At a time when the Indian Premier League is reeling under the match-fixing and betting scandal, the Board of Control for Cricket in India's decision to stage at least 16 matches of this year's IPL in the United Arab Emirates has raised a few eyebrows. Dubai and Sharjah were forbidden venues after the match-fixing scandal broke in 2000. A hub for bookies, anti-corruption units will have their hands full to keep IPL sparkling 'clean' this time. (Read: Life ban for any player involved in match-fixing in IPL 7, warns Rajeev Shukla)
India had blacklisted Sharjah as a cricket destination following the match-fixing scandal. The Indian team last played at the desert venue in October 2000 when it was skittled out for 54 by Sri Lanka in the final of the Coca-Cola Champions Trophy. India have not returned to Sharjah since, though the team did play two matches at the Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi against Pakistan in 2006. At a time when BCCI has admitted to the Supreme Court that its anti-corruption mechanism needs to be more effective, hosting IPL in UAE seems to be a calculated decision. It is not known if playing matches in the Gulf has the government's approval. (ICC welcomes BCCI's decision to play IPL in UAE)
UAE triumphed over South Africa as an overseas venue because of logistical reasons, according to team sources. UAE is more accessible to cricket fans from India and certainly more cost-effective in comparison to other countries. This is the second time after 2009 that IPL will be played in foreign soil since the tournament is clashing with the general elections. Most teams opposed an overseas venue because they feared losing at least 40 per cent of their revenue, most of which comes from gate receipts. Matches in Sharjah and Dubai have always been meant for expatriates from the sub-continent. But with no current Pakistani players involved with the IPL, returns from ticket sales will certainly take a hit.
In spite of its 'scandalous' reputation, Sharjah and Dubai are successful cricket destinations. The International Cricket Council is based in Dubai and in recent weeks, the Emirates hosted the Under-19 World Cup and the World Twenty20 qualifiers. Sharjah holds the Guinness record for staging the most number of one-day internationals. A 'clean' IPL will help Sharjah redeem its lost glory.
But fans will remain skeptical and BCCI won't breathe easy. After taking charge at the height of the spot-fixing and betting scandal last year, new IPL chairman Ranjib Biswal had promised a 'clean' and 'fair' tournament. He is surely going to have a baptism of fire but won't be short on support. The ICC has already welcomed BCCI's decision to stage matches in the UAE. Even till last season, ICC considered the IPL a 'private BCCI affair' that upset its Future Tours Programme. But after the recent change in power equations that will see BCCI president N. Srinivasan become ICC's first chairman come July, ICC is that much 'softer' on the Indian Board.
BCCI is expected to use ICC's anti-corruption mechanism to the hilt during the matches in UAE. In an exclusive interview to NDTV, Biswal said, "The government of UAE has given us all the assurances about staging a corruption-free tournament. The ICC headquarters is also there so we shall have the support of ICC's anti-corruption wing in addition to BCCI's own resources."
"Recognising the importance of the integrity of the competition, the ICC will provide its full support for the matches in the UAE, including through the provision of anti-corruption services. It will also be a good opportunity for both the BCCI and the ICC to share knowledge and experience as we both strive to deliver memorable events to cricket fans around the world," said ICC in a press statement on Wednesday.
The BCCI's Anti-Corruption Unit has already started working overtime. Its chief Ravi Sawani told the Hindustan Times: "We have followed protocol and put in place a robust system. By drawing lessons from what happened last year, taking note of the (Mukul) Mudgal report, the ICC Anti-Corruption and Security Unit (ACSU) report and my own report, we have taken a few precautionary measures to make it tougher to repeat what happened last year." Sawani added, "There are always laws, yet murder happens. Similarly, we had put in place a few mechanisms, yet some people exploited the loopholes. We will do what is humanly possible."
In the fitness of things, it is good to see cricket back in Sharjah and Dubai. After all, it was Sharjah that, for the first time, brought cricket and Bollywood together as celebrities from both India and Pakistan basked under the desert sun. There was no shortage of cash either till the bookies took their chances and lured the gullible away to 'fix' games. Cricket is a great leveller and Sharjah gets a big chance to overturn a piece of dubious history.