MUMBAI — Cricketers in custody, team executives under scrutiny and frenzied media coverage for all the wrong reasons: This is not the gripping end-of-season climax the Indian Premier League wanted.
As cricket’s wealthiest tournament gears up for its annual final on Sunday, claims of alleged match-fixing by players and criminal betting syndicates threaten to undermine not just the closing jamboree but the event’s future as well.
The latest scandal began this month with the arrest of 11 bookmakers and three players, including Indian international Shanthakumaran Sreesanth, on suspicion of “spot-fixing,” an illegal activity in which an individual aspect of the game is fixed.
It is far from the first time the IPL has found itself tainted by allegations of impropriety since it first brought a river of cash and lashings of glamour into the sport six years ago.
But while the league’s avid following among India’s cricket-mad public has helped it ride out illegal-betting allegations and management bust-ups before, the latest troubles are more damaging.
The alleged crimes are being enthusiastically investigated by India’s police, with rival forces in Delhi and Mumbai apparently competing to identify fresh suspects — a spectacle that earns blanket coverage on the country’s frenetic television news channels.
As a result, almost every element of the contest is under suspicion, from players and managers to executives at IPL teams, including the league’s powerful governing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.
Even seemingly impartial figures have found themselves dragged in: The International Cricket Council, the game’s governing body, has said it will withdraw Asad Rauf, an IPL umpire, from a forthcoming cricket tournament, the first time the scandal has spilled beyond India’s borders.
David Richardson, the ICC chief executive, said: “In the wake of reports that the Mumbai Police are conducting an investigation into Asad Rauf’s activities, we feel that it is in Asad’s best interests, as well as those of the sport and the event itself, that he is withdrawn from participating in the ICC Champions Trophy.”
The central figure in the furor remains Sreesanth, a talented but temperamental young fast bowler, famous both for his testy relations with teammates and for his extravagant wicket-taking celebrations.
The cricketer denies wrongdoing. Yet the picture that emerges from the tumult is one in which wealthy young sportsmen are provided with little support as they try to cope with the fame and financial temptations that accompany the IPL’s circus.
It is a situation that often leaves them isolated and vulnerable. “For someone as temperamental and emotional [as Sreesanth], being lonely was the worst thing imaginable,” one associate of the player said. “The BCCI knew about this and didn’t care. What he needed was counseling — and he needed a mentor.”
The investigation is also becoming increasingly uncomfortable for the IPL’s management and its prominent international corporate backers, including the beverage group PepsiCo, which announced a $74 million sponsorship deal last year.
For a tournament celebrated for its financial firepower as much as its sporting prowess, the scrutiny also looks certain to be damaging. Previous scandals helped cut the value of the IPL’s brand from $4 billion in 2010 to $2.9 billion this year, according to the consulting firm Brand Finance.
“Close to $1 billion worth of IPL’s stakeholder value has been destroyed by such controversies and lack of governance,” said Unni Krishnan, a director at Brand Finance. “The latest [allegation of] spot-fixing is another self-inflicted wound in a long list.”
Some observers fear the tournament itself may be in peril. “We could find that corruption has been institutionalized, meaning that people in power have been turning a blind eye,” said Ayaz Menon, an Indian cricket writer. “If so, that is very seriously damaging, and if it gets to that stage, I’m sure there will be pressure on the government to step in and dissolve the IPL.”
Others are more sanguine. Spot-fixing is not a crime recognized under Indian law, making criminal prosecution difficult, and many feel the league will again ride out the opprobrium, if only because it is too lucrative and popular to fail.
“Players will be penalized, governance will be strengthened,” said Praveen Chakravarty, a Mumbai-based investment banker who has worked with IPL franchises. “But will the league close down? No, I don’t buy that. People will still line up to get into matches.“