NEW DELHI (Reuters) - It wasn’t a typical photo opportunity for Indian cricketer Shanthakumaran Sreesanth as he stood outside a New Delhi court in a pair of faded jeans and a dark blue full-sleeve tee-shirt.
Flanked by two policemen and his face covered with a black cloth, one of the most recognizable sportsmen in India kept his head bowed as newspaper photographers clicked away.
The slim, 30-year old, who can hurl the ball at speeds of up to 145 km per hour (90 mph) at opposing batsmen, was arrested ten days ago, police said, for receiving 4 million rupees ($71,000) from bookies for underperforming in a match in the multi-billion dollar Indian Premier League (IPL), the sport’s richest tournament. He and two other players were provisionally charged with cheating, fraud and breach of trust.
In a statement to media through his lawyer, Sreesanth denied any wrongdoing and said he was confident he would be proven innocent “and my honor and dignity will be vindicated and restored”. The two other players and 11 bookies, who are also in custody, have not commented on the allegations.
The Indian cricket board (BCCI), which runs the IPL, has set up its own inquiry into the scandal.
The BCCI and the IPL did not return calls from Reuters for comment on the case, but N. Srinivasan, the BCCI president, told reporters after the arrests: ”Three players have allegedly indulged in something.
“We do not believe that the whole of IPL is wrong. Actually, we are very grateful to the public who filled the stadiums (even) after this news came out.”
On Friday, Srinivasan’s son-in-law, Gurunath Meiyappan, was also arrested by police probing illegal betting in the IPL. Meiyappan, who is among the management of one of the teams in the tournament, remains in custody and unreachable for comment.
His team is playing in the final of this year’s IPL on Sunday.
“We’ve come to the conclusion that there is evidence of his involvement in this offence that we are investigating...” joint commissioner of Mumbai Police Himanshu Roy told reporters after the arrest.
Srinivasan, Meiyappan’s father-in-law, told local television the law would take its course. “Whatever he has to defend, I‘m sure he would defend adequately,” he said.
Cricket, the “gentleman’s game” of the British Empire nations, has been hit by a series of gambling-related scandals in international matches in recent years and several players have been convicted of throwing games.
But Sreesanth’s case is the first time allegations of “fixing” in the IPL are being heard in a court of law, despite a huge, illegal betting industry that has grown up around the tournament. Local media has estimated wagers on IPL games reached $427 million in 2009, although gambling on sport remains illegal in India, except for horse-racing.
Srinivasan says the BCCI “cannot police and control every bookie in town - We do not have the resources.”
“Cricket is a gentleman’s game. We will put in place all measures to the maximum extent possible to monitor players’ behavior ... so that such things do not recur,” he said.
Bets are laid on results, but also on the total number of runs scored in matches, the number of “no-balls” or foul deliveries by bowlers, and the number of runs scored per six-delivery “over”.
Enormous sums of money can be won if players can be bribed or coerced to manipulate outcomes.
“I‘m not shocked at what has happened. I‘m shocked so little came out,” Rahul Mehra, a lawyer who has filed cases against the BCCI and other sports associations in India seeking more transparency in their operations, told Reuters.
In the IPL’s two-month season, nine franchises play each other in a shortened three-hour version of the game, with cheerleaders, blanket television coverage and celebrity owners including India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan.
Players are bought for millions of dollars at auctions - in 2011, Indian national team star Gautam Gambhir was engaged at $2.4 million by one of the franchises. And in cricket-mad India, the first 16 of this year’s fixtures attracted 140 million TV viewers.
For decades, cricket was a sleepy, laid-back pastime, but the shorter, television-friendly forms of the sport have brought an influx of money, especially in India.
Experts on cricket say the large sums at stake and easy access to cricketers by bookies are clouding the future of the game. Also, the absence of any law to deal specifically with fixing in sport is a problem.
Law Minister Kapil Sibal has said the charges of cheating and fraud, being used by police against Sreesanth and the others, do not “adequately deal” with the offence.
Sreesanth and the others were arrested after police tapped telephone conversations between two of the cricketers and the bookies. New Delhi’s police commissioner says the case has put a rare spotlight on the nexus between players, bookmakers and the underworld in India.
The three players are accused of “spot-fixing”, which refers to the manipulation by players of specific moments within a match, for example how a ball is bowled, and not the result itself.
Police said the taped conversations revealed details of spot-fixing plans, the signals players would make to the bookies and the amount of money they would get in return. They allege Sreesanth and the two other players agreed to take money from bookmakers to concede a certain number of runs in an over, a set of six balls bowled during a match.
Police alleged that Sreesanth tucked a towel into his waistband during one game to signal to the bookie, giving him enough time to take bets before he resumed bowling.
The spot-fixing did not always go smoothly, Delhi police chief Neeraj Kumar said. Of the other two arrested cricketers, one, Ajit Chandila, is alleged to have had to return 2 million rupees ($36,000) to the bookie he had struck a deal with, Kumar said. Despite conceding the pre-determined number of runs, he forgot to signal to the bookie that he was about to do it, the police chief said.
In another match, the third cricketer in custody, Ankeet Chavan, rotated his wristband to give the go-ahead to the bookies to take bets and was paid 6 million rupees ($110,000) in return, Kumar said.
Chavan’s lawyer Rajiv Dwivedi told Reuters his client was innocent and was being falsely implicated. Chandila’s lawyer could not be reached despite repeated phone calls.
The Indian cricket board employs the International Cricket Council’s Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) to oversee the IPL games, including monitoring teams at their hotels and in the stadium where the match is being played to make sure they are not approached by bookies.
The ACSU however has no power to arrest any player and if it spots any wrongdoing in the IPL, it would have to report to the BCCI.
“This incident emphasizes the threats all players face and need for the anti-corruption units of the International Cricket Council and its members to work even closer with the various law enforcement agencies around the world who have the necessary investigatory authority and resources,” ACSU chief Y.P. Singh said in a statement.
The IPL tournament takes place in April and May. For players from modest backgrounds, it means two months of city-hopping and luxurious living in five-star hotels as media stars. At the end of the tournament, they return to their home states, where they earn much less playing for state teams.
“IPL is paying them so much and I‘m happy for that. But easy money on offer is making them vulnerable,” Madan Lal, a member of the Indian team that won the 1983 World Cup, told Reuters, referring to the temptations for players to fall in with the bookies.
Some former and current cricketers say a few players could be enticed into illegal money-making ventures because they are unsure if they will be selected the following season and want to cash in on their current status.
“We want to weed out these elements,” said Rajeev Shukla, a government minister and chairman of the IPL’s governing council.
“After all, so much money is being paid to these players and if they are (still) doing it, it’s the height of greed,” he said in a recent television interview.
($1 = 55.5612 Indian rupees)
Additional reporting by Anurag Kotoky and Suchitra Mohanty; Editing by Ross Colvin and Raju Gopalakrishnan