x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bribery allegations, Shah Rukh Khan banning and raves: is the IPL losing its charm?

The fifth edition of the Indian Premier League has been mired in string of controversies. As a result, cricket's richest tournament is turning out to be a fatal attraction, Samanth Subramanian, Foreign Correspondent, reports.

Kirti Azad, centre, a member of parliament and former cricketer, went on hunger strike to highlight problems in IPL in New Delhi last week.
Kirti Azad, centre, a member of parliament and former cricketer, went on hunger strike to highlight problems in IPL in New Delhi last week.

The fifth edition of the Indian Premier League has been mired in string of controversies. As a result, cricket's richest tournament is turning out to be a fatal attraction, Samanth Subramanian, Foreign Correspondent, reports

NEW DELHI // When the finalists take the field at Chennai's MA Chinnaswamy Stadium for the Indian Premier League match on Sunday, it will mark the pinnacle of the world's richest and glitziest cricket tournament.

For many, though, the match will be overshadowed by a swarm of controversies that have taken some of the sheen off the fifth edition of the tournament.

Just the last month, five IPL players have been suspended for spot-fixing claims, and a member of parliament has called for a special audit of the tournament, alleging that it enables money-laundering.

These systemic issues have shared headlines with individual transgressions. Two IPL players were among more than 90 people detained on Sunday at a Mumbai party where, police stated, drugs were being used. The players - India's Rahul Sharma and South Africa's Wayne Parnell - were released on Monday morning after submitting to drug tests and questioning.

An Australian player, Luke Pomersbach, was arrested and charged with molesting a woman and hitting her fiance at a Delhi hotel. He was released on bail. Lawyers involved in the case said yesterday that the matter had been resolved amicably in an out-of-court deal, AFP reported.

Shah Rukh Khan, India's biggest film star and a co-owner of an IPL team, Kolkata Knight Riders, has been banned from Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium for five years for verbally abusing officials and staff of the local cricket association.

While the IPL has had its fair share of controversy since its launch, the scandals that have hit the event this year might alienate long-time cricket fans, said Siddhartha Vaidyanathan, a popular cricket writer and blogger.

"The more the focus shifts to sting operations and wild rave parties, the more the danger of driving away Indian cricket's core constituency," Vaidyanathan said.

In this year's final Kolkata take on the winner of today's knockout game between the Chennai Super Kings and the Delhi Daredevils.

The IPL's television ratings have fallen this year, in comparison to last year, but it still outstrips shows that run in parallel on other channels.

For its two-month season every year, though, the IPL is still the "600-pound gorilla for the Indian media", said Joy Bhattacharya, the team director of the Kolkata Knight Riders. "If you are the biggest gig in town, you are going to have both positive and negative stories."

Incidents such as the one involving Pomersbach were, Mr Bhattacharjya said, unfortunate but "products of circumstance".

"But to say it is a reflection of the IPL is like saying that similar incidents involving Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant are a reflection of their sports."

Kirti Azad, a member of parliament and a former cricketer himself, held a hunger strike in New Delhi on Sunday, protesting the lack of "transparency, accountability or discipline" in the IPL.

Mr Azad contended that some players were being paid more than what their mandated contracts stipulated, and that these payments were being made in cash, using illegally laundered money.

"I'm not against the IPL but the way it is run," he said at an impromptu press conference during his strike. "Money laundering, drunken brawls, molestation and now rave parties. What is the government waiting for to act strongly against this IPL monster? Unless a special audit is conducted, there will be no satisfactory answers."

India's finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, acknowledged that the government had received complaints of financial irregularities related to the IPL.

"There are certain irregularities that are being looked into, particularly relating to some complaints received that there are foreign investments in the IPL," Mr Mukherjee told the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, earlier this week. A government agency called the Enforcement Directorate would, he said, be investigating "criminal activities like money laundering."

On Wednesday, tax authorities conducted surveys of documents in the offices of the Bangalore and Pune teams, to look into allegations of tax evasion and of illegal cash payments to players.

In a statement to the media last week, N Srinivasan, the head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which runs the IPL, said: "We have no tolerance towards any form of corruption. We will ensure that the integrity of the game is protected."

The IPL has never entirely escaped criticism. In its initial seasons, it was attacked on aesthetic grounds, for infecting a nuanced and majestic game with its superficial and truncated style of play.

While Test cricket games last five days and one-day matches are played over the course of eight hours, an IPL fixture needs only three-and-a-half hours.

In 2010 - the year the IPL brand was valued at US$4 billion (Dh14.69bn) - the writer and politician Shashi Tharoor was forced to resign as the junior minister for external affairs, after he was accused of misusing his office to acquire proxy shares in an IPL team.

That same year, the IPL's founder and impresario, Lalit Modi, was barred from any further involvement in the tournament or in Indian cricket, after he was charged with corruption and with impropriety in the awarding of contracts.

Mr Modi decamped to London later that year, and he has not returned to India to face the charges.

Mr Bhattacharya admitted that, during the IPL season, teams virtually live in a cocoon, "and it is difficult to get a perspective on how the IPL is perceived".

"But I can tell you that the quality of cricket has improved year on year, as has the way people watch the game in the stadium," he added.

Apart from Mr Azad, others have called for a tighter regulation of the IPL.

"For its own good, the IPL needs to have a higher entity, one that seeks no political or monetary gain, to question its functioning," the popular cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle wrote in his column on the CricInfo website last week.

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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