Sport has long lent itself to fiction. True-to-life sporting intrigues have, over the years, been spiced up, dramatised, romanticised and given the shape of very sellable fiction and cinema, often to outstanding effect.
I suppose cricket is especially ripe for storytelling. It is, as the cliché goes, a game of glorious uncertainties; spinning yarns from it is not tough. But when we look at what the Indian Premier League has come to be, there is almost no need to wear a fiction writer's cap anymore to pen a thriller around it. As I was reading a new book called The Big Fix last week, I couldn't help but think that the author must have really struggled to match the drama of the actual IPL, its over-the-top characters, its loopy plotlines - truth, in this case, seemed well and truly stranger than fiction.
The IPL was, and could yet again become, a great product. The Indian Cricket League - on the corpse of which the IPL was born - could have been too, but there's little point talking of it anymore.
When it started, there were fears that the IPL was leaning too heavily on the entertainment factor - there was too much money, too much glamour, too much that was not cricket. Not untrue, but the IPL also served up some fairly engrossing Twenty20 cricket. It still does, except that now one wonders if much of what's happening out there is, well, fiction. And that is just plain unfortunate.
So we have The Big Fix, a whole lot of drama that takes place around a team - Capital Cavaliers. The captain sounds like he could be Rahul Dravid, the second-in-command a Virat Kohli parody, the middle-order batting mainstay is a Chris Gayle prototype and the player who, it turns out, is in the pay of the bookies, has never played for the Indian team and part of his motive for trying to get the extra cash is that, as an uncapped player, he earns much less than players, he feels, are no superior than him but earn more because of their 'India' tag.
There's more. The owner of the Cavaliers is clearly modelled on Shah Rukh Khan. And, much like the Hindi film Lagaan, which used many down-to-the-wire elements that cricket offers, each match has a thrilling climax. A cricketer who fails to do the bookies' bidding is beaten up during an 'after party', an unknown spinner turns up and turns matches on their head and, of course, bookies hang around in five-star hotel swimming pools to meet cricketers. And, as if all the drama of the IPL wasn't enough, there's also a middle-aged South African coach who dies in mysterious circumstances. Bob Woolmer, anyone?
Since 1999-2000, cricket has never quite been the same. Even if we weren't quick to scream 'fixing' each time something questionable happened, it was difficult to pooh-pooh the suggestion that a certain match was fixed. Undeniably, there was a chance that it could have been. Over the next decade, chiefly because of the fantastic men who helmed the Indian cricket team, we tentatively learnt to put that on the backburner, to find pleasure in the game again.
But it's 2000 all over again now, all the way down to a BCCI probe panel that hands out clean chits like an emperor handing out amnesty on his birthday. Therefore, The Big Fix could well have had a tagline saying 'based on true events' - almost all of it sounds plausible. Even the impossible.
It was in 1919 that players from the Chicago White Sox were allegedly bribed to throw the World Series. Afterwards, we got Eight Men Out as a book and as a movie. The tagline for the movie was 'the inside story of how the national pastime became a national scandal'. In 2000, when Tehelka unearthed very murky details about match-fixing in cricket, a book - and subsequently, a film - called 'Fallen Heroes' was published. The tagline read 'the inside story of a nation betrayed'. Note the element of surprise and shock in the use of words like 'scandal' and 'betrayed'.
Isn't it scandalous then that there is no element of surprise or shock left when it comes to modern-day cricket, especially the IPL?
In a recent Wisden India podcast, Suresh Menon, the editor of the Wisden India Almanack, suggested calling off the IPL for a year or two so that the entire system could be investigated and loopholes plugged. If nothing else, it would give out the impression that the men who run the IPL and the BCCI were embarrassed. Except, it's clear that they are not and the Supreme Court of India has called their bluff, first asking N Srinivasan not to take charge officially - despite being elected president - and then allowing him to take charge but asking him not to interfere with the functioning of a new probe panel. Clearly, the apex court thought he needed to be reminded about propriety issues.
And that, in the end, is the true tragedy. There isn't even a man to weep an apology to the community of cricket watchers. The game, in any case, is being sold to the people who thought they owned it, as Gideon Haigh noted the other day. How long can this go on, with the truth-and-fiction cocktail out there?