For whatever reason, I have had very minimal consumption of IPL for last few seasons (perhaps after Sourav Ganguly got dropped by all the franchises). Of course it is difficult to avoid it completely. Every coffee shop, pub, quiz or anybody’s house you go to, the matches are going on in the wide flatscreens on the wall. Twitter and Facebook have nothing else on the time line.

When the news of the arrests of Sreesanth, Ankit Chavan and Ajit Chandila broke,  I suppose, there were a billion people who were betrayed (trust TOI to come with such a pompous headline).

(On the other hand, there were those self-righteous equally pompous folk who tried to shout they should be excluded from the billion people betrayed. Hey, the population of India is 1.21 billion as per the 2011 census. So consider yourself to be part of the 0.21 billion people whom TOI left out in the headline)

Anyway, to get back to the case of spot fixing. there has been a continuous feed of comments, views and recommendations on the issue. One such theme that is going around is the idea that legalising betting will reduce spot fixing. Nitin Pai explains this here. The logic used is that legitimising betting coupled with tougher enforcement reduces the incentive to cheat.

There is a fundamental flaw in this argument. Betting or gambling is one activity. Spot fixing (or match fixing or any related activities) is an act of manipulation. These are two separate acts and deal with different facets of human nature.

Gambling involves taking a chance on the likelihood of an event happening the way you want. In gambling, you are away from the actual event, an independent observer who cannot in anyway influence the outcome of the events. There are horses running and you bet which one will win, come second, etc. The outcomes are dependent on the horses and how they perform, you as a bettor have no influence on it. In a way, it does not matter whether it is called a game of skill or game of chance. As a gambler, your lack of control is the same. What separates a game of chance from a game of skill is the ability to make some informed guesses about the outcomes. Knowledge of the skills involved in a particular activity can at least give you an idea as to which one is more likely to win. If you are betting on a match between Roger Federer versus Rohan Bopanna, for example, a little knowledge about the abilities and previous records of either person as well as a general understanding of tennis as a sport will give you the insight that it might be a good idea to bet on Roger Federer to win.

(Of course, there is the other form of gambling – risk taking. People take risks with their careers, businesses, sporting performances, etc but here they directly influence their performance and success. We are not talking of that kind of gambling – where you gamble on yourself)

For the gambler, there is a basic expectation – that the events are made to happen within their existing known environments. Apart from force majeure, there is no out-of-the-ordinary actions which can influence the events. Whether the outcomes turn out the way the gambler wanted or not, as long as they happened within their internal logic, the gambler can live with it. In sport, the gambler expects that the contestants will apply their best skills / play their regular game and whatever happens in the end is a result of the fair contest.

Spot fixing / match fixing is different from gambling or betting. This is a case of manipulation. In order to achieve specific outcomes, external entities try to influence the events.

In the stock markets, investors can take a chance on a company and invest in it. They expect the company to operate in a fair manner in the market place and based on its performance, issue out appropriate returns. Now, if the someone decides to tamper with some aspects of the company to artificially boost the stock price, then that becomes a case of manipulation (the stock market version of fixing). The phenomenon of insider trading is a known evil in business. There are have been many cases of media publications (and journalists specifically) who have stakes in specific companies and publish unverified / false news reports that can drive up the stock prices. The media publication might issue a correction in the next issue but in the interim has already made the profits.

In cricket, what has happened has been specific individuals (bookmakers) influencing the game by paying cricketers to not play as per their best skills or natural game. This is an act of manipulation aimed at getting the desired outcomes.

In the IPL itself, this may be one of the many types (i.e. driven by betting) of manipulation that occurs. Since teams are run by businesses and many of these businesses use the teams to build their brand equity, often one sees players included in teams when cricketing logic would suggest that they should be dropped. Sachin Tendulkar, for example, according to cricket experts, should not be in the team. But he is a big draw – he pulls in people to the stadium in Mumbai, his numbered T-shirt sells more at all the outlets, its his face leading everyone on all the group photos used in the various endorsements. So he needs to be in the team, not for cricketing outcomes, but for more mundane business outcomes.

In the football fixing scandal, there was an out and out deliberate program to influence sporting encounters. An international operation spanning China, Philippines, Singapore betting on matches in Finland and Sudan does not come up randomly. There was tremendous planning and creative thinking in actually executing the whole operation. In fact, special football matches including international friendlies were organised simply for the purposes of betting (and the syndicate making money from the fixed outcomes).

