Fake IPL Amuses the Planet

BY BHINESH ANTHONY

A desultory cricket match is being played on what looks like a barren patch of land.

The video is soundless – a blue strap at the bottom of the screen tells you the scores of the batting team, the two batters, the projected score and the bowling records. It says that Chennai Fighters are chasing a score of 151 set by the Gandhinagar Challengers.

The outfield is brown and dusty, and the cricket pitch is a whitish carpet nailed to the ground. The Chennai team is scoring at a steady clip of nearly seven runs an over. Strokes are sometimes played but we never see a ball reach the boundary. The batters mostly run clumsy ones or twos.

The umpire appears to be more enthusiastic than the players, waving his hands vigorously, signalling wides and no balls. In keeping with the rather amiable mood of the game, a bowler doesn’t seem to be interested in running out a batsman who’s stranded yards away from the crease.

A young man comes running to the field with what looks like an ice box, and players take a drinks break. There are no close-up shots of the players, most of the fielders and no views of an audience.

All this looks like a local, video-recorded Twenty20 cricket match being played somewhere in India.

Except this was part of what the police call a “fake” cricket tournament involving a group of unemployed men in Gujarat state and a bunch of punters curiously based in Russia.

Acting on a tip-off, police in Mehsana district of Gujarat last week arrested four men for staging the tournament and accepting bets through social media app Telegram from punters from three cities in Russia.

Bhavesh Rathod, the officer investigating the case, said one of the four men had worked in a pub in Russia and “had some contacts there, and had got them interested in betting in cricket”.

India hosts the Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s richest cricket competition. Some states such as Tamil Nadu have also launched their own franchise-model local leagues modelled on the lines of IPL.

While Indian laws do not allow sports betting (except for horse racing), police say there is often a lot of illegal gambling in cricket.

Joy Bhattacharjya, a sports producer and a former director of an IPL team, said fake leagues such as the one in Mehsana were purely run for illegal gambling. “Organisers live-stream these fixed games, where the umpires openly give instructions to players. They are completely staged,” he said.

The Mehsana “tournament” was busted after more than nine games were played in a remote location in Molipur village, the police said. They seized cricket kits, cameras and even speakers which would amplify the running commentary to “basically set the mood”.

The league – which was called Century Hitters T20 – had half-a-dozen “teams” named after different Indian states, nearly two dozen locals who were paid to turn out for all the teams, two umpires, and two organisers, the police said. One of the organisers doubled up as a commentator and mimicked a well-known cricket Indian pundit.

Two high-definition cameras beamed the matches on a YouTube channel with a paltry 255 subscribers and cricket bets were placed through a Telegram channel set up by the organisers.

Most of the betters were based in Moscow, Voronezh and Tver, police said. To give the games a more authentic feel, a running commentary spiked with crowd sounds downloaded from the internet was blasted through speakers placed near the ground.

Umpires would use walkie-talkies to communicate with the organisers, who would connect with the punters through Telegram. The umpires would also give instructions to the players and influence the outcome of the game.

The “players” – who were paid 400 rupees ($5; £4.22) for a game – have already agreed to co-operate with the police in the case, according to Mr Rathod.

“I have never seen a scam like this. These guys just cleared a patch of land deep inside a village and began playing a match and beaming it on YouTube to make money through gambling. Even the local villagers were not aware of this. We know very little about the Russians who were putting bets on this game,” Mr Rathod said.

And what about the audiences?

“There were no audiences!”