – setting up this ACSU was never really going to solve anything. It sounds good on paper, it’s one of those ISO9000 type things. You do it because it then “looks” like “you’ve got the processes in place” and therefore things should be under control.

In reality, what are the ACSU’s powers? Can they tap phone messages or other types of communications between players and others? Or is it that they are just present at matches and keep a look-out for suspicious characters? Like in an old-fashioned detective novel.

Let’s accept that the few culprits that have been caught so far, have been caught, not by an ACSU, but by another entity.

It was the Delhi police who stumbled upon Hansie Cronje’s activities  by accident.

It was a sting operation by the media that exposed Salman Butt and two of his team-mates in England in 2010.

It was the Delhi police again who stumbled upon Sreesanth and co’s activities this time, while looking for something completely different.

What has the BCCI’s ACSU been doing?  Why did it not pick up any signals? From the communication the Delhi police have, it is clear that there was fixing involved in IPL5 as well. This lends credence to the feeling that the three who got caught are the unlucky ones – there are others out there who’ve got away.

So much for the BCCI setting up an Anti-Corruption Unit!

And now, at its latest meeting, the BCCI has said it will be setting up ACSUs for each franchise! Great! Another great initiative on paper. But please excuse me if I’m not exactly holding my breath on expecting more cases to be caught and booked.

The point is – this is all INTERNAL. The players are contracted to the BCCI, they are the marketable property of the BCCI, the IPL is the BCCI’s most valuable property. So there is naturally going to be a conflict of interest for the BCCI to take strict action against any of these “properties”. At the most, the BCCI may sacrifice a lesser player as a scapegoat, to build credibility about its processes. Other than that, it is unlikely to rock its boat too much.

And that is why what we need is EXTERNAL.

The ACSU is like internal audit. It is important to have – it sets up processes with checks and balances, it does audits – and it reports deviations it comes across to management. And thereafter it’s upto management’s discretion whether to take further action or not. (I think in practice the ACSU isn’t even doing so much, but I’ll give it credit for now).

What we need is an external auditor-like authority. One who doesn’t care about the BCCI. Who isn’t paid by the BCCI. Who is empowered to do what it takes to check compliance. And who will objectively report its findings - not to the BCCI  -but to a third party.

And who has the skills to do so.

In effect, we are talking about a policing function. Much like what the Delhi police have done now.

I don’t think the ACSU quite cuts it. Not one ACSU, not ten ACSUs. I’m afraid the nefarious world of illegal betting and bookies is much too smart for the administrative type, watchdog type entity that the ACSU is. And extremely ruthless. I understand that a cop who filed an FIR in this matter was killed a few days ago.

I know the police is short of resources already but if the figure of Rs.40,000 crores being talked about as the value of illegal betting business in India is true, then it seems to be well worth dedicating police resources to this. It is not just about individual cricketers – it is about cleaning up the muck in the entire system.

c) Have more “sting operations”:  In India, the media has largely been reactive. Yet, there have been stories broken by the media that have been key to keeping politicians on their toes, and keeping the public aware of happenings. I know “sting operations” tend to have a negative connotation about them, but I believe, if the purpose isn’t unethical, they are great to expose crime and malpractice.

Last year, during the IPL, a sting operation by a TV channel exposed a few cricketers for wrongdoing. It was roundly criticized initially but the evidence was irrefutable and the cricketers were finally given due punishment. We need more of this to happen. If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about. The “sting operation” can even be conducted by a private party and then shared with the media.

These are some of the corrective measures I can think about. This is by no means an exhaustive list. And I think we need every measure out there that helps reduce (I’m realistic enough not to say “eliminate”) this scourge of fixing. I see it as THE biggest menace in the game of cricket today.

What’s very frustrating is that the BCCI just does not seem to recognize the magnitude of the issue. It does some tinkering here and there, hoping that things will sort themselves out, in due course of time. We all know that’s not how these things work.

It is OUR game. The game for the fans of cricket. And for me personally, it is a game that I’ve been passionately following for the last 40 years. I’m damned if I’m going to just sit quiet and see it dying in front of my eyes. Even if I can’t stop it, I’m at least going to make a noise about it.


Ava said...

You think you ramble, but you don't.

You make your point with conviction, and delve into all aspects of the matter.

You really should write more often.

Bharath Hemachandran said...

Somehow I have a feeling that Dravid is not the squeaky clean person he is claimed to be either. In fact I would say none of the cricketers really are.

I have lost faith in cricket in general. Not that it prevents me from watching games though.

Raja Swaminathan said...

@Ava, thanks. It was getting too long so I deleted some portions. The idea was basically to rant. :-)

@Bharath, although I watch them too, it's not quite the same anymore. Maybe I've just become too old to enjoy the game with the enthusiasm I used to have. :-) Thanks for commenting on the blog.

Shilpi Bose said...

Well I can assure you of one thing Raja, cricket is not going to die in this country, definitely not. I was initially a bit skeptical about the T20 format and I did think the IPL might be a 2 year wonder at best, but I was proved wrong. People do enjoy it, it is so thrilling.
I know most people consider test match as the real thing but I know as kids we used to get bored because cricketers then played to draw the match as soon as they realized they cannot win it. I still remember there was this test match between India and England, India was in a winning position, English cricketer Graham Dilley resorted to delaying tactics, he would slowly go up to bowl, then stop in between sit down to tie his shoe laces and so on. I am sure you know about the Amul Butter ads, well Amul Butter put up hoardings soon after the match saying 'Dilly Dally and Amul Butter is over'. It was quite hilarious. You see this is not possible in one-day and T20.
I in fact remember Sunil Gavaskar lamenting after India once lost a test match, he said"Indians nowadays just do not know how to draw a match". I remember we were all so irritated with his comment, for we wanted a result and not a boring draw.
Yes you have raised some relevant points. The powers that be always talk about 'zero tolerance' but nothing really happens everything is back to square one.