So why are these bookmakers / syndicates manipulating the game? For the same reason that journalists manipulate news to promote the stocks that they own. They have a lot to lose / and a lot to win. And when you have a lot to lose, you want to control the events and make it go your way. You are uncomfortable and helpless otherwise. (According to some reports, Gurunath Meiyappan seems to have lost over Rs 1 crore in bets. That is a lot of money to lose. He needs to recover that money.)

There is also the thrill of being in control, having the power (money, position, authority) to drive things your way. Why would the head of an IPL franchise (the India Cements folks are desperately trying to wipe out all mention of Gurunath M on their site) try to go beyond his immediate functions and try to manipulate games? Because he can. He can order the captain to pick a particular player irrespective of cricketing logic. He can insist on certain formations. There’s a thrill to it.

To bring back Nitin’s point about the legality of gambling or betting, whether the bets were done through legal or illegal channels does not make a difference. People had too much going for them to remain silent spectators. They needed to influence the conduct of the matches. Even if betting was legalised and there were legitimate businesses running betting shops, the law still can’t do anything to stop the gambler / bettor from approaching the players and making attempts to get events happen their way.

The presence of the underworld is not so worrying. In fact, because it was the underworld who are under constant observation by the police (through phone taps), this whole saga was exposed. It is the explicitly legitimate personalities and organisations that one is more worried about.

Most cricket fans remember Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh betting against their own team in the Headingley test of 1981. England were in an impossible position and the bets were going at 500-1 for an England win. After England won, powered by Ian Botham and Bob Willis, there was a huge furore when it was revealed what Lillee and Marsh did. Did they manipulate their performances so that they could win the bet? Probably not. But you never know.

Manipulation of events cannot be reduced. As long as there are people who have a huge stake in the events, there will be attempts to control or make things go in their favour. But there can be a way out for the public to protect themselves. And the way out is transparency.

In the stock markets, one of the key roles of institutions like SEBI or SEC is to ensure there is transparency in the workings of all publicly listed companies. Every bit of news from personnel changes to purchases of new offices to mergers and acquisitions have to be made public. Specific advisories and guidance reports have to be given by the company management on what they are planning to do, their strategies, their thinking, etc. There are mandatory disclosures that have to be done. Investors benefit from this transparency. They can decide for themselves which companies are operating in a fair manner. They can pick companies where they can predict correctly. It also makes it difficult for individuals within companies to get away with rampant manipulation. A newspaper making a claim about a company has to be backed by a corresponding disclosure / public statement. Without the later, the SEBI can pull up the company for falsification and fraud.  They may not get caught immediately but whether it is Satyam or the LIBOR scandal, it comes a full circle in the end.

Sport, whether in India or abroad, is mired with opacity and obfuscation. Organisations like FIFA, IOC, IAAF, etc are known for all the stuff that is left unsaid. The selection of a host city for the Olympic Games (and what happens behind the scenes) is the subject of many investigative journalistic efforts including a book. The shenanigans of Indian sporting organisations are just a drop in the larger ocean.

What the public needs is more visibility. Even WWE publicly declared the nature of its wrestling contests (as part of some regulatory tax filing). In spite of the scripted contests (or maybe because of it), WWE still has its own cult and audiences. Sport will also have its audiences but the people who run it need to be (or forced to be) open about what they do.

For a team that is representing the country and carrying the India flag, it is expected that the nation knows how or on what basis the specific 11 individuals were selected. (In the case of Olympic sports, Indian athletes’ travel and allowances are paid for by the government, i.e. tax payers money. The case for right to information is stronger here.) It is expected that the selection committee select the team that can best deliver results. If there is any other motive to selecting a player leading to a sub-optimal team, then that is a break in the expectation of the nation.There are enough instances of people trying to figure out strange team selections. But selection committee meetings are never made public. And in the press conferences, the selectors are instructed by the BCCI to not say anything. By forcing the BCCI (and all other sports organisations) to be transparent and make public disclosures of what happens in every meeting, it makes it difficult for individuals within the BCCI to get away with many things.

Prem Panicker has spent most of his life writing about cricket and has regularly written about the need for BCCI to be more transparent. As of now, Prem has given up on the sport.

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