x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Rajiv Rajendra novel about a fixed cricket league hits uncomfortably close to home

The timing of the reissue of Rajiv Rajendra's crime thriller couldn't be better – or worse – depending on whether you're a book publicist or a cricket fan.

The reissue of Rajiv Rajendra's slim sports crime thriller arrives complete with a book publicist's eye for an opportunity.

Chennai's Springboard imprint, which first published the book last year, has chosen to market Rajendra's fiction just as the 2013 Indian Premier League (IPL) season rumbles towards its troubled conclusion on May 26.

Entitled The League, the book relates the story of a fictional all-star cricket league.

Rajendra, whose previous credits include Doosra: A Tale of Cricket, Crime and Controversy (2011), imagines a cricket competition staged on a palm-shaped island which sits in international waters a short distance from Dubai.

The league is owned by the scheming Prince Abdel Raftar. The cricketers who play the game on this artificial territory are all well-established names, tempted by the money, the five-star lifestyle and the hedonistic parties that accompany the circus. Cricket, in his world, is less club and country, more clubbing and cash.

But there is trouble in paradise. Access to and from the island is strictly regulated and Raftar's control of the league is absolute.

The hyper-wealthy owner of a sophisticated satellite network, he regulates the league's format and its broadcast rights - no match is televised live, instead, highlights packages are bundled and sold to TV networks. Worse still, once signed up to the league, the players are servants of his money-making machine. Those who take part in the competition are told "you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave".

That line, a misappropriation of the lyrics from Hotel California, plays directly to the dirty secret of Raftar's empire. Namely that the whole league is bent, match-fixed down to the last detail. The generous pay packets buy the players' silence. Those who don't comply with the rules are likely to die.

It doesn't seem a massive stretch to believe one or two aspects of Rajendra's vision.

Cricketing impresarios have exerted enormous influence throughout the ages: Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket revolutionised one-day cricket in the 1970s, introducing floodlit games, coloured clothing, drop-in pitches, as well as much better pay for the sport's top players. Allen Stanford's 20/20 cricket tournament threatened to completely rewrite the rules before the Antiguan's empire collapsed and he was sent to a Florida prison.

Meanwhile, Lalit Modi's creation, the IPL, has fundamentally reoriented the cricketing world's axis in less than six years. The home of cricket may still be found at Lord's in England, but the sport's title deeds are now firmly held in India.

The IPL has recently been rocked by another spot-fixing scandal, the manipulation of small periods of a match rather than its entire outcome.

Three players, 11 bookmakers and an actor were arrested earlier this month during a sweeping police operation. More players are reported to be under the investigation's gaze.

Such dark influences on this once genteel sport are nothing new. Cricket and betting have a shared history that stretches back more than 350 years.

In the light of this scandal, there are suggestions that the IPL is rotten, but this assumption is wide of the mark.

The problem is that bad money often follows good. The solution hinges on certain forms of gambling - spread and in-running betting - being outlawed or suspended. Such a move would help cleanse the game.

Spread betting is very popular in many parts of the world where gambling is legal. Such markets encourage gamblers to bet on small parcels of cricket's patch rather than the ultimate outcome of the game. As long as spreads or in-running gambling are around, the game might fall prey to the unscrupulous.

Kill those markets and cricket could be cured, although plenty would argue that you'd also be killing off their fun too.

If they are left open, Rajendra's nightmarish vision might one day come true.

* Nick March