ELEVEN years ago, when Lalit Modi ruled the roost, the IPL was successfully aping the methods of sports leagues in the West, which are adept at wringing even the last penny out of the grasp of a sports fan. A betting game was introduced by the IPL wherein you could, for the price of a Rs5 SMS, bet money on runs that could be scored in an over. This game worked in real-time, but there was a limit of 20 ‘bets’ one could place during a match — so, potentially, one fan could stake Rs100 during one IPL match.
There was an outcry — betting is illegal in India, and this game seemed designed to inculcate the noble habit of gambling among sports fans, many of whom are teens and pre-teems. MS Gill, then Sports Minister in the Central Government, raised objections. “It is disappointing to see a sports body encouraging gambling,” Gill said. The gambling game was withdrawn by IPL.
Eleven years on, with the ‘evil’ Modi out of the IPL and India, and an all-time great cricketer leading the BCCI, you would expect the BCCI to be very scrupulous about how it promotes cricket among young fans, right? Wrong! The great Sourav Ganguly is the face of a gaming company that also has an avenue that leads to transactions with real money. None other than Sachin Tendulkar — Bharat Ratna, no less — endorses another gaming company, while other greats such as MS Dhoni and Virat Kohli are ambassadors for similar gaming companies.
Earlier this week, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court raised important questions about the propriety of the promotion of gaming that involves actual monetary transactions. Hearing a petition, Justice N Kirubakaran observed: “He (Ganguly) is a star. If he appears as a person in ads, people are becoming victims… For the ordinary common man, what does it mean when a star or filmstar appears? They will try to follow. Virat Kohli and Sourav Ganguly have so many followers.”
Skill or chance?
Gaming companies try to wriggle out of the charge of gambling by claiming that their games involve skill, not chance. This is a predictable line of defence — which was undertaken by the 2009 IPL game, 6UP, as well — because when it’s the fans’ ability, rather than luck, that governs a game, it falls out of the ‘gambling’ category. But this line of defence is not very trustworthy because it’s misleading. Is forming a fantasy team by a fan a matter of skill or luck? Luck can be a huge factor because a fan won’t know the internal dynamics of a team — for instance, an injury, a dispute, or a pitch affected by changing weather conditions are only a few factors that could determine a playing XI. How, then, are such games based not on chance?
The IPL and the BCCI benefit from powerful connections with the ruling class, which — in the interest of impressionable fans vulnerable to addiction to gambling — must pass on the right message to the BCCI, just as Gill spoke out against the betting game being promoted by the IPL in 2009.
Ganguly’s promotion of a gaming company — which is a direct competitor of the gaming company sponsoring the IPL! — raises questions over conflict of interest too. It also raises uncomfortable questions about how far we’ve progressed since 2013. That year a betting and spot-fixing scandal hit the IPL. The BCCI swept it under the carpet — after all, then BCCI president N Srinivasan’s son-in-law was implicated in it. This shone a bright light on the ills of conflict of interest, which people have traditionally ignored as harmless.
Then the courts stepped in. Sincere and intense efforts were made to clean up the administration of cricket. The judiciary played a stellar role in the process. Two Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of India took deep interest in the effort to make the operations of cricket administration professional and transparent.
The advent of Ganguly as BCCI president was welcomed by all — a passionate cricketer, unifier of a splintered team in 2000, a man who rose above regionalism in team selection and gave unconditional support to young talent… He seemed the right man for the job. His endorsing a gaming company lowers the dignity of his office, but a more serious cricketing issue sprang up recently — Ganguly believes Rohit Sharma played in the last stage of the IPL despite being “70 per cent fit”. If Ganguly is right, Sharma put himself in the danger of aggravating his injury, which in turn would harm the national team’s prospects on the tour of Australia. As the BCCI chief, doesn’t Ganguly have the power to ensure that Sharma — a contracted player — prioritised India over his club team, Mumbai Indians? If not, it’s sad. Sadder it would be if the efforts of the Supreme Court — and two Chief Justices of India, no less — to cleanse the sport went in vain.